3 Steps to a successful language exchange
Published on June 4, 2015 / Updated on June 7, 2023
What is the meaning of language exchange and why you should consider it? According to Wikipedia, “Language exchange is a method of language learning based on mutual language practicing by learning partners who are speakers of different languages. Language exchange is sometimes called Tandem language learning. In modern contexts, “language exchange” most often refers to the mutual teaching of partners’ first languages. Language exchanges are generally considered helpful for developing language proficiency, especially in speaking fluency and listening comprehension. Language exchanges that take place through writing or text chats also improve reading comprehension and writing ability. Given that language exchanges generally take place between native speakers of different languages, there is also the side benefit of improving cross-cultural communication.”
Learning a new language doesn’t make sense if you don’t get the chance to interact with native speakers. However, trying to learn a language while not living in a country where it is spoken can sometimes prove to be challenging. The same applies when someone has just moved to a new country and hasn’t had a chance to meet locals yet. In these cases, finding a conversation exchange partner is your best bet to practice your conversation skills.
If you do not have easy access to native speakers, for whatever reason, looking for a conversation exchange partner online might be your easiest option. While there are countless websites offering to help you find the right person to initiate a language exchange process, not all of them are worth your time. Here is a small selection of websites that other language learners recommend.
If you are still a student, you can try and find a partner through your university. Just find out whether there is an association of foreign or exchange students at your university and get in touch with them.
Whatever your status, don’t forget that you can also contact local communities to find relevant groups or individuals. Think of non-profit cultural associations such as the German Goethe Institut – their main mission is indeed the promotion of international cultural exchange and language studies! If you are looking to learn French, look up Alliance Française and get in touch with the Instituto Cervantes if you are learning Spanish. Last, but not least, the British Council will help you improve your English!
First and foremost, the main rule of thumb is that you should be upfront about your needs and expectations. Are you trying to improve your language skills for a specific reason (job search, an upcoming move abroad…)? How often and for how long do you wish to communicate with your language exchange partner? Do you prefer to find someone you can meet with in person or would Skype or even WhatsApp sessions do the trick for you? Don’t lie about these criteria while looking for a potential partner as there is no need to waste your time or theirs.
Moreover, be honest about your level in the language and make sure your future partner is not only a taker but also a giver. As the name suggests, language exchange is meant to be a two-way process and you wouldn’t want to end up finding out all your partner was really looking for were free lessons of your mother tongue, right? Try to find someone whose level is similar to yours to avoid being intimidated if it turns out your partner is C1 level whereas you are just getting started. Learning a new language is arduous enough and you certainly do not need to put any additional pressure on yourself.
Another thing to keep in mind is that language exchange is not a replacement for an actual teacher: remember your partner probably isn’t a teacher but merely a native speaker. While they will be able to teach you how native speakers use the language as well as words you might not find in textbooks, do not count on them to explain difficult grammar rules or concepts the way an actual teacher would. Don’t forget they learned how to understand and speak the language right after they were born, which means many grammatical notions will seem obvious to them.
Don’t forget about regional and national differences: if you are trying to improve your Spanish because you will be travelling through Mexico this summer, try to avoid finding a language exchange partner hailing from Madrid because there are several substantial differences in the ways Spanish is spoken in Latin America and in Spain. Keep this in mind when looking for your next conversation partner and you might soon be able to impress your new friends with your perfect usage of local slang terms!
Most people decide to dedicate the first half of a session to one language before switching to the other one for the second half. Others prefer to speak only one language per meeting, alternating at each meeting and another possibility would be for each participant to never speak her or his mother tongue. In this case, you would for example be asking questions in Spanish which your partner would answer in English. This is a good option if your main goal here is to improve your speaking skills, but not necessarily your listening comprehension.
If you are planning to start a language exchange to achieve a specific goal, it might be a good idea to incorporate some preparation work. For example, you and your partner could send each other reading material on specific topics a few days before the session. That way, you can concentrate on these subjects during your meetings and improve your vocabulary regarding a specific field. Nevertheless, if you are looking for a language exchange partner because you want to learn how to interact with native speakers, then this might require no preparation and you could stick to discussing various topics the way you would do it with a regular friend or acquaintance.
Before the start of your first session, don’t forget to discuss how you want corrections to be handled and ask your partner how she or he wants you to correct their own mistakes too. Do you prefer them to take notes and go through your mistakes at the end of your discussion or are you comfortable with real-time corrections? This is an important point because each individual reacts differently when being corrected.
Depending on your level, it might be necessary for you to take notes during the exchange to remember new words or phrases. In this case, make sure you don’t spend more time writing things down than speaking. This would be rude towards your partner and would also make both of you lose valuable learning time, so be careful.
Last but not least… Have fun because this is what learning a new language is all about, and embrace the fact that you might make lifelong friends in the process!