A Young Person’s Guide to Moscow Language Exchange Meetings

Let’s say that you’re a young person who has just moved to Moscow with an imperfect grasp of the language. You have come with no connections, and need to build a social circle from scratch. Apart from the universal standards of networks of coworkers or the strangers in the bar scene, where – and how – are you supposed to meet new people? Maybe these just aren’t working for you. Or, even if you’ve found success with the usual methods, perhaps you just want to broaden your social horizons.

A year ago, this was my dilemma. I work for a small company and hence had a small pool of potential companions, and although I enjoy drinking I’m put off by the meet market energy of conventional bars and clubs. I tend to gravitate to places full of night owls, creatives, and eccentrics who have enough of a refined taste in alternative culture for me to trust that they’ll get where I’m coming from. I like to believe that there’s a stronger probability of sharing common interests and sensibilities and perspectives on life with whomever I meet. It’s a comforting thought.

However, the venues through which I had found myself making friends everywhere else in the world didn’t seem to be working. Obviously, the language barrier was the central issue, but there were also other variables that I struggled to isolate; Moscow is a big city – if, as a local, you meet a new person, you’ve probably met ten other new people that same night and won’t realistically keep in touch with them all. Plus, I can be kind of shy without a personal introduction. I was finding it difficult to start conversations at the type of nightclubs I was attracted to – smaller, underground venues where people come to experience the ambiance with friends, not focus their energy on making new ones. After about five months of isolation, I was desperate for human connection, so I put aside my elitist reservations and tapped into resources that I had long known was there but had never seriously explored; enter the ‘language exchange meeting.’

Moscow is the home to at least half a dozen regular, well-attended language exchange meetings held at anti-cafés, cafés, bars, and public parks; as advertised over Couchsurfing, Facebook, or simply through word-of-mouth. Essentially, people just show up and talk, with little to no formal structure beyond that. For non-native speakers, the primary appeal is conversational practice in a foreign language but these are decidedly social communities, not study groups. The largest of these groups attracts about fifty regular attendees with about twice as many visitors, but the demographics are similar across the board.

The crowd is mostly young people – university students and people in the beginning of their careers, living on a budget yet well-educated and well-traveled, unmarried, and of a fairly equal gender ratio. The ceiling of social comfort would probably start grazing hairs by the time you’re in your mid-thirties.

Although nominally language ‘exchange’ meetings, the vast majority of attendees are Russians who come to practice their English with each other or with the handful of foreigners present. Many of the foreigners have (like myself) come to Moscow to work as teachers, but in the summer months an influx of travelers makes the crowd more broadly international. These are communities to come back to again and again, both as a way of meeting new people and as something that you know will consistently be there if you feel like going out. There’s some overlap in attendance at these language exchange meetings so if you show up at more than one, you are usually guaranteed a familiar face in addition to a familiar language.

At larger meetings, there are pockets of people – both native speakers and otherwise – conversing in popular romance languages such as French, Spanish, or Italian, although as in the world at large, English is the default lingua franca. Moreover, the attendees are usually at a level where they can comfortably maintain conversation in English without defaulting back to Russian whenever they’re not speaking directly to a foreigner. Although I would never be so anglocentric as to expect this as a matter of courtesy, as a native speaker, it feels like an incredible release to be in an environment where I do not have to strain to communicate; where I can express my thoughts without the cognitive strain of having to greatly simplify my language and know that I will be understood. And that is comforting to know.
Some of the language exchanges:
Moscow Language Exchange (sometimes referred to as ‘LEM’): Sundays from 18:00-23:30, although most of the action has died down by 20:00. During the summer, meets in Gorky Park on sunny days; Papa’s Zoo if there’s rain. During fall-spring, meets on the 2nd floor of the Hard Rock Café on Ll. Arbat. One of the largest of such groups in Moscow; up to 300 attendees per night.

Moscow Free Languages Club: Saturdays 15:00-23:00. During the summer, meets in Gorky Park. During fall-spring, meets at a hard-to-find anti-café at Красносельский тупик д.5. Anti-café charges a flat 300 roubles entrance for the night, and serves coffee, tea, and wine. Also offers games and, on occasion, more structured lessons or conversations around a certain topic.

Weekly Meeting, organized by Moscow CouchSurfing: Tuesdays 19:00-23:00. Meets at Gogol Café, Столешников пер, 11 Usually a smaller crowd than weekend events. 10% discount for drinks if you are with the CouchSurfing group.

English House: Monday, Wednesdays and Friday evenings 8:00-10:30 Meets at Starbucks, 1-я Тверская-Ямская ул., 21 A more structured conversation club, with games and activities. Free for native English speakers; 300 roubles for others.