If you’re a language learner yourself, you’d know how hard it is to make a language exchange work. It takes a lot of trial and error to find out what works for both parties, and they don’t always end well, despite the best intentions. In fact, for a lot of people, they almost never end well. When they do work, however, it’s the best thing ever.
This guide is a compilation of all the things I’ve learned about language exchange over the years. They won’t guarantee you a smooth sailing (come to think of it, I don’t know anyone who’s managed to really make it work on their first try), but they will save you a lot of unnecessary frustration.
Finding the Right Person
There are mainly two things to consider – passion and proficiency.
First of all, it is very important to find someone who is as serious and passionate about this as you are. You will encounter in your search people who seem really excited at the idea of doing a language exchange… At first. And then two sessions in they start making all sorts of excuses to discontinue the arrangement, leaving you disappointed. Some just vanish all of a sudden and stop responding to your texts entirely.
Talk to them first, so that you can get a good idea of what they’re looking to get out of the exchange. Here are a few questions I like to ask before deciding whether or not a language exchange with the person is worth a try:
- How would like to do this exchange? Are you looking to chat regularly on Skype, or exchange text messages every now and then?
A serious language learner will usually have a somewhat detailed plan for this. They’ll want to talk regularly, either via audio or video calls, preferably at least once a week.
- What are your goals? What exactly are you looking to get out of this exchange?
In my experience, people driven by passion for the language or relatively urgent goals (moving soon to the country where the target language is spoken, trying to pass a test in the target language) make the best partners. They are less likely to give up quickly and are usually more eager to learn, which makes for a much more sustainable relationship. Answers like, “I just want to talk to people from other cultures.” are a red flag to me.
- How often do you study the language?
This question isn’t really necessary, and I only ask it if I like their answers to the first two. I consider myself very dedicated to language learning (as dedicated as you can be with a full-time job), but I understand that my partner might not be. I ask this question mostly to gauge the level of commitment I can expect from them, as managing your expectations, in my opinion, is very crucial if you want the exchange to be a successful one.
This affects how the exchange will be conducted and to a certain extent, how effective it will be. The best combinations, in my opinion, are as follow:
Beginner/Intermediate + Advanced
Communication issues are less likely happen when one party is a lot more proficient in their target language than the other. If you’re a beginner, this is a pretty good match. Your partner will be able to explain things to you in your native language, which is good because explanations about grammar and linguistic nuances tend to get pretty complicated.
And since they already have a pretty good command of your language, they’re probably just looking to have regular conversations with a native speaker, a need that you can fulfill easily. All you need to do is talk. There’s no need for you to dumb things down because they don’t need it.
A dangerous side effect to this is that you might end up using your native language as a crutch, because it’s so much easier to communicate with the language you are both fluent in. Having to switch to a language that you cannot yet express yourself properly in, especially after chatting freely for half an hour in a language that you’re both comfortable with, can be frustrating.
You might also find yourself enjoying conversations in your native language more than the ones in your target language, to your detriment. When you’re a beginner, the things you can talk about are very limited – a challenge you do not share with your partner, who at this point can talk about nearly everything in your language. It requires a lot of self-control and careful planning on both sides to keep the ‘relationship’ from turning into a one-sided one.
Intermediate + Intermediate
If you’re both intermediate learners, it is less likely for you to get carried away with speaking in your native languages. For starters, you’ll have to simplify some of your sentences to match their level of proficiency, since unlike advanced learners they might not possess the vocabulary and listening skills required to understand the full-speed speech of a native speaker.
You won’t be able to speak as freely, and you might occasionally run into situations where you struggle to explain things in both your native and target languages, but since it goes both ways, I’d argue that both parties have more to gain from the exchange, which is likely to be a fairly balanced one. For this reason, I prefer this arrangement than the aforementioned one.
A Word of Caution!
An exchange between two beginners, in my opinion, is unlikely to work and pretty much doomed from the start. Firstly, there’s a language barrier. This makes explaining things difficult. Secondly, as you are limited to topics that are mostly shallow in nature, you’re likely to get bored of the whole thing very quickly.
The only exception to this is when both parties share a third language that they’re both somewhat fluent in, which they can resort to when there are communication issues. This can also, however, turn into a crutch for both parties, and you might find yourselves using the common language more than your target languages.
Making the Most Out of the Exchange
So you’ve managed to find someone? Great! Here are a few tips on how to make sure the exchange is a fair and rewarding one for both parties involved.
Make it Fair
You can’t go wrong with 50:50. Make sure you spend at least half of each session speaking in their target language and the other half speaking in your own. This is something you should establish right away, on Day 1.
Discuss beforehand how you’re going to do the exchange. Is it going to be done via video calls? How often? Communicate your needs and find out what your partner is looking to get out of the exchange. This will save you a lot of disappointment and frustration later on.
And I cannot stress this enough – it’s very, very important to establish a relationship where both of you feel comfortable with voicing your opinions. If there’s something you don’t like, your partner needs to know right away. Keeping it to yourself will only cause pent-up resentment and many exchanges have gone sour precisely because of this. Don’t always wait for your partner to speak up, either. Instead, try to check with your partner every now and then to see what they think about your current arrangement, and whether there’s anything they’d like to change.
This is mostly a matter of preference, but I find interrupting each other constantly to correct mistakes counter-productive. Not only does it disrupt the flow of the conversation, it also takes up a lot of time – time that can be otherwise be spent on actually practicing. I prefer to jot things down as we go along and save the corrections and explanations for the last 5 -10 minutes of the session.
Structure Your Sessions
Plan your sessions beforehand to make sure they’re conducted in a way that’s conducive to learning. If you’re a beginner in your target language, you will probably have to start with guided conversations on basic topics, such as self-introduction, hobbies, family and so on. Do as much research as possible before every session and prepare phrases that you think might come in handy so you have something to turn to when you can’t think of anything to say, which happens quite often when you’re first starting out. You can even find sample dialogues and have your partner guide you through them.
If you’re an intermediate learner, you’ll be able to explore topics that are more complex. A good way to challenge yourself is to pick a topic for each session and come up with several prompts/questions based on that topic (I find these very useful). Think of things you want to say and practice ahead if you’d like, but if you’re thinking about writing drafts and reading them out loud during the sessions in hope of passing that off as natural speech, don’t. You’re here to practice speaking, not to recite rehearsed speeches.
All things come to an end eventually, and the truth is, people lose interests all the time. Maybe they got a new job that’s keeping them busy, or they’re finding it difficult to focus on language learning with a newborn demanding for their attention 24/7. Or maybe they just don’t feel like doing a language exchange anymore. It’s fine. Move on and look for someone else. It’s a shame, certainly, but there’s no point forcing it, right?
You can usually tell when people aren’t as enthusiastic as they used to be – they might talk less during the sessions, or they cancel a lot more often. Ask them if they would like to discontinue the exchange – if they say no, discuss your concerns with them and find out what you can do to improve the situation. If they say yes, then it’s time to let go.
Language exchange can be pretty tricky. It takes a lot of effort to find the right partner and, like all relationships, if you don’t look after it, it’ll deteriorate and die. But when it comes to improving your speaking skills, there’s really nothing like talking to real human beings who grew up speaking your target language. They are, after all, the ideal that you are seeking to emulate. And for that reason I think language exchange in general is always worth the attempt, even if I have to go through 10 failed ones to find one that works.
I hope you found these tips helpful. Good luck with your language exchange, and happy learning!