Friday, September 08, 2006

Language Exchange

In my country of service, the culture has a built-in opportunity for meeting people. It is perhaps the one activity to which we can naturally contribute. They are called "Language Exchange Partnerships," and basically make up an underground network of nationals who are interested for whatever reason in improving their English through conversation with native speakers. It usually works like this: English-learner posts an online ad, introducing himself as vaguely as possible and stating his intentions for the exchange. "I am looking for an American guy to have a drink with and to practice English." Most of them are pretty much the same.

There are the expected, "I just started a new English language course at university," and then there's "I have an English exam in four days, and I want to to cram for the test by pretending to be your best friend until then. After that, I will never return your calls." Okay, so maybe they aren't that honest about their intentions, but you'd be surprised. The other day I saw one by a brutally honest 32 year-old guy. "I an looking for an American or British girl to," well, let's just say he was interesting in exchanging a little more than language.

A sort of etiquette has even been developed for these partnerships. Usually an exchange entails getting together over coffee or drinks and talking. The first hour would be in the national language, and the second or third in English. However awkward the actual conversation might be, it's the easy part compared to finding a willing partner. Contact begins with an email or text message, but such contact does not necessarily imply commitment. The return email or message establishes the meeting point, usually some busy and crowded public place that would make finding your mother difficult. Sort of like "In the middle of Grand Central Station. I'll be wearing a coat." Something like that.

When you finally identify and meet your new language exchange partner, it's exactly like a blind date (from what I've heard). You exchange the usual formalities, where are you from, how long have you been here, why are you learning the language, and so on. This part usually goes as though it were scripted, and usually lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes. That's when The Silence hits. You probably know what I mean, and why I choose to capitalize it, but The Silence can drown you in overwhelming awkwardness. "What more could I possibly say to this person?" you think. "How could we already have exhausted 'what's your favorite...?' -that should last for hours!"

And then it happens. Politics...

I'll spare you some of the experiences I've had with Language Exchange partnerships. I've had many that barely survived that first meeting, and one that lasted three years. The reason I share this is that I'm always talking about how we do relational ministry through activities that are already happening in the community. "We don't do programs or big events," I say. And people always ask what I mean by that. Language Exchange Partnerships are a big part of that.

Think about what an opportunity it is to build a relationships with a national that seeks you out. And not just some guy off the street, but someone who is open to spending time with a foreigner and has some knowledge of English. These relationships provide the perfect setting for us to share life with nationals; talking about our faith, asking questions, and getting to know them personally. For us, this is the beginning of church planting.

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