Our History: Intercambio — bridging language, culture gaps | PostIndependent.com

Our History: Intercambio — bridging language, culture gaps

Mayra Munoz (far left) took Colorado Mountain College’s Intercambio class twice. “Intercambio is a key that opened a lot of wonderful doors in my life and in my family’s life,” she said.
Ed Kosmicki/CMC archives |


The Post Independent this year is celebrating local institutions’ anniversaries — including our own — with a special feature many Sundays through the year. The PI traces its roots back 127 years, but our volume number is 125, while the White River National Forest looks back on 125 years and Colorado Mountain College marks 50 years. Today we offer the ninth installment of CMC history.

In the mid-1990s, a new class, Intercambio, was launched at Colorado Mountain College. It has since become one of the college’s signature programs in Glenwood Springs. Its literal meaning is “exchange,” with the main idea to facilitate language learning between native Spanish speakers and native English speakers.

The impetus for CMC’s two-credit Intercambio class came from one of its instructors, Jonathan Satz. It was his personal experience of taking Spanish as a student that propelled him into finding a different way of facilitating language learning.

“I did really well in class. I got A’s on all of my tests, and I memorized all the vocabulary,” Satz said. “But I was frozen when I tried to use it.”

On a sabbatical to Costa Rica, he taught English classes to advanced second-language English learners. A student approached him and asked if he’d be willing to meet outside of class to practice speaking English. Realizing this could be mutually beneficial, Satz proposed, “If you help me with my Spanish, I’ll help you with your English.”

The two of them met outside of class three times a week at a local café. “I recognized that it was easier for me to speak in that situation,” he said.

This sharing of one another’s languages – and cultures – became the basis for the Intercambio class. Satz is quick to note that the concept was not a new idea.

“Lots of places do this,” he said. “But there’s nobody guiding it. When you have people of all different levels, it can be as frustrating as anything else.”

While pursing his master’s degree, Satz built a framework for a guided language exchange class. His mentor, Laura Marasco – a professor of Spanish at CMC – asked, “Why don’t we do this here?”

CMC was the first college in the country to offer a formal class based upon the language exchange concept. Others would follow suit and use CMC’s class as their model.

Contextual, peer-to-peer learning

Satz, who retired from the college as an administrator in 2013, prefers to think of himself as a facilitator, rather than a teacher. It’s an important attribute, he said, because students are typically more comfortable and relaxed learning from their peers.

“As facilitators, we provide the vocabulary related to an exercise and how to ask questions of one another,” said Satz. On any given week, a theme – such as food, travel or holidays – would structure the participants’ interaction with each other.

Mayra Munoz took CMC’s Intercambio class twice.

“Intercambio is a key that opened a lot of wonderful doors in my life and in my family’s life,” she said. “What a great class where you can learn a new language and at the same time make new friends from all parts of the world. In Intercambio, I shared my hobbies, and talked to people more like friends. They knew my story, and I knew their stories. We were like a family at the end of class, and I still have a lot of good friends from the class.”

Marjorie Ellis, who also took the class twice alongside her husband, Jim, described one of her favorite activities: the simulation of an airline flight. Some students were passengers, others were flight attendants. In both Spanish and English, students had to communicate flight instructions, ask where their seat was, order a drink and so on.

“It was fun,” she said, “and you also knew that the native Spanish speakers were just as worried about speaking English as we were about speaking Spanish. You felt freer to try.”

Building community

Many students have chosen to continue their language practice outside class. Four years after taking their first class, Ellis and her husband still regularly meet with former classmates.

Hunter Causey, a recent Intercambio participant, also continues to engage with his classmates, inviting people to his home.

“I’ve lived overseas and I’ve always enjoyed having intercultural experiences,” he said. “This seemed like a good way to have that exchange in my own home. I was interested in meeting more of my neighbors. Improving my Spanish was just the icing on the cake.”

Said Satz, “We have two cultures living side-by-side in our valley. For the most part, those two cultures are living separately, passing each other in the supermarket without saying anything. We’re taking strangers and sending them out as friends. We’re not living side-by-side ignoring each other anymore.”

Ted Kauffman, who has co-facilitated Intercambio for 15 years, said, “Intercambio is about building bridges. It’s about making friendships that wouldn’t happen otherwise. It’s just harder to form friendships when you’re going outside language and outside culture. This class has helped people form community.”

The next 12-week class of Intercambio starts Sept. 12 at CMC in Glenwood Springs. For more information, please call 970-945-7486.

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