Long before italki came along, I have always loved communicating with people from around the world - often with penpals. It started with Japanese, Spanish, and now Greek. Over the years technology has evolved and made making friends abroad easier than ever before. You no longer have to sit down, write a letter, and wait weeks for your reply in the mail. Your foreign friend is now quite literally in your pocket. You’re always just a Skype call away.
If you’ve ever searched for a language partner, I’m sure you’ve experienced the difficulty in finding a good match. Perhaps you thought you found a great partner: they’re a native speaker, they’re willing to help you, you have great discussions, and then all of a sudden - they disappear!
As a language learner, and now as a teacher on italki, I’ve experienced all sorts of language exchanges: good, bad, and everything in between. Now I’ve become a bit of an expert on knowing when someone will be a great language partner. I’ve been lucky enough to have language partners who have become great friends. I hope this article will help you to rethink your approach to finding language partners and improve your chances of finding that perfect person to practice with!
- The difference between a teacher and a language partner
A language exchange requires some time, patience, and commitment by each person as well as some mutual goals. If you’re meeting potential language partners with the mindset of “what can they do for me?” you won’t get very far. You need to be curious. Not just about the language, but about the person on the other side of the camera. Get curious about their culture, who they are, their country, their beliefs and goals.
If you want someone to teach you grammar, vocabulary, and correct every mistake you make - you need a teacher. If you want someone to proofread your essays or edit your CV - you’re looking for an editor. The goal of a language exchange is to practice the skills you already have with the guidance and support of a native speaker. Some teaching will occur but the main aim is to reinforce skills you’ve already learned.
- The importance of being open
I cannot overstate this enough. I have encountered so many students and language partners who feel uncomfortable opening up when having a conversation. If you cannot talk freely about yourself and your ideas with your language partner, the conversation simply won’t last. You can only talk about the weather, travel, and your favorite movies so many times before you will both lose interest.
You don’t have to reveal your deepest secrets, but you do have to show your personality. Talk about subjects you are passionate about, make jokes, don’t be afraid to be yourself. Language exchanges can be very stressful. Maybe you feel nervous talking to strangers. Or when speaking, you can’t find the right words and you know you’re making silly mistakes. Perhaps your pronunciation makes you feel embarrassed. If both language partners can be open with each other, it eases the anxiety of making mistakes and you’ll be brave enough to try out that new phrase or grammar point.
Your time spent with your language partner shouldn’t feel like an exam, it should be a safe place where you can experiment with the language you are learning.
Choosing a partner and making the most of your time
- Find a native speaker
Think specifically about what you want to learn - American English or British English? Brazilian Portuguese or European Portuguese? Focus on finding the right native speaker for you.
Non-native speakers are unlikely be able to explain to you the nuance, idiomatic expressions, slang, and cultural traditions ingrained in the language. A native speaker will be able to say the same phrase in multiple ways, allowing them to adjust the complexity of their speech to best serve their partner’s level. With a native speaker you will be able to ask:
“Does this sound natural?”
“How would you say this to your best friend?”
“How would you say this if you were speaking to your boss?”
“Can you explain this joke?”
- Using a conversation topic
I find it easiest to start a study session with your language partner by preparing a topic and a list of questions. Each partner should review the list and take turns asking and answering questions in their target language. By using a set of questions based around a single topic you will avoid any awkward pauses in conversation and you can work together to fill any gaps in each other’s vocabulary regarding the subject.
By pre-preparing you can challenge yourself to pick a more difficult topic - but not feel like you are put on the spot. It is more productive to stretch your limits by discussing a more difficult topic that will force you to use every word you know to express yourself.
You can find some great conversation questions on I-TESL-J and English Current.
- Using a task
Another great way to utilize your language partner is by completing a task together. A few options include:
- Translating a song together: Lyrics Translate is my favorite site for finding lyrics from different languages.
- Practice a roleplay scenario such as: navigating the airport, ordering a meal, visiting the doctor, planning a trip, or reporting a crime. Take turns playing different roles.
- Practice job interview questions. This italki article can tell you the most common job interview questions.
- Play “Two Truths and a Lie”. Each person says three statements about themselves: two are true and one is false. Your partner then has to guess which one is the lie.
- Play “Would You Rather...?” You and your partner both ask questions starting with “would you rather...”
- For example: “Would you rather eat only candy or salads for the rest of your life?” and “would you rather live in a busy city or a quiet village?”
- Play “Have you ever…?” Learn about your partner by asking questions like “have you ever gone skydiving?” or “have you ever cheated on an exam?”
Correcting your partner
- A “slip” vs. a “mistake”
As a language teacher, knowing when and when not to correct a student is an art. However, as a language exchange partner, it is enough to understand the difference between a “slip” and a “mistake”.
A slip is an error that occurs when someone speaks whilst they are nervous, excited, in a bad mood, or otherwise distracted.
A mistake is a true error, when someone uses incorrect grammar or vocabulary whilst believing they are correct. The latter is what needs your attention and corrections.
- Giving effective corrections
How do we correct someone without upsetting them or ruining the conversation? The best method I have found is to write the corrections into your Skype window. This works for two reasons. Firstly, by giving a written correction instead of an oral one, you allow for the conversation to flow. Your partner can finish his thoughts without being distracted. Secondly, this gives your partner a written record of his mistakes so he can review it later.
How often should we correct our partners? This will depend on your judgement. If your partner is a shy A2 level learner who is nervous to speak with you and often apologizes for their mistakes or pronunciation, corrections should be given sparingly. Your job here is to encourage your partner to gain confidence in their speaking - complete accuracy isn’t the goal here. If you have a C1 level partner who is able to speak effortlessly about a broad range of topics, it would be beneficial if you gave them more corrections, and generally expect a greater level of accuracy to help make their speech as natural as possible. Delivering a correction with some humor and smile will go a long way towards the longevity of your language partnership.
- Adapting to your partner
The best language partners are able to assess and adapt to their partner’s skill level. If you’re partner is constantly saying: “what? I don’t understand,” you’re not adapting to their level. You need to speak slower, use more basic vocabulary, or begin writing what you’re saying if they have trouble understanding you. We naturally change our language depending on who we are speaking to - whether it’s your professor or your 5-year-old nephew. You need to do the same with your language partner. The “sink or swim” approach of conversing with your partner as if they were also a native speaker will only result in them tuning out, giving up, or forcing you to spend the majority of your session repeating yourself. An effective partner will find the balance between reinforcing their partner’s knowledge while comfortably pushing their limits. If your partner can walk away from the conversation with five new words to add to their vocabulary, that is more than enough. Avoid the temptation to overwhelm your partner with everything you might want to teach them.
- Consistency vs. Flexibility
When teaming up with a language partner, the biggest obstacle will be overcoming timezones and scheduling a mutually beneficial time to practice together. Demanding that your partner commits to a set schedule usually results in a short-lived exchange. As time goes on your partner’s commitments and availability will fluctuate. What may have began as daily 2-hour talks may at times become 30-minute check-ins or text message exchanges.
Consistent exposure to the target language is more important than intensive, yet unsustainable, sessions. If you are not able to accommodate these changes, your language journey may be better served with a professional teacher than a language exchange partner. Few people will have the time or dedication to commit to a rigid practice schedule in the long-term. Allowing for a more spontaneous and fluid approach will keep your sessions from becoming a chore.
- Taking things offline
The main advantage that language exchange partners have over professional teachers is the more personal connection they offer to their language and culture. Become friends on Facebook. Snap a picture of your breakfast. Share a video from a traditional celebration that happens in your country. Send them your favorite music video. By involving your language partner in your daily life, you aren’t simply exposing them to their target language but you are also teaching them about culture and traditions that go far beyond the pages of their textbooks. Even the most boring aspects of your day such as what you cooked for dinner or the shows you watch on TV can be fascinating for someone on the other side of the world.
I hope this article has given you some useful tips to improve your next language exchange. Although finding a language partner can be difficult and maintaining a productive relationship requires both effort and flexibility, the rewards of having a friend across the world are immense.
If you are brave enough to share parts of yourself, your culture, and language, then you will soon find others willing to do the same for you. Good luck and get talking!
Hero image by Joshua Ness on Unsplash