The goal of this article is to explain how to have a successful and productive language exchange by giving advice that I have learned from my own experiences and clear examples on how you can implement it immediately. The article is divided into two parts.
Part One: Backstory
First let’s start with a real life account of my very first language exchange, and then let’s talk about the things you can do to avoid the problems that I had in order to have the best language exchange of your life. If you don’t want to hear my story (I understand), simply skip ahead to part two of this article instead, which is filled with advice and information on language exchanges.
Ok, let’s begin. A language exchange is when two people meet for a coffee or speak on Skype and spends half the conversation in one language and the other half in another. This is a great way to have a native or high level speaker of your target language for free.
This is my story. I hope it helps and that the person it’s about never reads it (only joking, I’m sure he is a nice guy really!). It was March 2014, and after studying 30 minutes of Spanish every day with my textbook, I wanted to advance and had read that a language exchange was a vitally important part of studying a language. So I had learned quite a few phrases in three months, was feeling good about myself, and felt ready to have a conversational exchange. So, I went on this site here and started chatting with a young man from Spain that was living in my city, let’s call him Señor X. No, wait, that’s silly, let’s call him José.
José was a nice guy! We spoke a bit on Facebook and decided to meet for a drink and practice our languages. We met in town and went to a local bar. He greeted me in English, so we continued like that. We arrived at the bar and spoke for about 45 minutes in English. I then decided to test my Spanish, so I said “Do you mind if we practice some Spanish?” Claro (Of course) he said. Ok! Perfect! This is cool! Here I am, in a bar with a native Spanish person, about to speak Spanish for the first time, how awesome am I? If only my friends could see me now. Ok, here it goes, yes, ok, let’s speak Spanish, ok, umm, wait, ¿qué?
When I started to speak, I realized that my essential phrases such as “What is your name?”, “Where are you from?”, and “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” suddenly didn’t seem to fit the situation. The actual conversation happened a bit like this:
- Me: ummm, hola, ¿qué tal?
- José: … bien, ¿y tú?
- Me: bien… ¿Cómo te llamas?
- José: What? Haha, you already know my name.
There it was, my official debut in Spanish and it lasted less than 15 seconds. I soon realized that I wasn’t actually able to have a conversation in Spanish. A combination of low confidence, basic vocabulary, and lack of experience cut my Spanish adventure short before it ever really started. For five more minutes we sort of struggled through broken Spanish and José replying in English with demoralizing comments such as “where did you hear that?” and “that sounds strange”. Defeated and disheartened, we switched back to English and continued that way for about another 90 minutes with me occasionally saying “Door, that is puerta in Spanish, isn’t it?”, to which José would reply “yeah, that’s door”. Why I stayed there so long I have no idea, but after about two and a half hours, we left.
- José: Sorry, we didn’t really speak Spanish today, maybe next time we should speak a bit more.
- Me: Yea, we spoke for two and a half hours in English and when I spoke Spanish, you casually laughed and responded in English. No, I didn’t actually say that, but I was thinking it. I simply said “Yea no problem, maybe”.
I don’t blame José for this bad language exchange experience, I accept full responsibility for it. I didn’t have confidence, didn’t outline what I wanted, and he just went along with the flow naturally. I left that evening and felt really bad, as if I had wasted three months studying Spanish every day for nothing.
Ok, so after my horrible first experience, I am also here to share the things I have learned since then which will help you avoid bad exchanges like this and make it smoother for both you and your language buddy (remember that successful exchange is also about your language friend as well!).
I soon picked myself back up and later read the book Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis, which really emphasises speaking from day one! So, three years, four languages and a few countries later, I have returned with my advice on how to do an exchange.
Part Two: My Secrets!
1. The Place
Online versus face to face. This comes down to personal preference or what you are seeking. I know for example that during busier periods, I prefer to speak to people online via Skype (and met through italki). This is good because it requires no travel time, and you have a large range of people to choose from. This means that if you have a busy schedule, you can find the person that is perfect for your needs. Face to face has other benefits. The main thing is that it is social! When I was in Ireland, this was a way for me to socialize while still improving my language abilities. If you are living in a new place, then face to face language exchange may also be a way to make new friends.
2. The Time
How often and for how long. If you have an examination in two months, don’t message a person that “likes learning languages, is currently studying six, but doesn’t have much free time”. This person will probably speak to you once a month. Find somebody who is available to speak as much as you. This way the both of you can establish a routine and decide the best times for both to speak. It is very easy to get into the habit of writing “Hey I can speak now if you are free”. This is not efficient, and it is much better to have a set time put aside for when you can both talk. Then any additional last minute sessions will be a bonus!
3. The Person
Find a nice person to talk to. Ok, assume that the person you found is a combination of being: impatient, obnoxious, racist, angry, or spits on you when they speak (some of these are exaggerated to make a point)… but they speak your target language so it’s ok… No!…you must find somebody who is nice to be around. Not for their language, but for them as a person. Think to yourself “would I speak to this person for an hour if they were from my city and spoke the same language?”. Do not tolerate an annoying person just because they are helping you with a language. If the person is impatient, unhelpful, etc, you won’t want to speak to the person in English, Spanish, French or any other language. I have met some really cool people through language exchanges, just make sure that you are selective.
4. The Equality
The golden rule with language exchanges: it must be 50/50. I don’t care if you are a beginner in German and your partner has a PhD in linguistics from Oxford University. If the person wants to do an exchange with you, they need your language too! Your language is just as valuable as theirs, so make sure that it is an equal exchange. This is extremely important to maintain. I use a timer when I speak with other people and that way it is totally equal. You must be firm with this and if the person is breaking the rules and speaking your native language when it is time to practice your target language, pause the timer and say to them:
- “I have paused the timer, it is time for me to practice. Could we please speak your language now?”.
Be firm but polite, and consistent. Even the most stubborn person will eventually learn that you want equality and will respect you for it. Remember to have confidence. You deserve half of the conversation, regardless of their level. This is equal for you and you cannot rip the other person off as it is not fair and they will eventually (and rightfully) get upset with you and stop doing exchanges with you. So, even if your level is very high, be patient with your partner, they will really appreciate it. During my exchanges, even if I knew the perfect Spanish or French translation of a phrase, if it was English time, I try not to use it. I would only give a translation if they asked me for it.
5. The Conversation
What do you want to talk about? I would recommend that you make the most of both your time. Conversations can very quickly become repetitive or dry, and considering you have an “expert”, you may want to use this time more wisely. For example, choose a particular topic e.g. weather, practice the vocabulary during the week, and then prepare activities and questions to practice with your partner. Maybe you just want a normal conversation, maybe you want to practice particular areas, or maybe you want to work on pronunciation. Be honest with your language buddy and explain what you would like to accomplish. Don’t expect them to teach you grammar if they are not a teacher, and don’t take it too seriously either. Remember that this isn’t an preparation class on the eve of your biggest test! This is simply a way to practice your target language, make friends, and have a good time.
6. The Corrections
Corrections are vitally important. When I am conversing with my language buddy, I write down their errors for them (in good handwriting) and talk about the problems when they make them or at the end (if I don’t want to interrupt their flow). Do not overdo it. Speak to them beforehand to find out what they want and how they want it. As a teacher, I personally have the habit of overcorrecting, which can sometimes be problematic and damaging to someone’s confidence. Speak to the person and find out what is best for both of you. This is also important for you. Speak to your partner, tell them how many corrections you would like, and the best way to do it. If you are exchanging online, write the errors during the conversation, take a picture, and send it to your language friend afterwards.
7. The Respect
This involves a lot of things. Firstly, make sure that you are punctual and that you don’t cancel last minute or change plans without notice. Not only are you wasting the other person’s time, but you have also interrupted their schedule and possibly weakened the relationship. This works both ways! Do not tolerate someone that keeps cancelling. This happened to me recently, and after the person cancelled the first two meetups (one of which was only ten minutes before our exchange, while I was walking to the destination) I sent a polite but firm text message to explain that my time is important to me and that I would rather look for another partner as it think it would be better for both of us.
Help your language exchange partner. Don’t speak too fast if they cannot understand you. Speak clearly and be patient! They will return the favour when it is your turn. Going back to number four, be respectful of your partner’s time and make sure they are respectful of yours, so that you both get an equal amount of time speaking and that the both of you can advance together along your target languages.
- Use a timer to monitor your conversational time
- Write errors for your partner and have them do the same for you
- Prepare before the exchange so that you can make the most of your time
- Write problems you have during the week and show your partner to see if they can help you
- Have fun!
A language exchange is a wonderful thing and can really make the difference between a good language student and a great one. This post will hopefully help you make the most of your time and have a successful exchange! Good luck!
Hero image by Tim Wright (CC0 1.0)