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Making friends by learning languages by Anelise N. '19

Welcome to the Language Conversation Exchange

November 6, 2018

I really like learning languages. And MIT has been a really good place for that.

I took a lot of language classes in high school, but it wasn’t really something I expected to continue in earnest in college. After coming to MIT I stopped studying languages for three semesters because there were so many other interesting humanities classes I wanted to try out. Then, during my sophomore IAP, I took a Spanish conversation class in Spain through a program called IAP Madrid. It is one of my most treasured memories from my time at MIT and it reminded me why I love speaking other languages. Talking fluently in a language you don’t speak natively is a huge challenge, and it’s such a refreshing change from the methodic math and CS problems I get in my psets. It’s also incredibly useful and enriching; it opens you up to experiences and relationships and cultures that you wouldn’t encounter otherwise.

That semester, I decided to do my humanities concentration in French, and I’ve been taking language classes ever since. Last IAP I went to Paris with the French department. Last spring, I took an amazing French class (probably the best humanities class I’ve taken at MIT) about the history and culture of francophone Africa. This semester, I’m making the journey to Harvard to take a class on Spanish art.

Also, over the past year or so, I’ve discovered a group on campus called the LCE–the Language Conversation Exchange.

Language Converation Exchange (LCE) logo

LCE is a group that focuses on bringing together all members of the MIT community by making language a bond instead of a barrier. Its primary objective is to bring together “language partners”: people who have complimentary language skills. So for instance, if I want to practice Spanish, and since I’m a native English speaker, I could find a language partner who speaks fluent Spanish and is looking to practice English. You can then meet up on your own schedule, practice speaking a different language, and make a friend you wouldn’t have met otherwise. A big part of the LCE’s mission is to include people from all parts of the Institute, whatever their affiliation–grad student, undergrad, professor, administrator, spouse, visiting scholar, you name it. Which is really great, because a lot of the people I’ve gotten to know through LCE I could have met through literally no other channel.

In order to help people find language partners, the LCE has a website where you can make a profile, search for people with complimentary interests to you, and get in touch with people open to hanging out and practicing a language.

My LCE profile

My profile! The “My Contacts” section at the bottom is a feature of the new LCE website that was just released (which is why mine looks empty).

I heard about this feature a while ago through a friend of mine from IAP Madrid who is really passionate about learning Spanish. He had found a Spanish language partner from Barcelona and was really enjoying conversing with him (he actually was so inspired by their conversations that he took a Catalan class at Harvard the following semester). So I logged in and made a profile with the intention of reaching out to people when the school year started.

Of course as soon as the school year started the firehose turned on and I was slammed with work and I totally forgot about the profile I had made. A few months later, I got an email from Luis, a grad student from Mexico studying finance in Sloan who was interested in practicing together. That sounded super fun, and as I hadn’t taken a Spanish class for a year and was trying to stay fluent by listening to reggaeton and watching La Casa de Papel on Netflix, it was also a boon to my language skills. Last semester, my junior spring, we started meeting up on Saturday mornings in local cafes to chat in Spanish.

Getting to know Luis has been such a great experience, and that goes far beyond language practice. Of course, it’s awesome that I went three semesters without taking a Spanish class, yet I feel like my language skills didn’t degrade and maybe even improved. But also I made a great friend that I would never have met otherwise and have learned a ton from our conversations. I’ve learned a lot about Mexican history and culture from Luis–for instance, last week he told me about how the giant parade that just happened in la Ciudad de México for Dia de los Muertos was not a real tradition at the time one was staged in the 2015 James Bond movie, and now thanks to the film it’s been turned into a real thing. We’ve compared Mexican and US politics, national history, sports, and even attitudes towards tourists. Since our majors are pretty different, I’ve been able to learn about economics and finance from Luis, and I’ve told him about my research and have been able to help out with Python questions. Sometimes we go down rabbit holes and debate the role of an artist’s intention in the message of a piece of art or if free will can coexist with quantum mechanics. (I fear I’m not as eloquent on these topics in Spanish as I would be in English, but I try :D) Basically, I was expecting to get some language practice from this exchange, and instead I’ve gotten a really rich friendship.

Left: James Bond in the middle of a (staged) Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. Right: men and women in colorful costume, adorned with flowers and with faces painted as skulls, march in an actual Day of the Dead parade.

Who knew that James Bond (on the left) actually inspired the Día de los Muertos parade in la Ciudad de México (right).

It’s been such a good experience that we’ve kept it up this semester, and we still meet almost every Saturday!

I also briefly had a French partner last year, but it ended up not working out for scheduling reasons. Recently, especially since I’m not taking a French class this semester, I started contacting French speakers from the LCE website. So far I haven’t found a conversation partner (it seems like a surprisingly large proportion of the French people in the database are visiting scientists, some of whom are not on campus any more, and also I’ve only been going one at a time because my schedule would not be able to accommodate an accidental match with a plethora of French speakers), although one person did offer to keep up an email correspondence.

But last week, I hit a stroke of luck in my search, at one of LCE’s Language Lunches.

“Language Lunches” are the other hallmark of the LCE. The premise is pretty simple. You show up, get free lunch, and talk to other people from throughout the MIT ecosystem in another language. Food, friends, and language practice–what more could you possibly ask for???

The first LCE lunch--we had a record number of people come out!

A picture from our first LCE lunch this year! (Can you find me?)

I’ve been going to Language Lunches for over a year now. Unfortunately they only occur about once or twice a month, but I always have a great time. The room is always set up with multiple tables, where each table corresponds to a language–Spanish, French, English, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, etc. You go sit at the table with the language you want to speak. The lunches usually last an hour, and usually the moderator of the lunch announces the halfway point so that people can try out different tables if they want. I usually alternated between Spanish and French, or if I’m really ambitious I would switch halfway through.

The LCE moderator announces the midpoint of the lunch.

At the halfway point of the lunch, it’s time for some announcements, and then we switch languages!

I love language lunches so much. One of the biggest cons of MIT as a school is that it can be hard to meet new people because people tend to be, not antisocial or unfriendly, but just sort of in their own bubbles and disinclined to break through that bubble to make small talk with a stranger. That’s what Language Lunches are all about–meeting new and different people who share a similar interest, no strings attached.

This semester, I realized that between meeting my language partners and enjoying the Language Lunches, I’ve actually gotten so much out of this group that I wanted to get more involved.

So I decided to join the group!

My LCE T-shirt!

I have a T-shirt, so I’m official :)

This semester, I’ve learned a lot about how things actually work within LCE. First, the group planning these things is pretty small. Our meetings are maybe 7-8 people, including me and another sophomore who joined this semester. The woman who runs the group is named Jennifer Recklet Tassi, and she’s actually a program manager within MIT Medical working with MIT Spouses and Partners Connect, an organization to help family members of MIT students or staff build a community at MIT. That alone surprised me–I had always thought of the group primarily as a language-practicing mechanism, whereas Jennifer really comes at it with a perspective of community-building and cultural adjustment. Turns out, there’s a lot more behind the LCE’s mission than just getting in some Spanish practice.

A large part of our meetings has been brainstorming how we can make the Language Lunches better. In the process, I learned that the way I’ve been thinking about the lunches is somewhat different from how LCE thinks about the lunches. I always saw them as just a fun way to talk to some new people in another language for an hour, but they were actually designed to facilitate people meeting new language partners. To try to promote this goal, we decided to try something new for lunches this semester. We’ve gotten rid of the English table, and instead we encourage people to speak English for one half of the lunch and then switch to their table’s language for the second half. The rationale is that this better mirrors the structure of a language partnership and puts more emphasis on the give-and-take of language learning–not only should you get to practice the language you want to learn, but you should also be giving back by practicing your native language with someone else. We also decided to have moderators at each table who could both explain the new format and make sure that everyone at the table felt comfortable and was getting what they wanted out of the event.

I got to be the moderator of the French table!

And also–excitingly–I actually met a potential language partner! I got the phone number of a student from France who is interested in practicing English. C’est excellent!

The second thing we’ve been talking about in our meetings is the rollout of the new LCE website!!!

LCE has been redoing their website in order to make it a lot prettier and easier to use, and now the changes are live!!!

Now for an unabashed pitch: If you are part of the MIT community (in any capacity) and are interested in practicing a language (literally any language), MAKE A PROFILE on our website and reach out to another language learner! It’s a ton of fun, a great way to make new friends, and you’ll get to share your knowledge with others while improving your own skills.

The LCE language partner search

On the website, you can search for and then reach out to language partners! (Minus the yellow boxes. I added those to hide people’s personal data :D)

Also, check out the language lunch calendar for this semester so you know where to find free food and friends!

The LCE has been a big part of my past year and a half at MIT and joining it has made me even more appreciative of the work it does. It’s inspired me to give more back to the community in terms of my language skills. I highly recommend that you take advantage of what we have to offer.

And if you end up at a Language Lunch any time soon, swing by the French table and say hi!