International Online Language Exchange

Thanks to Covid-19, the in-person language exchange I last hosted at Madrid’s VIPs Velásquez has become a not-in-person international event online, with regular log-ins from three continents. Every weekend I greet familiar faces signing in from Madrid, Barcelona, London, Toronto, New York, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Houston, Chicago, Mexico City, Los Angeles. One faithful user joins us from time zone UTC/GMT +8, in Manila’s wee hours.

I am the host, a glorified electronic usher, a Zoom keyboard jockey: I smile at the webcam lens to greet new log-ins, click buttons and slide pointers to transfer them into online breakout rooms for small group chats. Of all the life roles I least expected to play! I still remember when my dad woke up early just to make an affordable long-distance voice call from California to New York.

I post to share what I’ve learned.

ORGANIZING EVENTS THROUGH MEETUP

I pay about $60 biannually to host groups on meetup.com, which Meetup’s thirty-five million users can then search for, sniff over, join or abandon, as they see fit. Meetup offers nearly a quarter of a million groups in 180 countries. I haven’t organized on another platform, at least not extensively.

I am not new to Meetup. I hosted vegetarian dining groups in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and led hikes for City Steps in San Francisco. I have formed opinions of what I can and can’t expect, and am guided by those opinions as an organizer.

Considered collectively — as a body of 1,000+, and not individually — I have found Meetup users in the U.S. and Spain to be:

() Honest about money matters, at least at our in-person events. No more than a half-dozen users left a café or restaurant without paying a tab in three years of twice-a-week intercambios in Madrid, and I am convinced that the half-dozen simply forgot.

() Agreeable. They sign up to improve language skills, make new friends, to do something social on a quiet weekend. They aren’t looking for a fight. I don’t have to set conversation-stifling rules about chat subjects. Participants monitor themselves. Frictions occur, but are small, infrequent, manageable. (With amusement, I recall three male Spaniards scandalized by a Madrileña’s fondness for bullfighting.)

() Unreliable. They sign up to grab slots in attendance-limited events, forget to change RSVPs, don’t come, block others from participating. Unexpectedly rainy or cold weather can send no-show stats soaring to fifty percent, sixty percent, beyond.

() Inattentive, sometimes deliberately so. They crash events without signing up, neglect to read basic instructions.

() More interested in some activities than others. Public hikes, programming groups, language exchanges? Yes! A Unitarian meetup I tried to start in 2017? No. A quick flop. UU wields little star power in the Old World.

As an organizer, I can accommodate these characteristics with one of two approaches:

() I can structure events in harmony with Meetup as it is, without trying to guide the figurative Meetup river into a channel or dam. I can craft an event that the river will push by itself.

The VIPs Velásquez restaurant may have been crowded at mid-day, but always had plenty of space for our early evening intercambios. I didn’t have to worry if I had five participants, or fifty. VIPs could accommodate them, without setting aside tables or reserving a server. My organizer chores were trivial. I mostly stood on the figurative river bank, watched the water flow.

() I can structure events that are only partly in harmony with Meetup characteristics, and prepare for ongoing work to make them function.

As an inexperienced organizer in Los Angeles, I once reserved space for fifteen sign-ups for a vegetarian dining group. The restaurant was much smaller than VIPs. Staff arranged a special table, just for us. They might have booked an extra server.

Alas, it rained that day. We didn’t bring a group of fifteen. No; we had exactly three diners, including me, and one came a half-hour late.

This is criminally unfair to the restaurant. I took corrective action, sent emails to no-shows, kicked out repeat offenders. My efforts bore fruit: the Los Angeles group stabilized into a reliable core of regulars. Similar methods for a San Francisco dining group reaped similar results.

But: the success required effort, and the effort was ongoing. The Meetup human river didn’t want to go in my dam. I tired of sending out those emails, tracking repeat offenders.

These experiences gave me a leg up when I started the events online. I had an idea of what would and wouldn’t work.

MEETUP PRO

A host with a standard, $60-every-six-months Meetup account can host up to three groups. They can be in different cities, even different continents. I launched Barcelona and New York City groups after going online, but yenned to hang out my intercambio shingle worldwide.

Enter Meetup Pro, used by IBM, Twitter, Microsoft, Adobe and other big-leaguers. Meetup Pro users may host as many worldwide groups as they like, but will pay far more to do so: $30 per group per month.

Meetup Pro offered a one month free trial. I sent an inquisitive email: will you think me unethical to book this trial if I know from the git-go that I will have to cancel, can use it only to spread the word about the intercambio, can not possibly justify the monthly outlay of hundreds of dollars for a free event? They answered: we hope that you stay put, of course, but if you wish to use the trial in this fashion, you may.

I signed up, launched additional groups in London, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Toronto, Chicago, Houston, Mexico City and Los Angeles, eventually paid for one month of Meetup Pro out of my own pocket (Ow! Ouch!) to give the new groups time to grow. I then posted notices that these additional groups would close, and that users would have to sign up with the core Madrid, Barcelona or New York groups to continue. Many did. I had worried that Meetup would make it tough to cancel the trial, but they let me depart graciously, and return to a standard account.

VIDEO CONFERENCING WITH ZOOM

To my knowledge, only Zoom allows users to be divided into electronic breakout rooms for small group chats. It might be fun to look at the faces of fifty other participants logged in with you from earth’s four corners, but much less fun to try to yak with all fifty simultaneously. With breakout rooms, you don’t have to; the host can instead mouse click you out of the big group into a separate, smaller group in the cloud, to chat with, say, three others.

I saw no other reasonable choice for an online language exchange. I could host with Zoom, or Zoom, or Zoom. A free account would allow me to host forty minute meetings for up to a hundred users. A €13.99-per-month ‘pro’ account would erase the forty minute time limit. A €46.50 “large meeting” add-on would boost the hundred participant limit to five hundred.

My one tech inquiry to Zoom support was answered so haphazardly that I pegged tech support as non-existent, and resigned myself to troubleshoot unaided. Fortunately, Zoom has been reliable, with the two soon-to-be-described exceptions.

EQUIPMENT

Users don’t sign up to socialize with me, but likely do expect their host to log in with good video and audio. I use a relatively high end webcam and combo headset/microphone, and bought a couple of cheap portable lights to spotlight my mug after dark.

I host meetings with several windows open simultaneously on screen, and am immensely grateful to do so with dual monitors on a desktop computer. I could host with a single-screen laptop, if I had to, but wouldn’t try with a tablet or, even worse, a smartphone.

EVOLUTION

Before posting a public Zoom event, I experimented — patiently, tediously — by logging in to test meetings with dummy accounts on a smartphone and a separate computer. I next arranged a private Zoom trial with a half-dozen intercambio regulars. Only then (with a hard swallow) did I book a first public meeting.

Its details and those of dozens of successors are all online.  Procedural  changes show my progress on the learning curve. I booked the first online meeting for only the Madrid group, then opened the two new groups in New York and Barcelona. Next: Meetup Pro, and the eight additional short-lived groups worldwide.

Meetup’s stats do not exclude no-shows, and are always much higher than actual attendance. Zoom’s meeting stats are also higher, as they include users who sign in and out repeatedly.

We hit a high of 113 actual users on June 28, when I hosted only one weekend event. Attendance on both Saturday and Sunday now consistently averages between seventy and eighty users. Perhaps two-thirds arrive in the first fifteen minutes; the remainder drift in at various times during the event.

NUTS AND BOLTS

I open meetings a few minutes ahead of schedule, and immediately create a few dozen breakout rooms, to which I will manually assign users as they log in. I then start to admit early arrivals from the “waiting room.” Among them will be co-host Silvia and, on Sundays, fellow co-host Javier. Managing the first-quarter-hour-of-the-event traffic jam would be much tougher without them.

Users log in, some with crisp video and clear audio, others with balkier connections that don’t immediately show images. About sixty percent already will have changed their Zoom log-in names to indicate native tongues, as requested in the event description. I can transfer them into breakout rooms immediately. Silvia and Javier query the remaining forty percent to learn their first languages, and edit their online user names accordingly.

Breakout rooms list; Zoom Spanish-English language exchange
Breakout rooms list; Zoom language exchange

A screen grab of the Breakout Rooms – In Progress control window is shown above. Only the host can see it. I expect to spend many minutes scrolling through the list of rooms, monitoring the ratio of Spanish to English speakers. In the first quarter hour, I may open as many as twenty rooms with one Spanish speaker and one English speaker apiece, then fill in the rooms as more users arrive. We usually now have four users per breakout room, despite what you see in this screen grab. (I’m too lazy to make another.) I try not to go over five.

Every fifteen minutes, I click the Broadcast a message to all tab at the bottom of the Breakout Rooms – In Progress window to send a message:

¡Hora de cambiar de idioma! Time to change languages!

Two or three times during a meeting, I send an additional message, reminding users that they are free to return to the main room to ask to be transferred to a different breakout room. Not all chat groups work out; I want users to know that they can change. Some never do; others switch regularly.

Connectivity varies. Ninety-five percent of our worldwide participants log in with adequate video and sound. Others arrive without working video, or with significant background noise. I can’t transfer such users into breakout rooms, at least not without alienating others, and so expect to spend significant time with them as they adjust settings, log out, log back in again. If necessary, I will tell them to tweak settings at zoom.us/test, and try us again on another day.

Zoom has failed twice, both times after I left the main room to assist users in breakout rooms. On July 5, I lost all power to transfer participants, and had to shut down the whole meeting for fifteen minutes while I reinstalled the Zoom client. On August 8, my Zoom client crashed as I exited a breakout room. Thankfully, the crash didn’t interrupt the meeting; it continued online without me, and returned host controls to me when I was able to rejoin five fingernail-biting minutes later.

THE FUTURE

Zoom boasts more than two hundred million users and three hundred million participants daily. Daily. Not a novelty, not anymore. On June 24, one hundred thousand users reportedly logged into an online commemoration for Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. An Eventbrite search pulls up over four thousand pages of free online events.

With all that said, I shall speculate (squeamishly and unconfidently, as I’m not sure) that large scale, public, open-to-all online pow-wows are still relatively rare, and that such pow-wows dedicated to language exchange are rarer still. Eventbrite now gives star billing to online happenings; Meetup, not so much. I find relatively few listings for interests I would expect to wield big box office power, like Christianity and recovery. So much has changed with the pandemic. The world is adapting, often unhappily.

Spontaneous Online hosts English-only Meetup chat groups with log-ins from fifty cities. These are paid: €10 a month for unlimited access. The world’s largest pure language exchange may be Language Exchange Ireland, which regularly pulls over a hundred users for their Wednesday events. (Despite the modest sign-up stats on their Meetup page.) They request, but do not require, a €5 donation, accept all languages, and host separate breakout rooms for English-Spanish, English-Italian, English-French and so on. They also began as an in-person exchange, and also went online with the arrival of Covid, almost six weeks before our Madrid group.

The Zoom meeting bar-to-entry is low. A rookie with good nerves probably could host a big event with 70+ users and twenty breakout rooms after three or four smaller sessions.

“What’s in it for the user?” I ask myself, when gazing into my online-post-Covid crystal ball. It can be exciting to connect with others worldwide, but the excitement fades; a bedroom wall in the background looks about the same when broadcast from Málaga, Manchester or Manila. Zoom chats are virus-free, at least for those who disinfect mice and keyboards, but how about when the pandemic ends? I miss the in-person events. I know many others do, too.

But: a global language exchange gives users easy access to bonafide native speakers. On a bad night at VIPs, I sometimes had to group six Spaniards with a single Brit or American. Online, my hispanoparlante-to-angloparlante ratio is in the 2 to 1 range; if I had closed the Barcelona group instead of the London group, it might now be the reverse. The Spanish of Spain differs from that of Mexico and Argentina. (Consider variations in the acceptability of the verb coger.) The online user can sample all variants. And one doesn’t always feel like going outside, Covid or no Covid. Winter is coming.

Repeat connectivity problems or some other unpredictable kerfuffle could hollow out our attendance. If that doesn’t happen, I expect that our events may grow steadily, but slowly. Fans of Rabbi Schneerson need fear no competition from this quarter.

SELECT ZOOM SETTINGS

There may be better. I use these:

() Waiting Room = on, largely because it lets me show a mini-banner asking participants to add native language to their log-in names.

() No meeting passcode. Users need the link or the ID to log in, nothing else. I used to email the link and passcode on event day, but found that this extra step asked for too large a divergence of the Meetup river. “The email never arrived!” cried many users. I gave up.

() Computer audio only. I won’t transfer invisible users to a breakout room, so see little point in another setting.

() Mute participants upon entry = off. The Ireland group does it differently.

() Disable desktop/screen share for users = on. This prevents 99.99% of legitimate users from sharing pics of interest so a potential .01% Zoom Bombers can’t plaster obscene images onscreen.

() Show a “Join from your browser” link = on. For those who don’t want to download the Zoom app.

() Local recording = off.

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