One of the problems reported most often by language learners is the lack of opportunities to practice speaking their target language on a regular basis. I recently ran a survey in my Spanish Culture Hackers Facebook Group (www.spanishculturehackers.com). I asked the members what is the most effective activity for learning Spanish.
The Number 1 Answer: One-on-one conversations
More than video courses, textbooks, and group classes, having one-on-one conversations with another person was reported as the most effective language learning activity. This led me to one question…With all of the apps and websites full of language learners, why is it still so hard to have an effective language exchange?
A successful language exchange has give and take—you get adequate practice in your target language and are able to help your conversation partner with theirs.
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship where you are able to learn, improve your language skills, and be helpful to another person.
While language exchanges should be relatively easy to get going, there are some common hurdles that language learners find when trying to find conversation partners.
Here are some common complaints about language exchanges:
Unreliability of conversation partners
We all know that we value things less when they are free. Unfortunately, this makes no-shows a far too common occurrence in language exchanges. It can also be hard to get someone to respond to your messages in a timely manner, which makes arranging an actual conversation difficult.
Working with the schedules of two people that may be in different time zones can make scheduling problematic. Even if you do manage to nail down a time to meet, you may find that your partner’s availability is inconsistent. Add that to the no-show problem and you could spend weeks and weeks of back-and-forth and still only manage to have one conversation.
Having conversations that don’t quite flow or get stuck often is pretty common.
Depending on your experience level with your language, quite a bit could get lost in translation.
These things can be hard to sort out at times, or you just might not be able to get a good conversation going. Spending too much time speaking in English (or THEIR target language)
This can be a huge problem and turn you into a free tutor instead of participating in a fair language exchange. Many language learners report frustration with conversation partners that are so eager to get their practice time in, that they don’t respect your time and spend little or no time helping you practice. If you have a conversation partner that responds to you in English, or monopolizes the conversation, it can be really frustrating and ineffective.
So how do we overcome these problems and not spend hours of wasted time? First, it’s important to set realistic goals for a language exchange.
Remember, you are not looking for someone to teach you. Your goal is to speak as much as possible, get feedback to correct mistakes, and learn some new vocabulary that you can use in your conversations. Ultimately, you want to get comfortable enough with speaking your target language so that you can communicate comfortably and fluidly during social interactions and in real-world situations (talking to friends and family, traveling, shopping, etc.).
To make the most of your time, it’s a good idea to keep your language exchange sessions compatible with your overall language goals. (Need help coming up with goals? Check out the Roadmap to Spanish Fluency for a step-by-step system to setting achievable language goals.)
Otherwise, your conversations will be pretty random and you will not benefit from them as much as you could.
Here are some important things to consider before you start looking for a language exchange partner:
- How often do you want to have conversation practice?
- What topics would you like to be able to discuss in your target language?
- What vocabulary are you currently trying to memorize?
- What’s a mistake you keep making A LOT that you would like to overcome?
- What are some tasks that you’d like to be able to complete in your target language?
- Is there a specific dialect I would like to learn or be exposed to?
- What countries am I planning to visit in the next 6 months?
If you answer these questions ahead of time, it will be much easier to get the most out of your language exchange.The answers to these questions will change over time, but it’s important to have an answer to each of these questions for at least the next 30-60 days.
This will make it much easier to establish a successful language exchange. If you’re looking for more best practices on EXACTLY how to go about finding an conversation partner, making the initial contact, scheduling sessions, and tracking your progress—check out the Guide to Successful Language Exchanges.