Earlier this year, I decided to work on improving my Hebrew. I had studied Hebrew throughout high school and college, reaching a solid intermediate level. After graduation though, I stopped having many opportunities to speak it, and my Hebrew ability all but disappeared over the following decade.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the language to start coming back to me. Maybe it had been lying dormant in the back of my brain all along. With the help of my old textbooks, I began to refamiliarize myself with Hebrew by spending an hour or so a day drilling conjugation tables and vocabulary lists.
After a few months of this self-study, the rote memorization was starting to get boring and my language learning began to plateau. I realized that in order to keep improving my Hebrew, I’d have to start actually talking to native Hebrew speakers.
As it turns out though, North Carolina doesn’t have too many native Hebrew speakers.
Would I have to buy the next plane ticket to Israel? I figured there had to be an easier way and started looking online for tutors.
During my tutor search, I stumbled across something I had never heard of: language exchange apps.
These cell phone apps match together users who want to learn each other’s languages so that they can take turns helping each other. You can text or voice chat, and the apps have interfaces that allow you to correct the spelling and grammar of your language partners.
I was skeptical about how much I could really learn through the apps. I also assumed there wouldn’t be many Hebrew users since the language doesn’t have many speakers in general.
Despite my reservations, I decided there was nothing to lose from giving the apps a try. To boost my chances of finding someone, I decided to download all three of the most popular language exchange apps: Tandem, Speaky, and HelloTalk.
Trying the Apps
The first thing I noticed was that all three of the apps were nearly identical. I won’t be doing any kind of side-by-side comparison, because there are barely any differences between them.
Even the user bases overlapped — I regularly saw identical profiles on multiple apps. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with the bright idea to download all three.
Since the apps don’t take up much space on your phone, it can’t hurt to download all three and set up a profile on each. If you don’t feel like going to the trouble though, just pick one at random — they really are all very similar.
Each of the apps allows you to set up a profile with the language(s) you currently speak and the language(s) you’re interested in learning. From there, you can match with users who mirror your preferences and start chatting.
To my surprise, there were plenty of Hebrew speakers interested in learning English. The demographic seemed to be mostly college kids in Israel who were hoping to work abroad after graduation.
I looked at a few other languages just out of curiosity, and it seemed like there were speakers for almost everything. Chinese was by far the most popular.
Matching up with users was fairly straightforward as well, but then came the actual conversations, which did not always go as smoothly.
The Frustrations of Language Exchange Apps
I hit a lot of stumbling blocks as I tried to practice my Hebrew on the apps.
Language exchange apps allow you to speak to your partners through text messaging or voice chat, but I noticed right away that almost nobody is actually interested in voice chat. This means that for the most part, language exchange apps are going to be helping you with writing and reading more than actually speaking and listening.
Even the text messaging had problems. For one, the time zone difference meant that I’d rarely be online at the same time as the Hebrew speakers. Instead of being able to have a fluid conversation, we’d typically only send each other a message or two a day, which is a very slow way to practice a language.
Another issue was that the “exchange” aspect of the apps was often awkward. There didn’t seem to be a standard way to determine when we’d practice my Hebrew versus their English, so I tried to follow the lead of my language partners. With some, we would trade back and forth with nearly every sentence, and with others, we’d mostly stick to one language at a time.
The biggest problem of all though was that the user base had an incredibly high turnover rate. I’d often only get the chance to talk to someone for a day or two, and then see their profile go completely inactive.
I was able to get a lot of practice introducing myself, but the conversations rarely lasted long enough to get into more complex topics. (To be fair though, I’ll admit that I flaked on a couple conversations as well.)
Despite my frustrations with the apps, I did discover two great benefits.
The first was that the apps really helped me with my Hebrew typing ability. Even though the apps used my cell phone’s virtual keyboard instead of a physical keyboard, they still helped me to learn where all the letters were. (The Hebrew keyboard layout doesn’t match the phonetics of the QWERTY keyboard, so it’s practically like learning to type from scratch.)
I noticed that my typing ability even translated fairly well to the physical keyboard on my laptop. I can now touch type in Hebrew with relatively few mistakes.
The other thing that the apps helped with was my understanding of Hebrew slang and casual speech. Text books and online lessons typically focus on the most formal version of a language, which doesn’t always match the way that people actually speak.
When I talked to Israelis on the language exchange apps, I got a better feel for the way Hebrew is actually spoken, especially among people around my age. I also picked up on some of the Israeli internet slang.
The chance to learn some less formal Hebrew was by far the biggest benefit of the apps.
I ended up only using the language apps for about two months before moving on. I can see why the apps have high turnover — they certainly don’t replace finding a tutor or in-person language partner.
Even so, I’m glad that I downloaded them. The two months I spent using them did help my Hebrew, especially by allowing me to practice more casual conversation than I could get from a textbook.
Overall, if you’re learning a language, I recommend trying the language exchange apps, but make sure to go into them with modest expectations.