A language exchange is a great way to meet new friends and improve your conversation skills. Find out how to find a language partner and organize a really successful conversation exchange. As someone who has learned several languages, the key to acquiring the ability to speak is theoretically very simple: just speak. But anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows that this is exactly the most nerve-wracking and overwhelming part of the process
One of the best ways to develop the courage to speak is to work with a language exchange partner who provides a safe and encouraging environment in which you can do so. Conversation helps you practice what you learn in class and shows you how native speakers use their own language.
I’ve had language partners in Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic, and each language exchange has given me a new linguistic and cultural understanding, and sometimes a real friendship has developed. I have found that the key to making sense of these partnerships is to enter into them wisely. Here are some ways to do that as well.
What is a conversational exchange?
A conversational exchange, also called a language exchange, is a partnership with someone whose native language is the language you are learning and who is also interested in learning your native language. In most cases, time is spent conversing in each language, and the native speaker helps and corrects the learner. Ideally, guidelines will be established between the two of you to help you learn in the most productive way for your language goals.
Language partners can meet in person or virtually, but it has been my experience that face-to-face relationships are the most fruitful. This is mainly because you can also learn interesting nonverbal language (have you noticed that Chinese people use different hand gestures for numbers?) and visit places in your city related to the culture of the language you are learning. When I was studying Arabic, I liked to meet at shisha cafés to learn about good tea and new vocabulary.
Where can I find a language exchange partner?
A simple Google search for language exchange partners and the city you are in should yield a number of results. If you live near a university, you can post flyers with your information the old-fashioned way to find international students interested in a conversation exchange. Otherwise, there are a number of proven tools for online language exchange. If you live in a big city, you’ll have better luck meeting someone in person, but in almost all cases you can exchange virtually through language exchange websites.
- Conversation Exchange. I’ve been using Conversation Exchange for years, and although the site itself seems a bit dated, the community is active and people often reply to messages. Some people have noticed that it is easier to find speakers of East Asian languages on this site.
- Italki. This is recommended by several polyglot bloggers who use language exchange to improve their language skills. Log in with your Facebook account and search for a “teacher” for the language you want to improve.
- Meetup. Meetup.com allows people to organize all sorts of events, with language learning being only a small part of the offering. You can attend meetups like “Russian speakers in Columbus, Ohio” or “European Languages Exchange in New York.” At these group meetings you can meet native speakers of your target language and form an individual partnership if you are also interested in this type of organization.
What makes a good language partnership?
To be fair, not every language exchange is useful. Exchanges should be fair, focused, and have some level of compatibility (common interests and agreed-upon guidelines). While it is not necessary for both people to be at exactly the same level, it can be difficult if, for example, both people are absolute beginners or if one person is much more advanced than the other, so that both people tend to speak in one language more often.
Language partners do not have to be friends, but they should understand each other and have common interests. Both people should be patient, good listeners, and interested in helping others learn. Bad language partners forget that this is a mutual exchange, which involves helping the other person and spending a lot of time in both languages.
If the exchange slips in this direction, it is important to say something or put the person in the “friend” category rather than the “language partner” category. It can even be better to learn together if we are friendlier to each other than real friends, where it can be difficult to give instructions and concentrate.
How do you make sure both people benefit in a conversation exchange?
It is good to set the tone early and meet to discuss language exchange goals and ideas before either person spends too much time. Do you have compatible goals and ideas about the structure of the exchange? Just indicating that you want some structure in the relationship can eliminate faulty or incompatible partners from the start.
Some important discussion points are:
- How long should we meet? How often should we meet? Having a long-term partner and meeting regularly helps maintain commitment from both people.
- Can we split the time 50/50 for each language?
- Could we be interested in setting topics for each session to provide direction and inspiration? This is a great way to add depth to conversations rather than jumping from one topic to another. It also ensures that the topic is covered in both languages.
- How often does everyone want to be corrected? How would each like to receive these corrections? How can we make our partner feel comfortable making mistakes?
- Does everyone want to spend the time they spend in the target language exclusively in that language, or will they sometimes need to return to their native language to discuss some difficult grammatical questions or points?
- What do we do if a person gets frustrated or tired or has difficulty keeping the conversation going? How can we make sure we create a safe and supportive learning environment?
It is important that both sides come to the negotiating table with ideas and goals for the learning agreement. Be clear about what you want to accomplish with a language partnership, otherwise it’s easy to get distracted or disappointed.
Language partners are not language teachers
If you can structure the relationship and meet regularly, this is one of the best ways to become fluent in another language. But remember that language partners are not language teachers.
Conversational exchanges should be used to supplement a multi-faceted approach to language learning that will likely include formal classroom instruction, consumption of books, movies, and other media in the target language, and plenty of listening and speaking practice. Once sufficient basic knowledge of the language has been acquired, it is an excellent way to practice what has been learned, but it is not the ideal way to get into complex grammar, for example.
Although it is not a financial investment, you are spending your time meeting that person in the hope of improving your language skills, so setting some guidelines and finding the right partner beforehand will go a long way to helping people speak a new language productively and happily.