The NEW Way to Travel Meaningfully: Language & Skills Exchange Programs Abroad

by Emma Power

Girls talking in a park

“That’ll be $87.50 please.” This is typically the point of the transaction where you make your payment choice: cash or card. It is a simple question, right? Always the same, cash or card. But, what if there was another option? What if, instead, you offered French classes in exchange for your groceries? What if, rather than using cold, hard, cash, you proposed swapping Spanish vocabulary practice for your favourite microwavable mac and cheese?

It’s not as radical an idea as it seems, believe it or not.

While I admit you probably wouldn’t get very far in this particular scenario (I can’t imagine there are many supermarkets who accept translation services in lieu of a crisp Benjamin Franklin), bartering has made a comeback worthy of those kitschy plastic chokers we all rocked in the early noughties. And even better, bartering has become the most authentic, cost-effective, and life-changing way of traveling the world, and we’re here to tell you why (and how)!

A (super-brief) history of bartering.

We should remember that the ancient practice of bartering served our forefathers pretty well, after all; we know that somewhere around 9,000 B.C., long before American Express and checking accounts, our ancestors decided on a reciprocal value system, a primordial currency based on mutual need. Basically, in early civilization, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-(breathe)-great-great-(definitely missed some greats in there) grandfather could have traded his flint axe for your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-(breathe)-great-great grandfather’s bone arrowhead. And life went on from there. Pretty amazing, huh?

What about language and skill exchanges?

This prehistoric swapping wasn’t left behind in the Stone Age, either; the give-and-take spirit of bartering was the spark behind the coordination of language and skill exchange programs abroad, which have seen a surge in popularity in our post-recession, cash-conscious society.

Language exchanges aren’t a “new” phenomenon by any means. John Milton and Roger Williams are said to have participated in one of the very first language exchanges, when the 17th-century English poet Milton taught Williams, a Reformed theologian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French in exchange for Dutch lessons. 

But, thanks to advancements in social media and the creation of dedicated online sharing platforms, it has become even easier to bring potential participants together. Acting as digital marketplaces, these online hubs allow tens of thousands of people to partake in language and skill exchange programs and initiatives, and use them as tickets for immersive, international travel.

Around the world, would-be jetsetters are engaging in these exchanges to experience new cultures, save money while exploring, make new friends, and enjoy enriching, meaningful travel.

Wait! How is language exchange different from TEFL certification?

Taking part in a language or skill exchange is different to Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), and it’s a totally unique way of seeing what the world, and its inhabitants, have to offer.

A language exchange promotes the idea of tandem learning, where the experience is mutually beneficial for both parties. Unlike the TEFL scheme, there’s no fixed curriculum; a language exchange is a fluid process, where the knowledge-sharing is collaborative, and the onus is on sharing not an individual’s tangible skill-set, but their time, culture, and life experience. More personalised than a typical teaching position, an exchange program can be adapted to suit both learners particular set of needs.

Furthermore, language and skill exchanges have their own sense of adventure and freedom. In theory, thanks to their flexible nature, these trade-offs can be organized anywhere in the world, whereas TEFL jobs tend to be restricted to popular destinations for English speakers. Also, language or skill exchanges don’t follow ready-made timetables and there are no fixed contracts; you could decide to spend two weeks in Rome with two days notice or plan a summer in China months in advance. There are no set start-dates or program intake limits, so you can be completely in charge of your own adventure (how liberating!).

So, what are the benefits of language exchange programs abroad?

Language or skill exchanges allow even the most cash-strapped of students to learn something new, plus have a meaningful travel experience at the same time. But, like Jessie J’s been telling us since 2011, it’s not (all) about the money. They’re cheaper than night-classes, no money changes hands, and wayyyy more interesting than staring at a screen or dwelling over a textbook. There’s no hierarchy, no pesky pecking order; you’ll be both a student AND teacher at the same time.

Taking part in an overseas exchange is a uniquely empowering opportunity to gain an insider’s understanding of a new culture on their level.
Friends talking at a picnic table

Language and skill exchanges are more honest, genuine and meaningful ways of learning and traveling. Increasingly, people are flagging the need for truth and transparency in all aspects of their lives, from their healthcare to their food, and travel is no exception. People need to feel like they are engaging in honest interactions not just with companies, but the world around them. With infinite information and travel opportunities out there, people want access to exchanges that matter, that make a difference.

People want to be part of something bigger than themselves, something that allows them to build real connections worldwide, gain independence, see different ways of living, share whatever they have to offer, and learn more than they could ever imagine knowing (we know, not a big ask).

One last time, what does all of this have to do with MORE meaningful travel?

Thanks to bartering and exchange initiatives, the sharing economy changed a lot of industries. But its impact on travel has been extraordinary, affecting everything from accommodation to transport to tourism.

Take Couchsurfing, for example, founded in 2003 as a non-profit organization; it’s now a global hospitality exchange. Of course, the idea of privately putting up guests isn’t remotely new, but by taking it online, it irrevocably changed both peoples’ perspective of the practice and the manner in which they engaged with it. It took travelers off the beaten track. It got visitors interacting with locals. It saw people breaking down walls.

Language and skills exchange is not about ownership, you see, it’s about access. It’s not about possession, it’s about collaborative consumption.

Couple on a date

What does all of this mean for you? It means personal connection. It means peer-to-peer sharing. It means local experiences. Basically, it means that while your grasp of German grammar won’t necessarily get you a free coffee, it’ll allow you to have your own once-in-a-lifetime adventure abroad.

This article was contributed by GoCambio, a free online skills and language exchange platform. By swapping skills for free homestay accommodation around the world, GoCambio unites the millions of people who travel independently with the millions of people who want to learn something new.