If you're learning a new foreign language, or just trying to perfect your English or any language that you've been learning for decades, I'm pretty sure that using a language exchange website or application comes to your mind.
No need to explain what a language exchange is. Ideally, the potential language partner should be learning your native language, and they should speak natively the language you're learning.
A lot of websites offered this kind of services for free like, Interpals, Conversation Exchange, or My Language Exchange, but also more modern ones like Tandem, HelloTalk or SewaYou.
Being a language enthusiast myself, I've tried all of them. But in this article I'm not gonna give you a review of each one of them. Instead I'd like to give an overall point of view after using them. Here are some of my takeaways.
Yep, if we can categorize people by the way they use those apps, clearly, a big part of them are not using those apps to try to practice a language. Starting from those who are just bored and want to connect with others and exchanging a few messages, to those who are looking for their life partners...
The majority of them list English as their native language, but their sentences are full of basic grammar mistakes. This is because English can be easily understood by most of people out there to some extent.
What I'm saying is not new to you I guess. A lot of people use those apps primarily for dating purpose, hiding behind some language exchange excuse.
Of course, if exchanging their culture or knowledge about their language can get them closer to each others, why not. But most of them are just polluting those apps by spamming freely other users.
The typical elements that constitute a language exchange is:
The avatar counts for 95% of the probability that someone will send you first a message.
You have a hot girl, or even just a simple picture of a girl from behind without showing the face, and you'll get all the dudes here trying to hook up reaching out to you.
I've tried an experiment on Interpals, which is one of the biggest and oldest website that exists to find language partners all around the world. I created a fake account with a picture found on Unsplash of an asian girl, and write some random bio, and in less than 24 hours, I got more a new message from more than 70 people, out of which, only 3 users are female.
Yeah I know, it's not something new that most of the guys won't message their fellow male users and go straight trying to target female users, hoping perhaps to get a date with them, or just having some pleasant interaction with the opposite sex.
Some of them clearly introduce themselves as a single male trying to find their life partner on those websites, and how desperate they are, trying to do so. Dude people don't give a damn about it. Of course, the best thing to to about it, is to just ignore them. But there are so many of those people that you can't ignore it and it just ruins the user experience.
The simple reason is that they exist since decades and they are the first websites which pop out from a Google search for language exchange. So people keep signing up for those website because they see a huge users base. Then the cycle continues.
The only reason why people sign up for those websites is to get exposure (usually in the form of being the Last connected users) and get other users out to other platforms.
What happens is that more than half of the first messages that I've received, are messages from those people asking you or sending you their Skype, Line, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook IDs.
They know that the websites themselves are kind of crappy and not suitable for a comfortable language exchange practice. So they redirect users to other platforms which support better real-time notification, voice/video calls support. So basically the native functionality of all messaging apps.
That's why, a lot of those websites couldn't help but adding some features to keep their users inside their platform, by automatically parsing messages to check if a keyword like Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook is being written and forbid those messages to be sent. Of course, we human are not stupid, and people just get around by using like "my s k y p e is XXX" ...
So does it mean that there is no meaning for using all those language exchange websites? I'm not gonna be the one deciding for you, try it by yourself and you'll experience the same typical thing. But what I can tell, is that the user experience is pretty bad and those relationships built through those website are artificial, ephemeral and not long lasting. But is it really the goal to do so to begin with?
So the best (in term of usage) language exchange apps out there are spinning off to other features, like building a social feed through posts (like HelloTalk) including a correction feature, where other users correct your posts and help you spot your mistakes. This is a really great feature. However, a lot of people use this feature as a mean to show off their life, post selfies of themselves to get a few likes from complete strangers to satisfy themselves with some sort of external validation.
Another way is to have a network of professional (or not) private teachers directly part of their core features (like Italki or Tandem). Every language exchange apps and websites just ended up looking all the same, and users are using them in the sole purpose of accessing the app's users base, which is the single most important asset of those apps.
Who doesn't know Tinder? The original gangster of the famous swipe left/right. Well, like I said above, a lot of people are using language exchange apps as a medium to date people. So developers of a new trend of language exchange apps are taking advantage of this and build a swiping language partners app where people can only talk to those with who their get a match. Yeah you get it, you decide to talk to people based on their profile picture, can it even be called language exchange app?
The thing about this new trend, is that the monetization system is muuuuch more aggressive and people need to pay in order to swipe more. Companies building those apps are just taking advantage of human behavior in the desire to meet new people by hiding behind a language exchange branding and make fortune on weak users who just have nothing better to do with their money.
An example of an app like this is Langmate, whose marketing message is to attract people around the world to make friend with Japanese people. Yeah, that's kind of a niche country to start with, but you'll be surprised to know the number of people around the world fantasying on Japanese women, because/thanks to the otaku/anime culture (there's even a misspelling in the app name on their landing page...).
The same kind of apps also exist for Korea giving the popularity of the Kpop culture.
Obviously these apps don't beat other major players in the same field because of their paradigm and their long term vision is not the same. On one hand, you have cash machines trying to get 💲 as much as possible, using all the tactics to exploit human behaviors.
Another type of language learning apps, is the AI-based chatbots apps... the intention was good and the first one trying to do that was perhaps Duolingo (I might be wrong), and it just spreads like mushrooms. OMG, how many times I wanted to close the YouTube app when I see those apps ads pop out over and over again...
Don't get me wrong, the idea was kind of well thought (simple idea though), but most of the apps themselves just...suck.
You're being asked to say something out loud in order to complete an exercise, and when I try to just swear or say something in a different language, or worse, just saying some random things, it was still considered as a valid answer...🙄
As you read the following paragraph, you might probably think that this is a shameless plug, but hear me out.
If we take all of the above points, the ideal language exchange app will have:
Of course, technology-wise, those features can be implemented. But what can't be changed is the human behavior side of things. Some apps are trying to enforce this by verifying beforehand the real identity of their users and they can only use the apps after approval. This is a good starting point, but who can guarantee that once they get approval and start to use those apps, they are not going to do the same thing?
What I'm trying to do with SewaYou, the language exchange app that I've built, is trying to foster the actual language exchange experience by having at the core, real-life sessions to practice a language with a language partner within the same area around you.
Tired of receiving messages from people using language exchange app for dating purpose? You come to the right place. On SewaYou, you can enable the Same Gender Mode option, and only interact with people in the same gender.
Users know what to expect, instead of having endlessly messages from users from all over the world which end up being ignored on either side, I focus on making language exchange a transaction, something that can be done quickly and efficiently. The promise is not to have life-long relationship with those you'll meet, but I believe it will contribute immensely. A 30 minutes 1-on-1 real-life interaction is worth more than 3 days of chatting.
Some people might sound really weird or creepy on a chat, but are actually really nice people to interact with in real life.
The core focus of SewaYou is on the location and users availability. Of course, it will not sound safe to directly meet up with people you just meet online via an app, but how comes people get to date with complete strangers through apps like Tinder? I don't think that people are hesitant to meet others because they think that it is not safe to do so.
People won't meet because it doesn't fill an urgent need. Most of us are learning a foreign language, but it won't kill not to practice every single day. Moreover, despite saying that we are busy, most of us always have one or two spare hours after work to do something useful such as practicing a foreign language with someone instead of wasting time on meaningless Pokemon GO sessions...
The challenge and ultimate goal that SewaYou is pursuing is to make the logistics to meet up with someone seamlessly easy and make those real-life interactions the most efficient possible to help people get to the next level of their learning language journey.
The long term vision is to make people think that meeting someone for 2 hours in a cafe from an app and focusing on 1-on-1 practice becomes a common thing, like the way Uber and Airbnb make people think that it's completely normal to stay in a stranger house or ride on a stranger car.
There is a looooong way ahead to achieve that long term vision though 🤔