Pablo Roman Humanes
November 11, 2016
 min read

I realize that I often mention Crosstalk in my blog, but I haven’t really explained what it is. Unfortunately, until now there was no other website where you could get a comprehensive explanation of what it is and how to do it. This is that explanation.

I first learnt about Crosstalk when studying at the AUA School in Bangkok, and it quickly became one of my favorite ways to learn a language. In total, I’ve spent around 700 hours doing it, so let me tell you about my experience with it.

Crosstalk is an amazing thing to do if you’re aiming at reaching full fluency in a foreign language. It works from an absolute beginner level, as I’ve tried it myself with many languages I knew zero about. I’ve also used it to teach some Japanese to many people who had no knowledge of the language at all. Because of my experience with input-only methods and all the variety of topics you can discuss, I suspect that by doing only crosstalk you can go from zero all the way to spoken fluency. Also, because you spend the whole time engaged in conversation, my guess right now is that it should probably be the fastest (most efficient) way to get a good basis in the language. After that you would only need to get some more exposure to the language in a variety of situations (like going shopping, TV shows, novels, etc.) so you can learn the specific social norms and the expressions used in those situations.

On the outside, Crosstalk looks a lot like language exchange. And it is language exchange. I would argue it’s the most authentic form of language exchange that exists. The experience of it, though, is very different to traditional language exchange.

The Method

Crosstalk as a principle is very simple. In fact, it is so simple that it can be described in a single sentence:

Speak only your own language.

Like with any other language exchange, you want to pair up with someone who speaks the language you want to learn, and who is interested in learning the language you speak. However, in this case, you won’t be spending half of the time in each language. Instead, both people listen to their target languages 100% of the time, and practice speaking them 0% of the time.

This has several advantages:

  • Because you are never forced to speak your target language, you can pay more attention to trying to understand what your partner is telling you, and you learn more. Also you are much less stressed, since you don’t struggle to come up with words or worry about making mistakes.
  • You learn without translations. That means no (or very little) interference from your mother tongue.
  • You don’t need to use grammar and words that you don’t know well yet. That also reduces the interference from your mother tongue.
  • You don’t need to speak before getting used to how the language should really sound. In the long run, that results in a clearer pronunciation that’s easier to understand by native speakers.
  • More efficient than other language exchanges, since you are not spending half of the time in each language.
  • It can be used at any level, since you’re not required to speak the language. Even if you’re an absolute beginner, there are many strategies that allow you to have an actual conversation without falling back to a common language, and start picking up words that way. Below, in the section For Every Level, I explain how this works.

And that’s in addition to all the other advantages that come with any language exchange:

  • It’s free!
  • You learn always in context. Be it words, expressions, or grammar. Words just stick much more when you hear them in conversation and you’re expected to understand them.
  • It’s easy! Besides not being forced to speak, doing crosstalk one-on-one means that your partners can adapt their language to your level of understanding. Your understanding goes up, and so does your learning.
  • It’s really interesting. You are talking with a native speaker of the language. You’re making friends, and learning about their lives, their childhood, their country and their culture.

The Bad

The biggest limitation there is to Crosstalk, compared to other activities that are not language exchanges, is that you need access to native (or otherwise proficient) speakers of the language you are learning. It can be done by videoconference, and I definitely recommend doing that if you can’t find anybody to talk to where you live, but that works better once you’re at an intermediate level. That’s because at the beginner levels you need to do a lot of drawing and pointing to communicate effectively, and that’s hard to do during a video call. Hopefully in the future we’ll have a way to do it. Maybe using a tablet app, or virtual reality. Let me dream.

For Every Level

It’s often hard for people to imagine how to do language exchange at the absolute beginner level. I actually wanted to try it out myself, so I arranged to pair up with people who spoke languages I knew nothing about and who knew nothing about one of the languages I can speak. I’ve exchanged Japanese for Slovene and Mongolian, Spanish for Hokkien and Cantonese, etc. In each of these cases we knew NOTHING of each other’s language, but we were still able to understand each other, hold a conversation, and have fun.

How can you do that? Nonverbal communication. While things like face expressions and gestures are commonly used during a regular conversation, for Crosstalk it needs to be dialed all the way up. It may be necessary to overcome shyness and bring out your inner child, since you’re going to be barking like a dog, fluttering your arms like a chicken, and grunting like a pig.

However, the most powerful tool as a beginner is drawing. It’s a good idea to take a notebook with you and have a pen for each person who’s participating in the conversation. By drawing you can convey almost anything. You can draw food, your family, the house you grew up in, and explain any story.

It’s also a good idea to print out some sheets to help you express common meanings. In my case, I always carry with me some laminated sheets I printed myself, including a world map, a map of my own country, a map of my partner’s country, a sheet with all the most common colors, and one with different units of time. I laminate them so it’s easy to write on them with a dry-erase pen.

Here you can check out more sheets I was using when I lived in Bangkok.

The Tips

Here are several tips that may help you overcome certain small issues that can arise when doing Crosstalk:

  • Don’t switch languages. The idea with Crosstalk is to learn alternative ways of communication, so try not to fall back to a common language if you have trouble to express something. Ask your partners to do the same if they seem to be switching often.
  • Don’t write words (other than proper nouns, maybe). You want people to keep paying attention to what you say, and avoid them going into their heads while trying to memorize the word you just wrote. Also, of course, don’t write translations!
  • Let it go. Don’t stress over trying to understand or be understood 100%. Some things are just difficult to understand at a certain level. You’ll learn more if you just move on to easier things.
  • Work is one of the hardest conversations to have as a beginner. Most people nowadays have such abstract jobs that it can be hard to describe them just by gesturing and drawing. You can try explaining it, but move on if you have problems making yourself understood.
  • Keep on talking. Some people, once they notice they can communicate by gesturing and drawing, stop talking altogether. Just ask your partner to continue speaking if that happens.
  • Stick to drawing conventions. As you go along you’ll develop your own drawing conventions. For example, you’ll probably end up drawing family trees in the same way every time. Find a way that works for you and your partner, and stick to it. It will make communication easier.

You can talk basically about anything. In the end, you’re just having a conversation with a friend. Certain topics, however, work especially well. They are easy to convey at the beginner levels and allow you and your partner to get to know each other personally. Some of my favorites are:

  • Times you stole something as a child.
  • Times you got hurt as a child.
  • Bad habits you had (biting your nails, picking your nose).
  • What was the house you grew in like.
  • Weird foods that you have tried. Weird foods that people eat in your country.
  • Couple relationships in your country.

Other than that, my recommendation is to choose topics that you’re genuinely interested in.

Fun Activities

Besides normal conversation, I’ve also tried other activities during a Crosstalk session. They’re fun and lead themselves to using a wide variety of vocabulary:

  • Draw each other. Take one sheet of paper and draw your partner. Describe what you’re drawing at each step. Make it funny by making your partner’s nose very big, or doing other unexpected things. Then have your partner do the same for you.
  • Imagine and draw the house of your dreams, your perfect city, your perfect desert island, etc. Describe everything you draw.
  • Teach each other card games from your respective countries.
  • Invent your own story. This is a very fun activity to do if you and your partner have some imagination. It consists in coming up with a story together. You and your partner each alternate in suggesting the next step of the story. The trick here is to always accept your partner’s suggestion as the reality of the story, and for your partner to do the same. This is based on the improv game “Yes, and…”. More information on how to do it here.

The End

I hope you try out Crosstalk and enjoy it. I’m always looking for other fun activities to do and topics to talk about during my Crosstalk sessions, so any suggestions are very welcome! Also, I realize that by reading this post it may be a bit difficult to imagine what Crosstalk is like in practice. If you want to get a better feeling for what Crosstalk looks like, watch the video at the top of this post.