With so many language learning tools, apps, courses and online exchanges, it can be sometimes a little bit frustrating trying to find a useful and safe language exchange program, and many, if not most of us, have run afoul of the weird side of language exchanges.
Unfortunately, the online world has never exactly been toted as the safest place to be. Many of us have been there: you go online looking for a language partner on one of the numerous sites out there that help you to do so, and you’re met with creepy people who are looking for something a bit more than a Russian/English exchange.
As probably comes as no surprise, women tend to bear the brunt of most online creepiness – but that’s not to say it’s exclusive to the ladies. I’ve had a couple of language “partners” over the years who, let’s just say, I probably won’t be working with again. One time a girl from Moscow told me she loved me after we had conversed for about 20 minutes.
Didn’t even buy me a drink first.
Now, on the other hand, finding a romantic partner through your language learning endeavors is pretty much the dream for many of us. I did it, and it’s great. However, I didn’t do it like this…
If that’s what you’re looking for, then maybe some of these options are for you, and that’s fine. I just want to be sure that you know what you’re getting yourself into when you go down these routes.
In any case, in order to hopefully assist you with avoiding some of the BS, I’ve made a super short list of a few of the programs that I like, and some that I’m more skeptical of, so that hopefully you can find something that gets to the point and doesn’t turn into a stalkerfest instead of helping you learn.
I wrote an article about these guys a long time ago, and in general I believe it to be a pretty solid option. Despite being a little on the slow side, it’s pretty easy to find a partner quickly and efficiently for pretty much any language you might be looking for. Unfortunately, this can be one of the ones with some serious creeps hangin’ round.
There are a bunch of people – mostly guys – trolling the place like it’s a dating site. I actually emailed WeSpeke about this about two years ago when I was using it more often, and they gave me one of those very sketchy responses that was basically “people will be people”, and that if someone is really bothered, they can always use the block feature. Great, but they all but confirmed that they’re cool with the “dating” atmosphere that sometimes crops up. Kind of made a little uneasy.
On the other hand, WeSpeke does offer a filter that allows you to choose same sex partners – not that that guarantees that you’ll be safe. There have also been reports of men registering as women specifically to circumvent this. In any case, though, it is a better option, especially for women who don’t want to run as much of a risk of finding some creeper who isn’t really there for the language.
One common issue with WeSpeke is that it’s rather slow and the video quality is often mediocre. This inspires a lot of people to take things to Skype for a cleaner exchange, which is fine. But, if you go down this route, keep in mind that you’re giving someone access to more personal contact info, including your email address and whatever other info you have in your Skype profile. One way to get around this may be to create a unique Skype account just for safe language exchanges. Before you do this, spend some time chatting with your new friend, if you can, before moving off the site.
I still like WeSpeke and have found numerous great exchange partners there, so I still recommend giving it a shot.
Just play it safe and keep in mind that this stuff happens sometimes.
Tandem is a delightful little iOS app that lets you – what else – connect with other people. It’s pretty basic, but that’s not a bad thing at all. You can read a lot more about it here.
Anyway, Tandem is well aware that people are creepy, and they do take steps to mitigate this. It requires you to connect via Facebook, and there is a brief vetting process to make sure that new applicants aren’t fake bots, or obviously creepy people. After you’re in, you don’t have the option to view users pictures up close, leaving you instead with a very small thumbnail. They do this intentionally to dissuade the types who troll pictures looking for “hot people” to bother. Kind of a weird approach, but it’s nice to see them try.
They specifically state in their guidelines that behavior that falls outside the realm of a language exchange is not tolerated.
So if avoiding the creeps and playing it safe is your game, this may be one of your better options.
These guys are one of the largest international penpal groups you’ll find. They’re all about setting you up with people from around the world, and they aren’t even really exclusive to language learning. If you’re just looking for a friend to chat with, or to maybe travel with, host you someday in a foreign country, or whatever really, this is a pretty cool place to do it.
The website looks like something straight out of 1998, but you can’t tell a book by its cover.
I first checked them out a few years ago and it was pretty clear that online dating was definitely something people have on their minds here. All you have to do is go to your profile info and one of the options at the bottom in the “interests” section is romance/flirting.
The company doesn’t really seem to deny this, and finding a cute foreigner for more than just languages isn’t really discouraged. If you look through users’ pictures it becomes pretty obvious that very Tinder-esque pics are a thing.
Think of this more like a social media platform than just a language exchange platform. There’s a lot of really great stuff here, and the selection of people is astounding, but the sheer level of bikinis and cleavage, big shirtless musclebros and, well, you get it, sorta indicates that you may run certain risks.
Still, you can, like the other programs, filter by men or women, so that could help.
Conversely, if you’re one of those naughty people reading this article specifically to find this sort of stuff, this is the one for you.
Just don’t be some sort of weird predator. Ya know?
Nothing is perfect, but this one probably comes as close as it gets when it comes to creating a safe language exchange. iTalki typically features legit language teachers more than just randos with a hard-on for language girls. (And I mean, who can blame them, but there’s a time and a place, and this is almost never it…)
You’ll be set up with usually professional teachers in a paid, honest language exchange experience. It is paid though, and teachers set their own prices. This is usually an indicator of implied quality, but you never really know.
iTalki does have language exchange users, but they do a pretty good job of policing the place, and you have full control over who you work with. If you’ve got teaching skills – even basics like an ESL certification – you can actually sign up as a teacher yourself and make some cash on the side! Good stuff.
This is another good app similar to Tandem. This app is available for both iOS and Android phones, and comes equipped with its own safety guidelines as well. If you’re looking for relative safety, this is a good option.
My favorite thing about HelloTalk is that it offers cool added features in addition to video chat, such as voice recording messages – so you aren’t required to sit there staring at someone’s ugly mug while they speak, if you so choose. While ultimately not that different, some people find a little bit more comfort in the idea of their chat not being “live”. It makes ending a downward-spiraling conversation easier, as well.
In addition, you can do other cool stuff like edit text messages, contains a transliteration tool, and you can even draw stuff – presumably foreign characters.
This app emphasizes that it is not for dating. I know that it’s not like the rules ever stopped anyone, but the fact that the creators are aware of this trend says something.
Have a safe language exchange
The internet is rife with people trying to get something more from you than you went in asking for, and there are so very, very many more of these services and programs out there, most of which likely operate more or less the same way.
The key to a safe language exchange is really just knowing how to handle situations that may arise, and making good use of your filters. Be careful with the information you put in your public profiles on these sites, especially when it comes to photos, and stay clear of people you have concerns about. If you’re a woman, you probably already know how this works, and if you’re a veteran language exchange user you’ll undoubtedly have experienced the disproportionate number of guys adding you, sending friend requests, weirdly forward messages.
Basically, it’s like the rest of the Internet. The language learning sphere may give off the impression that it is populated with the “right” kind of people – the educated, the tolerant, the globally minded types that stand for equality and generally being nice, and by and large it is – more so than many other groups, anyway. But if you’re new to this, you’ll undoubtedly see some of this.
There are groups on Facebook intended for safe language exchange that are closely moderated. There are also groups that are exclusively for women and LGBTs. Linking to every language exchange group would be ridiculous, so I’m just going to advise you to run a search if you’re curious and go to “Groups”. You never know what you’ll find.
And it’s not just the ladies who need to watch out. Men can easily find themselves being harassed by women or other men, and it’s not always about sex, either. There is no shortage of scamming and phishing going on, and not everyone in our community has the tech savvy to know it when they see it.
On the flip side – if finding a romantic partner via a language exchange platform is your goal, great, you can try out Interpals, but I’d suggest you watch yourself. This isn’t generally why people have come to these sites, and if you’re determined to find yourself a fellow language lover, at least play it cool, don’t be a sleezeball, respect the fact that this person is probably there to learn, do it right. Don’t just go being weird.
This isn’t Tinder.
What have your language exchange experiences been like? Are there other tools you’ve used that you enjoy or would recommend steering clear of? Leave a comment with your thoughts!