You do language exchanges because you want to practise the language.
Instead, the other person just ends up talking at you in English.
It's awkward to ask them to shut up.
Do that and you kill the conversation! Want to know how to do a language exchange without that happening? Then keep on reading!
Often your exchange partner is much better in English than you are in your new language so you feel like an idiot insisting on talking in their language.
They think they're helping you by correcting your mistakes, but in fact they're damaging your progress and killing your confidence.
You give it a couple of tries, hoping they'll be more encouraging. Instead, you just end up picking up the bill for the coffees.
Eventually, you knock it on the head, thoroughly fed up.
By the way, if you want to speak your target language thanks to a fun and effective method that teaches you through stories, not rules, check out my StoryLearning® courses and claim your free 7-day trial.
What is Language Exchange?
According to mylanguageexchange.com, a language exchange is:
Two or more people who speak different languages practicing each other's language. For example, an English speaker who is learning French will do a language exchange with a French speaker who is learning English. There are many ways to practice in a language exchange.
Why Do a Language Exchange?
Conversationexchange.com gives the following 6 reasons for signing up for a language learning exchange:
- It's fun and you can make new friends from different cultures
- You learn slang and colloquial expressions you don't usually learn in a language class
- It's free
- There is no homework or boring grammar books to study
- You practice both listening and speaking at the same time. If you also want to practice writing and reading, you can do so by exchanging emails with your language exchange partner
- It's a very fast and effective language learning method
Why Not Do aLanguage Exchange?
Now it's my turn. You can…
- …completely waste your time for someone else's benefit and feel like a volunteer teacher
- …spend a fair amount of money on coffees and metro tickets
- …end up developing a complex about making mistakes, because that's the only thing your partner points out
- …fail to develop your vocabulary because your partner overwhelms you with endless lists of words that are irrelevant to your needs or level
- …get way too hung up on grammar due to endless explanations of a million different variations which you feel obliged to listen to – grammar villain alert!
- …fail to consolidate anything you do learn due to lack of homework or well-targeted follow-up tasks
- … get put off learning for life due to the stress of having to speak to a native speaker when you're not ready
- …make incredibly slow or negligible progress due to lack of focus or structure to the sessions
- …unwittingly transfer responsibility for your learning to your “teacher”. Not only is he/she probably not qualified for this responsibility, but he/she has no stake in your success or failure.
- …therefore end up retreating to the safety of a professional classroom, which, as we know, is no place to learn a language!
I did my first language exchange in Paris in 2000 with a guy whose name I forgot.
He dropped in unannounced at the youth hostel I was working in and asked if I'd be interested in doing an English-French exchange with him. I said yes, and we met every week for months. It was great!
He was smart – he knew exactly how to make sure we both made the most out of it, and it was precisely because we both benefited from it that it was such a success.
When I look back on the dozens of exchanges I've done in the years since then, I can honestly say I've never managed to replicate the vibe that we had going and the amount of learning that took place on both sides. Or maybe it's just nostalgia?
Getting a language exchange right is tough, because it depends not only on you, but on the willingness of your partner to respond to what you suggest.
We've just taken a whirlwind tour through the potential highs and lows of language exchanges. What follows now is 13 years' worth of killer tips for how to do a language exchange right.
How to do a Language Exchange and Make it Work… for YOU!
[Note: I'm going to make the assumption that your partner is stronger in your mother tongue than you are in theirs. If that's not the case, all the better.]
1. Set Expectations First
When you first meet (or even better, before), let your partner know how you'd like the exchange to work: 1 hour speaking in each language. It could be more or less – I've found 1 hour to be the right balance. It's enough to stretch you but not so long that the conversation becomes difficult to maintain.
2. Embrace the Struggle
The 1-hour period dedicated to your target language should be just that: an intense period during which you stretch yourself to produce the language and keep going despite the difficulty.
The main aim of this period is to develop aptitude, competence and familiarity with the language. That won't happen if you use English to mediate the conversation. Will it be difficult sometimes? Will you sometimes be lost for words? Yes.
But from that struggle emerges your ability to deal with unfamiliar situations and unknown language. Inevitably, the need will arise to use a bit of English now and then, but stick to minimum 80/20 ratio as a rule of thumb
3. Your Partner is Not Your Teacher
Your partner needs to do two things as conscientiously as possible. Firstly, to let you speak and not interrupt with corrections every 5 seconds. Secondly, to make efforts to keep the conversation going and not put all the onus on you to speak.
Basically, they are not there to teach, but to promote conversation and answer your questions when needed. However, there is an understandable tendency for people to want to ‘teach' – they believe that they're helping you.
If your partner does this, it's very important that you tell them early on, otherwise it will grow into an issue. Try to find a nice way to say: “I don't need you to teach me, I'm just here to practice my [language].”
4. Embrace Challenge at Higher Levels
At a higher level, you might have the opposite problem: the conversation is effortless and you can talk for hours, but there's no challenge. This can be a real waste of time and calls for some intervention.
What you need in this case is for your partner to step up and start scaffolding what you're saying. Ask them: “Can you give me a more natural way of saying xxx?” “How else could I say this?”
After looking at some language in this way, go back and repeat the conversation. It's a little unnatural at first, but a tried and tested development strategy. It gives you the chance to use what you've learnt and hopefully nudge your partner into giving you even more of what you need without you having to ask for it.
5. Dealing With Errors
The best language exchange is with a partner who is able to notice your most common mistakes and point them out to you at the appropriate time (i.e. not mid-conversation).
I've found it difficult to ask people to do this, because it is something of an art form, but if you're able to do this for them they might take a leaf out of your book.
To do this, try taking notes of glaring errors your partner makes when speaking English. Then, look for patterns. What kind of mistake is occurring most frequently? When the topic of the conversation comes to a natural conclusion, point out to them what you've noticed.
You will know in your gut if the relationship with your language partner has potential. Even if it's not perfect at the beginning, if you get on well with the person and enjoy talking to them, it's worth giving it time to develop. The one proviso is that you're willing to tell them what you're looking for and how you want to use the time.
6. Speak in the Target Language Straight Away
Start speaking to your partner in your target language right from the start. The language that two people first speak together invariably sticks as the friendship forms.
It's best if that language isn't English, not in order to get one-up on the other person, but because their English is likely to be stronger than your target language and therefore easier for both to use.
The other issue is that, if you're a beginner or otherwise not particularly confident, you may put off readily speaking your target language in the exchange and risk it developing into a big thing. Avoid this by using it right from the start, however uncomfortable it may be.
7. Don't Be Embarrassed, Even if You're a Beginner
…and do try not to be embarrassed by your level, no matter how much of a beginner you are, or how proficient the other person may be.
Your partner is meeting you on the understanding that they will help you to learn. That's what they're there for. Your respective levels are not an issue and mustn't stop you from feeling free to speak.
Furthermore, as a beginner you stand to gain much more from the exchange. Try to embrace the challenge and don't be shy!
8. Avoid Commentary on Your Deficiencies
While speaking, try to resist the temptation to explain away your mistakes or problems. “I just find it difficult to…“, “I just need to learn more vocabulary!” etc.
Firstly, you're promoting the use of English in the conversation. Secondly, the point of the exchange is to keep the conversation going and build your fluency that way – by constantly analysing your deficiencies you are sticking to one (rather boring) topic and not expanding your reach.
Thirdly, your partner probably doesn't have any informed advice to give you. When you hit a brick wall and you need to know how to say something, ask for it, make a note, and then keep going. The phrase “How do you say – ?” is king here.
9. Leave Grammar Out of the Conversation
Resist the temptation to get too heavily into talking about grammar. It's not time well spent. You're there to speak.
By all means ask for the grammatically correct version of what you're trying to say, and make a note of it, but leave the analysis till you get home.
Remember, your partner is not a teacher and is unlikely to be able to give you a satisfactory explanation, despite their best efforts!
10. Stick to Familiar Topics at Low Levels
If your language is still low-level, I suggest you try to keep the topics of conversation as general as possible.
It may be satisfying to talk about the nuances of your Bachelor's dissertation in a foreign language, but an 80/20 analysis tells you that, as a beginner, you have most to gain by focusing on high-frequency language on familiar topics for language exchange.
You may object to this by saying that it's better to focus on what you're interested in, and that's absolutely fine, but if you have ambitions of starting to speak with confidence in the short-term then I would suggest that your priorities lie with familiar topics. Check out some easy language exchange topics online before you go to your language exchange meeting.
11. Include Your Partner in the Interaction
Conversations are interactive. In fact, one of the characteristics of a skilled speaker is the ability to ask interesting, relevant questions and to involve others in the conversation. As a listener, you don't like to be talked at, you like to be included.
Therefore, during your hour, don't see it as solely your opportunity to shine, but be sure to include your partner in the conversation by asking them questions. Conversely, if your find your partner talking too much, perhaps correcting your mistakes, break the cycle by asking them unrelated questions.
Doing so not only improves your ability to interact with native speakers but also gives you valuable listening practice. Open questions are best: “What do you think about this?” “How does Paris differ from Marseille?”
12. Make Notes
A lot goes on during a language exchange and your brain will not retain most of it. Therefore, it's vital that you make notes.
I suggest scribbling things down in a way that doesn't interrupt the flow of the conversation and then reviewing and writing them up later in a notebook.
Don't try to write down everything, or you'll never do any speaking. Instead, focus on language which you know to be really valuable to you.
13. Consider Recording Your Language Exchanges
…or, if you've got a lot of study time at home it can be very valuable to record your language exchanges (using an app on your phone, for example) and review them later.
Listening to yourself speaking in another language is very revealing and you will notice areas of your language that you want to improve.
Be realistic though – this is very time-consuming so you may find (as I do) that making notes during the exchange is the way forward.
Some Useful Phrases for Getting What You Want
Learn these in your target language:
- Give me some natural examples of how to use this word
- Let's keep talking for now
- Please tell me about this after we've finished talking
- Tell me about your week(end)
- What are your plans for tonight/the weekend?
- Please say that a few times over for me to listen to
- Let's repeat the conversation so I can practice the new words
How to Find a Language Exchange Partner
One thing we haven't covered here is how to find a language exchange partner in the first place. It's a big topic, but let me make it as simple as possible:
- Sign up to iTalki
- Click on the “Communities” tab and search for a parter
- Get started!
It's one of the best language exchange sites to find a partner to get chatting with.
Here are some other options for finding your language exchange partner:
Originally designed as a platform for helping travellers find a (free) room for the night whilst they are travelling in a new place, the friendly and intensely international couchsurfing community is a great place to practice your language skills.
You can either attend the Couchsurfing ‘meetings,’ which take place in bars in every major city or you can use their forums to find someone for a one-to-one language exchange.
In any ‘international’ city you’ll find MeetUp groups dedicated to learning the most popular languages, usually with a good mix of learners and native speakers. If you don’t spot the group you are looking for, why not start your own?
- Classified Ads
You can find anything in the world on a site like Craigslist and a language exchange partner is no exception. Use your common sense and take some basic safety precautions when meeting someone in person for the first time.
- The Old Fashioned Way…
If you are feeling retro-cool, then why not stick your name and phone number up in a window somewhere?
Are Language Exchanges an Effective Way to Learn Another Tongue?
While these kind of exchanges are certainly both useful and enjoyable, the question remains as to how effective they are when compared to learning from a qualified tutor.
If two hard-working people met for a coffee and language exchange on a regular basis, you would likely find them able to hold simple conversations in both languages in the course of just a few months.
However, it might be a very long time before they could pass any sort of rigorous exam needed for overseas work and study.
In my experience, it seems that the strengths of meeting up to learn languages can also turn out to be weaknesses.
With so many learners out there to meet up with, it can be hard to find the one that is right for your particular needs and unlike a teacher you can’t politely ask them to rethink their approach!
The informality which makes speaking easier can sometimes lead to a fragmented understanding of a new language, and the lack of structure that makes this kind of meetup exciting can result in slow progress if you find yourself discussing the same few comfortable topics each week.
Face-to-face meet ups in an informal setting should be just one of many options at your disposal if you are truly serious about reaching fluency.
Regular classes with a professional teacher are irreplaceable and if you can further expand your studies by immersing yourself in foreign music, literature, textbooks and language learning apps, then that would be ideal!
Now you know how to do a language exchange right, it's time to get chatting. It's an invaluable way to practice your new language and give you the confidence you need to make improvements.
Check out some of the free language exchange sites mentioned in this post to find your first language exchange partner.
Enjoy this post? Download my free EBook to discover the 10 technology resources you need to make language exchanges really successful.
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Image 1: Adam Jones
Image 2: ktylerconk