Getting The Most From Your Language Exchange

Are you using online language exchanges to practice speaking in your target language? If so, are you taking full advantage of this amazing learning tool? In this post, I’ve got some advice for getting the most out of your online language exchange. I’ll also compare and contrast a language exchange with an online tutoring session to help you decide which is right for you.

What Is An Online Language Exchange?

This may seem a little pedestrian to the veteran polyglots out there, but I talk with language learners everyday who aren’t really sure what a language exchange is or how to set one up.

A language exchange is defined by Wikipedia as:

  • Language exchange is a method of language learning based on mutual language practicing by learning partners who are speakers of different languages. This is usually done by two native speakers teaching each other their native language.[1] Language exchange is different from other Language learning methods as there is usually no set syllabus or activities.[1] Language exchange is sometimes called Tandem language learning.[2]

Got it? Basically, in an online language exchange, you have two language learners who practice speaking their target languages. Typically, Person 1 natively speaks X and is learning language Y, whereas Person 2 is a native speaker of Y and is learning language X. Both people log onto Skype, QQ, or some other webcam application and they talk face to face in language X for an agreed upon time, then they switch to language Y for the same amount of time. Beautiful, right?

Common Problems With Language Exchanges

As magical as the concept of a language exchange sounds, they often prove to be difficult to find and maintain for a variety of reasons:

1. One person’s knowledge of their target language isn’t good enough. A language exchange is different than a tutoring session. Yes, you can learn new things, but much of it should be practicing (and reinforcing) the vocabulary and grammar that you already know. You cannot enter a language exchange knowing only a few basic words and phrases and expect your partner (a native speaker with no formal training in teaching their language) to act as a tutor for you and teach you the basics like a textbook or a trained teacher would. It’s unrealistic and in many cases is considered rude.

2. The tug-of-war scenario. This is the most common issue I find in language exchanges. One person will invariably (regardless of any previous agreement) try to move the exchange in a direction that extends their use of their target language. It can become a battle of wills and whoever wants to learn and practice the most wins. More often than not, the person with the higher level in their target language will win this battle. I’ve seen this turn a 50/50 exchange into a 40/60 or even a 30/70 exchange within just a few sessions.

3. Too much or too little. Both of these are language learning killers. In the “too much” scenario, one person is so focused on correcting mistakes (no matter how tiny and insignificant) that the other person either gets almost no real chance to practice any type of fluency, or gets turned off of the idea of the exchange altogether. In the “too little” scenario, the opposite is true, one person is so lax about the conversation that they rarely correct anything (even gross grammar errors and/or incorrect word usage). Both are bad.

4. Lack of structure. This can lead to a one sided exchange (as in #2 above). It can also be frustrating for both parties who aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing or saying (or even what language they are supposed to be talking in).

How To Improve Your Chances Of a Successful Language Exchange

1. Set expectations in the beginning and hold yourself and your partner accountable for sticking to your agreement. Emphasize that sticking to an agreed upon schedule is important for both of you. Use a timer to separate language times. If you notice any deviation, like your partner is talking his/her target language more and more into “your” target language time, stop and talk to them about the importance of sticking to the agreed upon schedule. If he/she argues or continues to dominate the conversation, then maybe you haven’t found the right exchange partner.

2. Know what you want to practice ahead of time and communicate this to your partner up front. This could be vocabulary development, grammar, pronunciation, free talk, or even talking about specific situations or dialogues. If your partner doesn’t know what you want to get out of the exchange, chances are you will not get what you want (mind-reading language learners are difficult to find). By the same token, ask your partner what THEY are looking to focus on. This will not only help your partner achieve his/her language goals, it will also promote goodwill between the two of you which is a must have in any long term language exchange.

3. Look for someone with whom you have something in common and/or someone with whom you feel comfortable talking. Just because you find A language exchange partner doesn’t mean you’ve found THE language exchange partner. If you and your partner have nothing in common and struggle to find anything to talk about, you should consider looking for a new partner. It will be better for both of you in the long run.

4. When it is time for your target language, STICK TO YOUR TARGET LANGUAGE. Pardon the shouting, but that part was very important. If you fill much of your target language time with chatter in your native language, you are telling your partner that it’s ok to talk in his/her target language during your time. This will get used and abused. Before you know it, you will just become his/her language partner (rather than a language “exchange” partner).

5. Do NOT rely on your partner to ask all the questions or to carry the conversation, especially during your target language time. Don’t make your partner feel like an interrogator. This is not time for one or two word answers. Talk freely and talk in detail. Just make sure you talk! If they ask you what you do for a living, tell them what you do and follow it up with how long you’ve worked there, what your daily responsibilities are, how you got into that specific field of work, what your career plans for the future are, and anything else you can think of. This is YOUR time to practice your target language. Take advantage of this time and get in as much speaking practice as you can.

6. Take notes. Don’t overdo it, but make sure you either take notes of important corrections or new vocab, or record your Skype session for later review. Then, make sure you set aside time to review those notes (or recording). You will NOT remember everything without notes, trust me.

7. Study relevant vocabulary and grammar ahead of time. Language exchanges are much more about practicing than about learning. As I mentioned previously in the “What is a Language Exchange” section, you will get much more out of it if you are at least somewhat functional in your target language. You cannot expect to carry on a 30-60 minutes conversation in a language if you only know a handful of words and phrases.

Tutoring Or Language Exchange?

Due to the ever popular “speak as soon as possible” philosophy, many beginning language learners think that a language exchange is the way to go, even as early as A1. As admirable as that is, I don’t think that language exchanges are the way to go for the beginner level learner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in speak early and speak often, I just think that there are better avenues for the A1-A2 level folks.

At A1-A2, I highly recommend online tutoring sessions rather than language exchanges. I know they cost money, but a trained tutor can teach you more in an hour session than you could learn from 10 hours of language exchange with an untrained native speaker. Additionally, people who sign up for language exchanges typically aren’t looking to “teach” their language to someone. They are usually looking for a conversation partner. They want someone who can help them practice while helping the other person practice as well. They don’t want to be a teacher per se, or they’d be charging for their time. The best time to start looking for a true language exchange is in the High A2-B1 range. At this point you’ll have enough of a base in the language to really try to engage with your partner and carry on a true (even if somewhat simple) conversation.

Thanks for reading, and if you found this post helpful, I would love to hear from you in the comments below. Additionally, please feel free to share this post via Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform you like. I definitely appreciate help getting the word out.

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