Making Language Exchanges Work For YOU!

Cafes are good for language exchangesYou do language exchanges because you want to practise the language.

Instead, the other person just ends up talking at you in English.

You’re frustrated.

It’s awkward to ask them to shut up.

Do that and you kill the conversation!

After all, they’re much better in English than you are in your new language so you feel like an idiot insisting on talking yourself.

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.

If this diatribe sounds at all familiar, this post is for you.

What is a 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 language exchange?

Conversationexchange.com gives the following 6 reasons for signing up for a language exchange:

  1. It’s fun and you can make new friends from different cultures
  2. You learn slang and colloquial expressions you don’t usually learn in a language class
  3. It’s free
  4. There is no homework or boring grammar books to study
  5. 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
  6. It’s a very fast and effective language learning method

Why not language exchange?

Now it’s my turn.

  1. You can completely waste your time for someone else’s benefit and feel like a volunteer teacher
  2. You can spend a fair amount of money on coffees and metro tickets
  3. You can end up developing a complex about making mistakes, because that’s the only thing your partner points out
  4. You can fail to develop your vocabulary because your partner overwhelms you with endless lists of words that are irrelevant to your needs or level
  5. You can get way too hung up on grammar due to endless explanations of a million different variations which you feel obliged to listen to
  6. You can fail to consolidate anything you do learn due to lack of homework or well-targeted follow-up tasks
  7. The stress of having to speak to a native speaker when you’re not ready can put you off learning for life
  8. You can make incredibly slow or negligible progress due to lack of focus or structure to the sessions
  9. You can 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.
  10. …leading you to retreat to the safety of a professional classroom, which, as we know, is no place to learn a language!

Breathe

I did my first language exchange in Paris in 2000 with a guy whose name I forget.

I was working in a youth hostel and he dropped in unannounced 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 getting it right.

Cafes are great for language exchanges

How to make a language exchange 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.]

Managing your language partner

  1. 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. 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 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. 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. The ideal language partner is someone 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.
  6. 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.

Managing yourself

  1. 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 French 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.
  2. …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!

When you’re speaking

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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. 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.
  4. 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?”
  5. 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.
  6. …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

Finding 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:

  • Step 1: sign up to iTalki
  • Step 2: click on the “Communities” tab and search for a parter
  • Step 3: get started!

Enjoy this post? You should download my free EBook to discover the 10 technology resources you need to make language exchanges really successful. 

Got a friend who’s learning a foreign languages? Let them know by sharing this post using the buttons around you! 

Image 1: Adam Jones

Image 2: ktylerconk

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

Got a question? I'll answer it on the podcast! Just click here!

Also connect with Olly on Facebook, Twitter and Google+
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  • Kieran Maynard

    This is really useful!

    I have never been able to make a language exchange work for me. You have pointed out all the problems I encountered. When I wasn’t good at the language, I couldn’t keep the conversation going, and when I was good at the language, they wouldn’t give me any feedback at all.

    It seems the problem is partly that I need to learn how to ask my partner more questions about things that interest them, which is not something I am not good at in any language.

    Tips like repeating the conversation and leaving grammar until the end are new to me. I’m ready to try it again after reading this!

    • Great to hear you found it useful! It’s easy to get so distracted by the language (grammar, vocab, mistakes etc) that we forget what we’re actually doing – having a conversation!

      When I started to think what it would be like to be in the other person’s shoes, having to sit there and talk to me, I realised that I often wasn’t doing basic things that we take for granted in a conversation, such as asking questions!

      I’m a big believer in ‘authenticity’ in language learning – real reading texts, real listening material, and…real conversation!

  • Great post!

    I might add that preparing for the exchange can help a lot. One problem I’ve had with language exchanges is that “just talking” can be too open-ended. Language exchanges seem to work better if I have a subject to talk about. I will sometimes bring a short article to read and then try to spend the rest of the hour talking about the article or related topics.

    I’ve also noticed that my most successful language exchanges are with people who I have something in common with and who I would be friends with even without the language exchange component.

    Lastly, students I teach English to invariably are awful language exchange partners, perhaps because they are so used to speaking with me in English (since we first communicated in an English class) that they are unable to switch. I’ve had a lot of students approach me about doing language exchanges in the past (I don’t teach English anymore) and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is almost never a good deal for me.

    • Hi Emily, great comments, and I think you’re spot on! Your point about finding people you have something in common with is absolutely key (although easier said than done, but I wrote some ideas for how to find good people here), because if it’s natural and not ‘forced’ then you’re going to open up and enjoy the experience so much more – natural, authentic language use!

      I also agree with you about “just talking”. I think it depends what stage you’re at really, because I have found in the past that just talking is actually the one thing that I really need! But, as you say, after a while you need something more structured.

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Pingback: Ultimate Language Learning Guide: From Scratch to Polyglot()

  • lamorenita

    I prefer doing language exchanges, on my end, 100% in italian (my foreign language) and for them to do it in 100% in English. At an intermediate level I find it works much better like this and there’s no clock watching :p
    It works because my comprehension is far far far better than my speaking (and I presume it’s like this for most people)

    • Clock watching certainly isn’t nice, but I’ve found it really depends on the relationship with your partner. The concern I would have about your partner not speaking to you in Italian is that ‘speaking’ isn’t just a question of what you’re able to say. An important element of speaking skills is being able to react naturally and appropriately to what the other person says, and the interaction between you (i.e. discourse) and by your partner only speaking to you in English you might be limiting how quickly your speaking can develop.

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  • Seosamh O’C

    Thanks for some great advice! I am just going out to my first meeting with my Spanish exchange. This is a great framework to use. I plan to use the first meeting to agree the ‘ground-rules’.

    • Excellent stuff… I’m really excited for you Seosamh – hope it goes well!

    • Nina

      Me too. I am going to have my first language exchange ever, and in the language I started to learn in my adulthood (it’s French, by the way). I was also thinking to do, what you Seosamh said, but I didn’t know how to do it. This article though, helped me a lot regarding that subject!

  • This is the perfect example of “When the student is ready the master will appear”,. I’m SO frustrated at seeing German books I bought 5 years ago (and all the software) and yest still can’t say anything more in German than, “Entschuldigung bitte, wo ist der Flughafen” LOL ;). I’ve been reading your ‘newsletters’ watching all your videos, reading your blogs etc. for the last week and yesterday for some reason went to iTalki and signed up for two sessions then this morning watched AND FLUNKED your 60-second fluency video (Zero conversations a week! 😉 so I purchased your Kickstarter manual and boom – exactly what I need to know for my 1st trial iTalki session tomorrow and the one next Thursday! I mean this is like spooky in how your manual came at the exact moment I needed it!
    Thank you Olly!

    • That’s so awesome to hear, Daniel! Strange, I thought I’d replied to this comment previously, but it appears not! Hope you’re doing well!

  • Mônica

    Why isn’t the classroom the right place to learn a language?

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  • Catherine Mellor

    I have heard that Lingoo is a really good site for taking in part in language exchange trips. Although it is not free, it does help you find a good match for the type of language exchange partner that you want and there are many different languages and places that you can choose to go and learn.

  • John

    Olly, this is really excellent material. Thank you so much for sharing it!

  • Marko Perković Franjić

    Love the advices,

    Thanks