Until quite recently, most of my language learning revolved around the use of various text resources. I definitely fell into the category of learners that hoped to put off speaking until I knew the language to perfection.
The conclusion I came to, however, was that I would never speak my target language perfectly (I mean, I don’t even speak my native language perfectly). And I definitely wouldn’t ever learn to speak well if I didn’t practice speaking.
This past year, I finally tossed in the ring and invested in private lessons through iTalki. When I realized just how beneficial using the languages I was learning with another human being could be, I decided to take it to the next level and try out my first language exchange.
If I’m completely honest with you, I still don’t connect with language exchange partners as often as I’d like (I think I know what needs to go on my next #clearthelist post). But things are certainly made easier with apps like Tandem.
What are Language Exchanges?
Many of you may already know what a language exchange is, but for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, I’d like to offer a quick summary.
Language exchanges are where you help someone learn your native language in exchange for them helping you learn their native language. It’s a win-win.
So, let’s say, for example, you’re learning Dutch and you speak English fluently. As part of a language exchange, you would connect with someone who speaks Dutch and is learning English.
You basically spend an equal amount of time helping someone practice their target language in exchange for their providing you with the opportunity to practice yours as well. You’re working in “tandem” to each practice your target languages.
Language Learning Tools are Only Helpful if You’re Using Them the Right Way
When we spoke to Josh Jeffries of Tandem, his thoughts on what language learners’ biggest struggle is were: “Not being able to practice speaking the language they’re learning, whenever and wherever they want. It’s [often] hard for learners to find suitable people to practice with especially when they’re living in places where not many fluent speakers in the language they’re learning. To [further] this, once they find someone there’s no guarantee they’ll click. A way around this is to use a mobile app like Tandem where members will be able to join a community of learners, and speak and interact with native speakers based on their interests.”
Language exchanges, like any other language learning tool or resource, are only as effective as you make them.
They aren’t an easy solution to learning a language fast.
But they can be an extremely effective way for you to improve. If you’re putting in the work. And part of this work, is not only making sure that you have the right partner (and that the right connection exists so that you both benefit), it’s also making certain that you’re doing your homework outside of your exchanges to make sure that they keep getting better.
Even if you’re doing language exchanges on a regular basis, you’re not getting as much out of them as you should if you aren’t preparing for them and following up on the topics that you went over afterwards.
I’d like to think that after having going through the process a few times, that I’ve learnt how to look for the right partners and how to maximize the time I spend doing language exchanges (when I do them). So today, I’d like to share them with you!
How to Get the Most Out of Your Language Exchanges
Find the right partner. // First and foremost, finding the right language exchange partner is absolutely crucial to the success of your language exchanges. Both you and your partner need to connect in a number of ways – shared languages, shared interests, and shared methods. If you spend the time necessary to find a good exchange partner at the beginning, you’ll save yourself a lot of time later, so it’s definitely worth the time and effort.
Don’t beat around the bush. // Tell your partner exactly what you’re looking for as part of your exchange. Don’t expect them to guess that you want your grammar or pronunciation corrected (or not corrected). If you don’t know what you’re looking for in a language exchange, spend a little bit of time thinking about this in advance. You may not actually decide what it is you’re hoping to get out of a language exchange until you’ve done a few of them (and even then, it might change) but it is something you need to think about and eventually decide on. Finding someone who is willing to meet your expectations also increases the odds that they’re a good match for you.
Prepare for each and every exchange. // Even though the conversation may take a different direction than the one you might map out, prepare a few talking points for each session. It not only ensures that the conversation will keep moving, but it gives you the chance to work on the things you want to say prior to your exchange. You’ll find that the time you spend doing exchanges is far more valuable when you do your homework behind the scenes between each session.
Take notes. // There’s nothing more annoying for an exchange partner than to have to constantly correct the same mistake over and over. Be a responsible learner and take notes during your chats (they can be shorthand notes that you build out after the session so as not to disrupt the flow), or you can record the session and makes notes afterwards on things you’d like to work on.
Watch the clock. // Try to be fair with your language partner by making sure they get the same amount of practice in each session as you do (or vice versa). You also need to make sure that you pair up with someone who is willing to do a fair exchange (some people are better at splitting the exchange time 50/50 than others). Language exchanges can often be like a tug-of-war, especially when one person is much stronger in both languages than the other. They usually end up winning out and the majority of the conversation ends up being in that person’s target language (even if they’re not trying to take over). Try to pair up with someone who will be fair with your language exchange time.
Schedule your next chat before you part ways. // Don’t save this for later or you might not ever get around to it. It’s always a good idea to schedule your next meeting before you part ways – it ensures that something gets setup, even if the date or time change later on down the road. Trying to connect and schedule another chat later on can sometimes prove more difficult than you might think.
Talk to multiple people. // This not only gives you the opportunity to practice the same conversations multiple times, but it also provides you with the chance to get used to hearing different voices and accents in your target language. Talking to several different conversation partners also provides you with more practice time. It also guarantees that you’ll always have someone to talk to just in case one of your partner suddenly disappears. It keeps you from scrambling to find someone new to connect with.
Don’t take your language partner’s sudden disappearance personally. // We’re all human and some people get busy or lose interest in language learning. And sometimes these things are sudden, so they forget (or don’t have the chance to tell you). Don’t take it personally! There are plenty of kindred language learning spirits out there for you to meet.
Be encouraging. // Language learning is hard and not a lot of people understand why we do it, so lots of people don’t get enough encouragement. Learning a language is something we can do to expand our horizons and improve ourselves, so it’s definitely worth the encouragement. Don’t ever make one of your language partners feel stupid for making a mistake (they’re embarrassing enough as it is). Instead, celebrate their successes with them and encourage them to continue moving forward. And try not to focus too much on the things that they’re doing wrong!
Ask for links. // Native speakers are a fantastic resource when you’re looking for links to television shows, movies, music, books, and more in your target language. Ask them for recommendations – especially if you have a lot of shared interests! You never know, you may find a reason to fall in love with the language and culture all over again.
Don’t compare yourself to other learners. // If you notice that your language exchange partner’s ability in your language suddenly takes off while yours continues to creep along, don’t get jealous. You don’t know how much work they’re putting in outside of your language exchanges. Take the experience as an inspiration to continue to push forward in your own studies! You are your own person and you’ll learn in your own unique way at your own pace. Language learning isn’t a race, so just do what you do. As long as you’re trying, you’re winning, no matter how many mistakes you make.
Don’t treat language exchanges as though they are a complete learning solution. // Like any other resource, they’re a complement to the other things that you’re doing (watching videos, working with a textbook, reading books in your target language, and so on).
A Few Questions to Think About on Your Own Before Delving into Language Exchanges
- Where are you comfortable meeting? In person or online? Will you use video if you chat online (facial expressions can help with comprehension)?
- Do you want to have chat/text language exchanges or spoken language exchanges?
- How long are you comfortable chatting? How will you split up the time? Fifteen minutes of each language or six 5-minute intervals where you continually alternate languages?
- Do you want to be corrected as you make mistakes, or do you want your partner to make notes and give you the corrections during the last five minutes of your share of the time? Do you want feedback on every mistake or just the really big ones?
- Are you worried about specific grammar rules? If this is the case, a teacher may be a better option as the average speaker may have a hard time explaining them to you.
- Do you know enough vocabulary to have a five minute conversation? If you don’t, it may be better to hold off on a language exchange. If you start out without enough vocabulary to hold up your end, you may give your exchange partner an advantage (and thus, their target language becomes the dominate language). This can be really hard to change later down the line if you continue doing exchanges with them.
Language exchanges can be an incredible language learning asset, so if you aren’t doing them already, I would highly encourage you to do so.
If you aren’t comfortable talking on Skype or in-person, you can always check out a text-based exchange app. Both text and audio language exchanges have done wonders for my speaking and comprehension. They’ve taken me far beyond what a book or podcast could teach me.
Plus a Bonus Worksheet!
As a thanks for reading this post, I’d like to share a worksheet that I’ve created to help with planning language exchanges.
16 Oct 2017 - Language Resources