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Photo of intercambio students

Native Spanish and English speakers teach – and learn – each other’s languages in Colorado Mountain College’s Intercambio class in Glenwood Springs. The next session starts Sept. 13. Photo: Ed Kosmicki.

Colorado Mountain College Intercambio class fosters real-life conversational skills
By Beth Zukowski

Learning a language might bring to mind images of sitting in a classroom, conjugating verbs: I love, you love, he loves, we love, they love.

That’s not the way Karen Birach wanted to learn Spanish. “When I hear words like ‘nouns,’ ‘prepositions’ and ‘tenses,’ I just freeze,” she says.

Colorado Mountain College’s Intercambio class is a totally different approach to language learning. The class pairs native English speakers with native Spanish speakers to learn and practice speaking each other’s languages in more true-to-life conversation.

It was that approach that appealed to Birach and what compelled her to drive 40 miles one way to take the class.

The Intercambio Program creator Jonathan Satz explains, “I had tremendous anxiety trying to learn Spanish. I could do well in a written test situation, but when it came to understanding it or speaking it in real life, I was lost.”

In 1995, Satz went to Costa Rica to teach English. “My students asked, ‘Will you please help us after class with our English?’ and I replied, ‘Only if you’ll help me with my Spanish.’ This was just the natural way to do it,” he says. These one-on-one exchanges Satz developed with his students relieved the language-learning anxiety and boosted conversational skills on both sides.

The seed for Intercambio was born. And while the idea itself – sharing language between two native speakers – is not new, a college class was. Now in its sixteenth year, it was the first facilitated college course of its kind – a model adopted both by regional secondary schools and by some colleges nationwide.

Intercambio classes are rooted in real-world scenarios. In one class, students might board a virtual airplane, where some students are passengers and others are flight attendants. Another class might focus on shopping. In all cases, students learn relevant vocabulary and dialogue in context with both languages.

Each student brings their expertise in one language to the class. Because everyone is a learner and teacher of one language, patience is naturally extended to each other. “We were equals,” Birach explained. “We were all here trying to learn, knowing that we all make mistakes. Even though your words might not be in the right order or the verb is in the wrong tense, you can be understood.”

In her first year here from Cali, Colombia, Lucy Moncada Aeila has taken English classes as well as Intercambio at the college. While she receives a more traditional study of grammar in her other classes, Intercambio is where she says, “I can practice my conversation. It is very, very important to talk with other people.”

In addition to sharing their languages, students share their traditions and culture. “The people who come to practice their Spanish have many questions about our culture,” says Moncada Aeila. “It is the same for us; we have many questions about their culture.”

The next Intercambio class begins Sept. 13 at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs. It meets on Tuesdays, 6:30-8:50 p.m. and accommodates all levels. Individuals are asked to register by Sept. 9. In addition to Satz, the course is facilitated by Ted Kauffman and Ricardo and Tere Hernandez.