Language Swap

8 August 2016


It was towards the end of the summer holidays when I  started to get restless. After three months of not being distracted by uni, my mind was beginning to wiggle in the bony seat of my skull. Faced with the monotony of nothing but a casual job, I was thirsting for a new occupation. After staying up till 2am watching Korean singers from my favourite band, BTS, my sleepy mind latched onto an idea. I should learn Korean.

I didn’t have any pressing reasons for it. I wasn’t going there for a holiday anytime soon, nor did I see myself living in South Korea in the immediate future. Nonetheless, it was an idea I liked.  Besides, after studying French for six years in high school, Korean seemed like the polar opposite to me. It was new. It was refreshing.

3am. I fell down a Google rabbit hole from which there was no escape, migrating from exchange programs to language schools. All of which cost money that I didn’t feel committed enough to pay. Until – aha –  I noticed an interesting little thing in the search results called a ‘language swap’. I clicked the link and found an abundance of personal ads from people in Melbourne.




As I filtered the search to give me only Korean results, I wanted to leap out of bed and dance for joy. Free tutoring in another language and the only payment I had to make was with my English? It sounded too good to be true. I read through ad after ad, trying to gauge whether the person was suitable for me from their short little bios.   

Eventually, I chose Thomas. He appeared nice enough and there didn’t seem to be much pressure about English lessons: “If anything, we can just be friends :)”.

As it turns out, a desire for friendship in an unfamiliar place is a key factor for those looking to share their language. Take Hyun-Soo for instance, a twenty-three-year-old traveller here in Melbourne for a working holiday. I also found him online after he posted an ad. He wrote that he had terrible luck with previous partners but he wanted to give language swap one last shot. He liked having people to talk to. “I was mostly lonely,” he tells me. When he first arrived in Melbourne, he was busy working two jobs. “It was difficult meeting new people or even just making friends with my co-workers.”

But arranging to meet people comes with its own challenges. “I’ve texted with maybe twenty people,” Hyun-Soo says, “but I’ve only met one in real life. I remember this one girl and she used me like an answering machine. Like she would ask a question and as soon as she got an answer, she would say, ‘Oh, okay’ and then leave. She told me we should meet but then, suddenly she said she wasn’t available until July because of uni stuff. I also spoke to this other guy and he only wanted to meet at his house or my house. He kept talking about sexual stuff and he didn’t ever want to meet in a public place.”

The idea of stranger danger was on the forefront of my mind as I began making arrangements with Thomas. We agreed to meet at Melbourne Central – a public, neutral place – for a quick getting-to-know-you session. On the train to the city, I began having flashbacks of all the high school seminars about cyber safety. I sent my friend a blurry picture of the boy in case he kidnapped me and the police needed to identify the suspect.

Turns out, that blurry image wasn’t very useful. I ended up squinting suspiciously at every Asian boy that walked past me, mentally comparing their faces to the low-quality image on my phone.  Finally, I saw a tall boy standing underneath a clock. He looked like he was waiting for someone.

“Excuse me, are you Thomas?”

He shook his head and pulled out his phone. Whoops. I backed away and turned to see an older boy approach a girl with dark hair.

“Are you Nicole?” I heard him say.


I lunged forward. “Thomas?”

He looked up, saw me and smiled awkwardly. “Nicole?”


“Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

We both looked at our feet. He had nice shoes.

“You…ah…your hair was like hers.”

“Well,” I said, jerking my head towards the boy under the clock, “I thought that guy was you, so…”


More silence.

“Do… you like cupcakes?” I asked.

He seemed to chew the word around in his mouth. “Cup…cake,” he said, savouring the sounds. The p’s and k’s made delicious popping noises, almost becoming an extra syllable. “Yes, I like them.”

We moved away to a nearby café. As we ate cupcakes, we cautiously sized each other up. I wanted to trust him and I believed that he wanted to see if I was really keen about this whole language thing. He won me over the moment he started gushing about his dog and the more he spoke, the more comfortable I became. He had a habit of looking away when he smiled. It was a shy, fleeting smile with white bunny-like teeth.


Why did she bring up the idea of romance? It reminded me of all those teen movies, where the girl pretends that she needs tutoring in order to spend time with the older, attractive boy. Soon enough, whenever I met Thomas, I began to wonder in a detached sort of way what it would be like to date him. After my friend planted that seed of romance in my head, meeting up began to feel like casual dates and little actions that Thomas made became reinterpreted in my head as something more.

Cultural differences changed the way we interpreted each other’s actions. Whenever we went out to get food, Thomas, despite my protests, would always pay for me.

“Back home,” he told me, “the older person always takes care of the younger person. I would feel uncomfortable if you paid for my food.” But whenever he paid for my lunch, I could see the person behind the register assessing the two of us and smiling at me knowingly.

We would sit together and he would painstakingly show me the letters of the Korean alphabet, Hangul, one by one. “This symbol

(ㅠ) is yu,” he would say. “Repeat it for me?”


“Yes, ah, exactly, good.”

And then I would draw it, over and over, bringing me back to the days in kindergarten when I first learned the alphabet.


“Yes, that’s it. Now example. In a word.” I watched his mouth as he pronounced, “Ooh-yu. 우유. It means milk.”

Thomas made it quite clear during our lessons that he was only interested in immersing himself in the Western experience. He even moved out of his first rented apartment, which he had shared with other Koreans, to live with two British travellers. “I want to speak as much English as possible,” he told me.

I spoke with Hyun-Soo about this a few months later and he told me that English was an important skill for the workplace, with English proficiency tests like TEPS (Test of English Proficiency) or TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) being used to help determine who gets accepted into university. “I’ve been learning English since primary school and I went to Canada recently to study it and be immersed.”

After a pause, Hyun-Soo gushed, “I hope to visit every English-speaking country. After my time in Australia, I’m hoping to travel to England.”

“So, let’s say I go to Korea for uni or a working holiday,” I began.

Hyun-Soo’s eyebrows shot upwards. “Are you?”

“Hypothetically speaking.”


“Let’s pretend I go there and decide to put an ad out for a language exchange. My English for their Korean. Would I be popular?”

His head bobbed emphatically. “You would be – there’d be no problems finding a partner over there. You’d never be lonely,” he added with a laugh.

My stomach plummeted like I’d taken a drop on a roller coaster ride. Lonely. Why did he have to say that?

Remembering that this was supposed to be a language swap, not personal tutoring, at the time I sometimes doubted whether I was doing enough to help Thomas with his English. He was pretty damn good at it and in the rare moments when he asked me a question about his grammar or about Australian culture, I would oversupply him with information.

A magpie once hopped past us, close and unafraid.

“What type of bird is that?” he asked me.

The magpie paused, sharply turned its neck to look at him, did a twitchy-shuddery sort of movement with its feathers and abruptly took off to a nearby tree.

“That’s a magpie.”

“Mag… pie.”

“Yes.” Sensing an opportunity to teach him something, I hastily added, “They’re fine now but you need to be careful if you’re here in the springtime.”


“That’s when they get very protective of their eggs. If they see anyone near their nests in the spring, they’ll swoop down and peck at you until you leave.”

“Oh, is it?”

“Mm-hmm, I got swooped once.” His eyes followed my fingers as I pointed to the side of my head. “I was walking through the park and I suddenly heard the rustle of feathers and felt a sharp pain. I didn’t even see it coming.”

He pondered that for a moment, then said, “Not so bad, in Korea, the magpie. They represent good luck. We call the Korean magpie kkachi.” On our worksheet, he drew out the symbols for me.


Thomas was a good teacher and I liked to make him happy. My stomach would do happy backflips whenever I pronounced something correctly and his lips would part to reveal those shiny, bunny teeth. He’d exclaim, “Ah, you’re a genius, really!” However, if I forgot something or I didn’t practice, he would cry out in exasperation and teach me the concept again until I got it. So I practised when I could. I downloaded an app that outlined the different Hangul for me, I read through the worksheets Thomas gave me whenever I was on the train and I tried to recognise different vowels and consonants in the lyrics of my favourite K-pop songs.

A few weeks after Semester One started, I messaged Thomas for our usual meeting. We were finally done with the alphabet and he said that we could move on to sentences, maybe watch a movie together – with the subtitles on of course. I wondered briefly about the logistics of it – would he bring his laptop outside so we could watch something in a public place or would he finally take me to his apartment?


It occurred to me, as I took the train to the city, that we’d never mentioned a meeting place. But I brushed that thought aside. Apart from one time, when he met me after class, we’d always met in the same place, in front of the big clock at Melbourne Central. The shigae. 시계. He liked it when I used that word.

I sat down on a chair under the 시계 at around 2:50pm. I pulled out my phone. I waited.


I doodled about on Facebook for a bit. At about quarter past, I felt concerned. Thomas was never late. The one time he showed up late – by about five minutes – was because of tram issues. Did he oversleep? He did work the night shift at a restaurant. It was one of the reasons why we always met in the late afternoon. Poor thing. He must have slept in.


Unable to sit there any longer, I decided to wander around the shops. If he was drastically late, at least I would be in the vicinity. Besides, I thought as my annoyance mounted, that would show him that I had other things to do besides wait for him all day. I wandered further and further away. I went into shop after shop. I was in denial for a very long time. But I had to accept it. He wasn’t coming.

Did something happen to him? I imagined him leaving work, in the dead of night and being attacked by a pair of drunkards. But a few days later, I saw the little green light appear next to his name on Facebook, so surely he must have been okay.

Did I offend him somehow? Cross some cultural boundary that I didn’t know about? I waited a few weeks to give him some space then sent a quick message.


No response. There is nothing as frustrating as an unanswerable question. I’d never been stood up before and that irked me more than I expected. I was also baffled. In the few months that we’d known each other, we not only shared our languages but new experiences too. We tried out new cafes together. I was with him the day he had his first macaroon and the day he tried lemon, lime and bitters for the first time. I didn’t know any of his friends and he didn’t know any of mine. In our world, there was only him and me. And now he was gone.

I suppose the benefit of language swap programs, that it was free, was also one of its greatest flaws. In being free, there was no obligation to meet an attendance rate, no hurdle requirements. It’s up to the participants to make the call and when someone doesn’t want to do something anymore, they can drop off the face of the Earth without any consequences. I considered other options for language learning but came to the same conclusion that I had months ago. I didn’t have the money for professional tuition and, having only learnt the alphabet, I wasn’t ready for the language conversation meet-ups that happen occasionally around Melbourne.

Besides, I had lost Thomas but had gained so much more. He gave me the building blocks of a language. I could now read out the syllables of instructions on my hair spray bottle. Sure, without any understanding of what those syllables meant, but at least I could pronounce them. When I look over the symbols, I hear his voice in my head and see the shape of his mouth move over the sounds.

우유. 까치. 시계.

All I need is someone to take me to the next step.


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