Language Exchange Nanjing’s Hottest New Hobby

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Nanjing language exchange
A 12-year-old, fluent-English speaker among those enjoying language exchange events in Nanjing

What is the best way to learn English in a non-English speaking country? Speaking as a Chinese, we generally start to learn English from elementary school, but by the time we leave school we don’t really speak it! This is so inefficient. Could language exchange be a better approach?

Having just returned from my year abroad studying in the north of England, I want to keep my English up to standard. And what I’ve found out is, it’s not just me. Every language learner struggles to gather up the courage and go up and say, “Hi”, to a person from another country or to find someone on your language level with whom to keep up the practice. It is never that easy to jump out of your comfort zone, comfort being the operative word.

I returned to Nanjing at the beginning of December, 2018, and figured I am surely not alone in this. After attending one language exchange in the city that was, shall we say, cold and uncomfortable, I set about creating a relaxing environment for communication; a comforting place, as I figure this is the key to helping one initiate that first conversation. 

Since I really miss talking with friends in cozy English pubs, I started my own exchange event with just such a cozy pub in mind. I began using WeChat, adding some of my friends, created some fun bilingual news items combined with videos and began advertising the exchange event. I even snuck into several universities and advertised by sticking up posters.

Well, it must have worked because surprisingly, 25 people came dressed in red and green for Christmas. I honestly didn’t think it would be popular for Chinese people to get out of their homes and talk to strangers, but as it turns out, there are bucket loads of language learners who seek opportunities to use the languages they have learnt, and not only that, but meet people from all walks of life in the process.

One of my participants said, “It is amazing to have such kind of platform for us to break the gap, playing games which are beneficial to my language learning and talking to people from different backgrounds”.

But where does all this begin?

Nanjing, a so-called conservative city on account of its historically political past, is experiencing an international shift in focus. Along with its advancing appetite for coffee, wine, whiskey and tapas, language-exchange events are popping up as fast as coffee shops, and while they may be but a tiny drop in the progression of Nanjing, it is most definitely a stimulating beginning to an intellectually internationalised future.

The cold, packed nights in Gulou square filled with eager locals champing at the bit for the chance to exchange a couple of words with a foreigner seem a thing of the past. No more are foreign teachers expected to make their monthly pilgrimage down to the square in order to provide a few minutes of one-on-one free language exchange. 

Nanjing, 2018; English is no more the only focus for language learners. Sophisticated language learners are now seeking more diverse partners for exchange, and more amiable settings. Bars in the Gulou area report a rise in language exchange nights. And with over 30 people attending some events each week growth is indeed swelling. 

Yahaira Vargas, Public Relations and Marketing Director of the Nanjing Foreign Talent Association (FTA) told The Nanjinger she has been in China for 6 years and started the Nanjing Expat Group since last July when she moved here. “My goal was to help the community because like me many come to different cities wanting information.” Now it has evolved into clubs and events and connections with business. Every Wednesday night, a large selection of foreign and locals gather in Xianlin, with an attandence of 40-60 people per week. 

“And they love it!”, Vargas gushed. They hang out, talk and get to know someone new, after which they enjoy a diversity of cultural dances and musical instruments. 

In addition to English, local people are now looking to exchange Japanese, German and Spanish. Some Nanjingers who have worked in overseas companies based in Japan or Germany also expect to be able to practice what they have learnt here too. Yu Zhang, an IT engineer said that he used to work in a Japanese company, and has just newly changed his job to an American company based in Nanjing. He attends language exchange events regularly to meet new friends in this city, and as a result, found it a fast way to boost his language skills. He is still looking for somewhere else to practice Japanese.

Local businesses are also happy come on board and support language exchange events. Local bars such as the Irish Bar, off Shanghai Lu, cooperate by offering great long-term deals giving generous discounts on food and drinks for everyone who joins the events. 

People from diverse backgrounds gathered at my language exchange event, not only Chinese, but also folk from Australia and America who are learning Chinese, for example. They say they would like to, “get involved”, with the city and culture. Even a 12-year-old boy who can speak fluent English joined us! Perhaps this is what makes it so attractive; the diversity, low cost and comfortable setting is all anyone needs really.

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Kristen Wang
A Nanjing local, Kristen studied Media and Public relations in Newcastle University (UK), has researched social media and online publishing and previously worked for different new media platforms. She is passionate about discovering new stories and helping expats involved in this city. 南京人Kristen毕业于纽卡斯尔大学,媒体与公共关系硕士学位。她的研究专注于社交媒体和网络发行,在不同的新媒体平台工作。她喜欢发现新鲜事,也希望帮助在南京的外国人融入这里的生活。