What is a language exchange?
At its most basic level, a language exchange is just two people who agree to get together to practice each other’s languages. You find someone who speaks the language that you’re learning, and who’s learning the language that you speak – and then you talk to each other!
Pretty simple, right?
There’s really only one way to become comfortable with speaking a language: speak it.
Have you ever “studied” a language, only to find that you can’t actually talk to anyone? Language exchanges can help you overcome this barrier by practicing with living, breathing human beings. If you’re serious about learning a language, I firmly believe that the best way to progress quickly is to combine lots of comprehensible input (video, audio, music, texts) with lots of conversation practice.
What’s more, it’s fun! Talking to people is motivating, since you’re actually using the language that you’ve been working so hard to learn.
How can I find a language exchange partner?
If you live in a city, or if you live somewhere where your target language is spoken, then it should be pretty easy to find someone to meet with face-to-face. Take a look at free sites like Craigslist (in the US) or Kijiji (in Canada) to see if anyone’s posted an ad looking for a language exchange partner. You might also inquire at libraries or universities to see if they help with setting up language exchanges.
For the rest of us, there’s Skype.
Even if you live in a tiny village in the middle of a seemingly endless expanse of farmland (ahem – me), there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t practice a language with a living, breathing human being – even if that living, breathing human is across the world instead of across the table.
There are plenty of free sites out there that can help you connect with native speakers. I’ve had the most luck finding partners on italki and Conversation Exchange. My specific search criteria (Spanish-speaking females learning French or English) brought up a lot of potential language partners. If your first language is Swedish and you’re learning Swahili, then it will probably be a bit harder to connect with a native speaker – but the world is a big place, so don’t give up!
8 tips for a successful language exchange
OK, so you’ve connected with a potential language exchange partner. What now?
1) Be upfront about your wants and needs right from the start.
Before I even exchange Skype info with a potential partner, I want to know when she’s available. While this might seem a bit straightforward, it saves us both time and trouble in the long run. I want regular weekly exchanges, and I have a very narrow window of time each day during which I’m willing to commit to being available. If our schedules don’t match, then I’m wasting her time.
Your wants and needs might be different from mine. You might be looking for a more casual exchange – in which case you need partners who want the same. If your partner wants to meet every Wednesday at 6:00, and you want to connect if you both happen to be on Skype at the same time, then you probably won’t be compatible as partners.
2) Split the time equally between both languages.
What happens during your first session will set the stage for every session that follows. If your partner speaks well in English, and you keep lapsing into English throughout the whole session, then you might find yourself spending less and less time practicing your language – and more and more time helping your partner with his or hers. While this might still be fun if you and your partner get along well, it won’t help you meet your language goals.
I recommend committing fully to a 50/50 split, and communicating this clearly with your partner from day one. I prefer to split the time right down the middle and switch exactly at the halfway point – even if it means switching languages halfway through a sentence. If you need to, use a timer. While it might seem a bit stiff and formal to suggest doing this, it comes back to point number one: being upfront about what you want and need.
While some people do a language exchange where each person speaks in their target language (for example, you speak in French and your partner answers in English), I don’t recommend doing this. Learning to understand a language is often even more difficult than learning to speak it, and it’s important to practice listening.
3) Remember that your conversation partner isn’t your teacher.
A language exchange provides you with the opportunity to have informal conversations. While your language partner can certainly help you with pronunciation and vocabulary, don’t expect him or her to teach you the finer points of grammar. Many native speakers can’t even verbalize grammar rules, although they can tell you if something sounds “wrong” – which can be even more valuable in the long run.
If I asked you to explain to me the difference between present progressive and present perfect in English, there’s a good chance that all I’d get in response is a blank stare. So don’t expect your language partner to be able to answer questions like that in his or her language. If you want a qualified and experienced teacher – then hire one.
But if you want good conversation, lots of laughs and genuine practice, then a language partner might be exactly what you need!
4) Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
It’s absolutely impossible to learn a language without making mistakes! Your goal is to communicate, not to construct a perfect sentence. The more you speak – and, especially, the more you hear your target language spoken in context – the more structures you’ll internalize. So for now, your goal isn’t perfection. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – your goal in a language exchange should be to engage in the messy, creative work that is communication.
Let your language partner know what you want in terms of corrections. Having every mistake pointed out can be extremely demoralizing for some people, so you might ask your partner to just point out the mistakes that lead to a breakdown in communication.
5) Be a proactive learner.
The more you put into a language exchange, the more you’ll get out of it. Take notes and jot down vocabulary while you’re meeting. Build time into your schedule to review those words afterwards – and try to use them again next time you talk to your partner. I enter my Skype vocabulary into one of my existing anki decks, so that I can continually review those words. I figure that if they’re words that I wanted to use in informal conversation, then they’re exactly the words that I need to know to get along in the world!
If you notice that certain mistakes and frustrations keep coming up, then you can use those to guide your language self-study. For instance, I was beyond frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t verbalize anything that had happened in the past. What better motivation for learning past tense verbs? Everyone’s different, but it’s definitely more useful for me to learn grammar in context, rather than simply working my way step by step through a grammar book.
6) If you have time in your schedule, consider getting more than one partner.
I like talking to people from different backgrounds and with different accents, so that I can train my ear to understand a wide variety of people. If you talk exclusively with one person, you might find yourself becoming overly accustomed to his or her speech patterns. While this is great and will help you improve, you might want to widen your influences at some point.
Language exchanges also fizzle out sometimes. No big deal – life happens, people get busy, sometimes people just don’t click. But if I only have one language partner and our partnership breaks down, then I’m back at zero.
I also like knowing that if a session gets cancelled one week, I’ll still have the opportunity to speak to someone else in Spanish. I currently have four language partners that I communicate with regularly over Skype – either weekly or twice a month.
7) Keep a list of conversation starters handy.
Once you’ve clicked with a partner and had a few exchanges, you’ll probably find that the conversation flows naturally. But just in case, it’s always a good idea to be prepared with a few conversation starters! Topics like music, languages, hobbies, likes, dislikes, family, pets, jobs, weather, travel, pet peeves, social media, books and movies are great for all levels.
Questions are also great for keeping the conversation flowing, while helping you get to know each other better. One of my conversation partners prepared a list of questions (“Do you prefer the city or the country?” “Where would you like to travel?” “What job would you like to have?”) and we answer a few questions in either language whenever there’s a natural break in the conversation.
8) Be a good partner.
And here’s where we talk about general manners. Be punctual. Don’t overcommit to the point that you can’t keep up your end of the bargain. Ask questions. Be encouraging. Listen at least as much as you talk. Smile. And if something’s not working, be both honest and kind about it.
But I’m too shy to do a language exchange.
You can do it.
I’m not discounting that there are people out there who struggle with near-crippling shyness. But the average shy person can absolutely participate in a language exchange.
Remember: this isn’t a date. It isn’t a “friend interview”. It’s just two people helping each other learn – kind of like mutual tutoring. While you might end up becoming great friends over time, the first few sessions are just about common language goals.
The best thing that you can do if you’re shy is to go into your first few sessions with a plan in mind. While you might not know it if you met me, I’m actually very shy when talking to someone one-on-one for the first time. It takes me a while to warm up and feel comfortable around people. So for the first few sessions, I pretty much know exactly what I’m going to talk about:
- Session one: introduce myself, talk about why I want to learn Spanish and how I’m doing it. Ask my language partner why she’s learning English/French and how she’s doing it.
- Session two: talk about where I live, what I like about it and what I don’t like about it. Ask my language partner about where she lives. There’s usually lots of talk about the weather during session two.
- Session three: talk about my job, what I like about it and what I don’t like about it. Ask my language partner about her job.
But I have all of my vocabulary ready, I’m prepared with “safe” topics of conversation, and I don’t spend the whole session scared that we’ll lapse into awful awkward silences.
By session four, I’m either comfortable enough with the person to talk more naturally – or we realize that we’re not compatible and the language exchange fizzles out.
Language is about communication.
Language is about communication – and communication is about people. Talking to native speakers in a language exchange will help you practice a language, learn about a culture, and maybe even make some new friends!