The Worst Language Exchange Ever (And What I Learnt From It)

worst language exchange everA few days ago, here in Hong Kong, I had the worst language exchange of my life.

By all accounts, it was terrible.

I walked out at the end feeling thoroughly depressed… an unfortunate mood that took me a couple of days to snap out of.

But it wasn’t the fact I wasted half my day that got to me.

Nor the fact my language partner basically got a free 2-hour English lesson out of me.

It wasn’t even the fact that this whole experience cost me around US $20 (after metro tickets and a couple of coffees).

What got to me was that this happened in the first place.

Let me explain…

Language exchanges have been the cornerstone of my learning methodology ever since I began learning foreign languages at 19.

And I’ve done a lot of them. (And I mean a lot.)

No, they’re not very time-efficient, but they do put you in touch with the humanity of learning a language – real contact with real people.

Over the years, I’ve developed a tried and tested approach to all aspects of arranging, conducting, and learning from language exchanges. (Kind of like my own version of Extreme Vetting!)

As a result, I feel like the language exchanges I do are good – very good…for both people. Not only that, but they tend to last for the long-term, which is a good sign.

Let’s just say I consider myself a good language exchang’er!

So, what happened here in Hong Kong should not have happened.

I shouldn’t be sitting here writing this now.

And yet…it did.

And I am.

But before I tell you what happened, I’m going to jump straight to the conclusion, because then you’ll understand why all this matters to you.

I’m sure that, while reading this piece, your reaction will be something like:

“Don’t worry, Olly, these things happen! Chin up, and carry on!”

In fact, you’ll probably think this whole episode was no big deal, and that it doesn’t warrant thinking much about…much less an entire blog post.

You might find fault with my behaviour. You could point out how I should have done something differently, and how I could have easily changed the outcome if I had wanted.

But here’s the thing:

It did happen.

It did affect me.

And the fact that it is almost certainly no big deal, doesn’t make me feel any better.

But more to the point…

You Know What A Bad Language Exchange Is Like

hong kong language exchangeYou’ve probably experienced this, too…

An encounter of some kind that made you doubt whether you’re cut out for language learning at all, even if you did everything right

I’d also be willing to bet that you experienced a strong sense of isolation or confusion afterwards, and felt like the universe was conspiring to stop you ever succeeding with language learning.

So, the point of this article is not to give tips on running effective language exchanges. I’ve done that already here (blog) and here (podcast).

The point of this article is to show some solidarity.

To make you realise that this stuff happens to everyone.

And to let you know that whatever emotions reading this tale might bring up inside you…

It’s alright. And you should (and must) carry on.

Before we start, let me say that I don’t blame my language partner for what happened. It’s probably equally my fault.

My hope is that by giving an honest account of what happened – and not attempting to dress it up – it might help you better understand your own experiences, and become a better language learner as a result.

So, with that, here’s what happened…

It Looked Promising At The Start

I had just arrived in Hong Kong.

I was staying for a couple of months to work hard on my Cantonese.

Hong Kong is a place where English is widely spoken, and so I knew it was going to be important to seek out opportunities to practise Cantonese.

Language exchange (conversation exchange, tandem) is a great way to get dedicated language practice, as two people get together for the specific purpose of speaking each other’s language.

So, I updated my account at my favourite language exchange website, conversationexchange.com, and started the process of looking for a few people to get in touch with.

6 weeks or so into my stay, I heard from someone who was keen to meet up and exchange English and Cantonese.

We chatted back and forth for a few days, allowing me to determine a couple of important things:

  1. She was serious
  2. She was willing to do the language exchange on my terms – 1 hour in each language

She enthusiastically agreed, and we arranged to meet.

A few days later, I travelled into central Hong Kong to meet my new language partner, and we met outside a local café.

When we met, she launched into English. (This is normal, as English is usually the strongest common language.)

However, the meeting was unusually awkward.

She didn’t seem comfortable at all. Quite different from the excessively friendly person I was chatting to on WhatsApp.

The awkwardness continued through the entire process of ordering drinks and initial chitchat.

I remember thinking that was a bit odd, and not a great sign for a language exchange, which relies quite heavily on good spirits to maintain a conversation.

But hey, I was looking for a language partner, not a best friend.

And then came…

My First Big Mistake

As we sat down, my language partner asked if I wanted to start with English or Cantonese.

I replied: “Well, we can continue in English, if you like!”

I have a golden rule in language exchanges, which is that I always request to begin with the language I want to practise.

This is because:

  • Your partner’s English is usually stronger than your target language
  • It helps to avoid cementing the new relationship in English from the start
  • After an hour of speaking (read: teaching) English, you’re tired, making it hard to switch to your target language

But, despite my golden rule, I offered to start with English.

What was I thinking?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Most likely I wasn’t thinking.

I think it was probably because of the initial awkwardness between us – I thought the best way to break the ice was to stay in English.

It’s a classic example of how the pressures of a social situation can trump the practical considerations of actual language learning.

Language is used in real life, and social anxiety, complexity and uncertainty are all part of the deal.

Lesson Learnt: One of the things I need to work on (and this applies to life in general) is to be firmer with things I want when I know it’s the right thing, even if it presents some short-term awkwardness.

hong kong cantonese Beginning The Language Exchange

Anyway, we began in English, and what followed was surreal.

My conversation partner uses English in her work, and she began by asking me to check some phrases she uses on a daily basis.

One by one, she went through various situations on the phone and over email. Each one went like this…

Her: What do you say in this situation?

Me: I would say ___.

Her: Is that correct? I usually say ___.

Me: Yes, it’s correct. I would say that.

Her: Can I say ___ ?

Me: Sure, if you want.

Her: What’s the difference between the two?

Me: It’s personal preference. I prefer the more casual style.

Her: Are you sure that’s correct?

Me: Yes.

Her: How about ___?

Me: Sure, you can say that too.

Although this was quite intense, her approach was actually quite smart.

In fact, she was following a piece of advice I often give, which is to study specific areas of your target language you use daily for life or work.

So, I appreciated what she was trying to do.

What I wasn’t prepared for, was that this barrage of questions would continue for the full hour.

No chit chat or small talk…

Just one question after the other.

It was intense.

She was getting a lot out of it, as I think this was the first time she’d been able to ask these English language questions to a native speaker.

Perhaps that’s why I made…

My Next Big Mistake

After an hour was up, I should have stopped her and switched to Cantonese, but I didn’t.

I remember thinking at the time:

There’s no need to be strict with the time, neither of us are in a rush. After all, she’s learning a lot.

She was.

So, she continued with the questions, and I kept answering them.

I began to give polite hints that we should change languages, and I was starting to get tired, but I didn’t say anything yet.

I started giving shorter answers to her questions, and I must have looked visibly tired.

If I’m honest, by that point there was a kind of morbid curiosity creeping in, testing the limits of her awareness: “Is she really not going to take a hint?”

So why didn’t I say anything?

Why not?

You might be screaming at the screen right now, saying:

Olly, that’s your fault! Just stop her, and change languages!

On a different day, I might have done that.

But on that day, I didn’t.

After a great deal of reflection, I think I can say with absolutely honesty why I didn’t.

It feels weird to share this in public, but I think this situation warrants the truth:

  • Sometimes, I’m too English. My American friends would not understand this: “Just say it direct, man!” Ha… I’m too prone to the British way of giving subtle hints. It’s in my DNA.
  • I believe people should have the politeness to stick to an agreement that’s been made, however excited they get. If not, they should at least have the social graces to pick up on signals from the person they’re talking to. Stupidity on my part, perhaps. But those are qualities I insist on in friends, and I get very disappointed when people don’t live up to that.
  • Her English was advanced, and far stronger than my Cantonese. The moment we switch from English into Cantonese, I would lose some face; I would stop being a confident, articulate native English speaker, and turn into a weak, incoherent speaker of a second language.

Now, of course, that’s the whole point!

That’s the reason we’re there having the exchange in the first place.

But I cannot deny there’s an element of anxiety there – putting my weaknesses on display, and reaffirming to myself that I’m nowhere near as good as I think I should be at the language.

For a mix of reasons…I just put it off.

Lesson Learnt: Language exchanges, for me, are far more than a transactional language practice opportunity. I treat a language exchange like any other social situation, and I treat the people I meet as I would my friends – not just a human sounding board for language practice. When we discussed this experience in my Facebook Community, the most common criticism of my actions was that I didn’t just “tell her straight”. That would have avoided all the trouble. “Telling people straight” in a friendly social situation just isn’t in my nature, but that’s something I need to work on.

Eventually, to her credit, she took the hint.

Switching Languages (Or Did We?)

After around 1.5 hours of English, she turned around and said: “Ok, we should speak Cantonese!”

I was flailing by that point, tired… and somewhat bored.

But I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and we started speaking Cantonese.

We chatted away for 5-10 minutes.

I was struggling to understand her.

She spoke Cantonese at 100mph, as if she was talking to her best friend.

I had to ask to repeat over and over.

In fairness, she did… but then carried on speaking at the same speed as before, mostly talking past me rather than engaging in a conversation.

Now, this is tricky one, because I actually quite like people talking to me at natural speed when I’m learning a language.

It’s good practice.

However, when the person you’re talking to is clearly struggling, you need to make some allowances… especially when you’re in a language exchange.

Not to slow down slightly, use a little less slang, or perhaps just check if they’re following what you’re saying, I think shows a lack of basic courtesy.

Who wants to have a conversation with somebody who doesn’t understand what you’re saying?

I pressed on, anyway, and tried to keep up.

That’s when…

Things Started Going Badly Wrong

learn cantonese language exchangeAfter 10 minutes or so, the English began.

It started after I was failing miserably to understand an anecdote she was telling me in rapid-fire Cantonese.

She switched to English in order to clarify (fair enough), but I quickly brought it back to Cantonese.

A few minutes later, half-way through a sentence, she switched back to English.

I waited, to see if she realised what she’d done, but she carried on in English.

I quickly brought it back to Cantonese.

“Let’s stay in Cantonese!”

“OK, Sure!”

A few minutes later, on a topic she was particularly excited about, it was back in English again.

After 5 more minutes of this, I gave up.

I have little patience for language power struggles on the best of days.

And this was not one of those days.

With no more energy left, and only 15 minutes to see out… I just smiled and let her talk in English.

As I sat there, I remember thinking two things:

  1. Surely – I mean surely – she has to realise she’s just talking at me in English
  2. Should I write a blog post about this?

At the two hour mark, I made my excuses and left.

What Does This All Mean?

This language exchange was such a negative experience for me, that it took me a couple of days to shake off my negative mood.

But I won’t read too much into that.

That needs to be seen in the broader context of my time in Hong Kong, where language power struggles are a constant battle.

I’ve also had exchanges like this before, and I dare say it won’t be the last.

So, what does this all mean?

As I said at the start, I’m going to avoid drawing any conclusions from this. (Read language exchange tips here, or listen on the podcast.)

I don’t blame my language partner for this…

This is about me, not her.

Perhaps if I’d done things differently, we could have had a more successful afternoon.

Here’s the thing:

I know there are many people out there who find it extremely challenging to mix foreign language practice with social encounters.

Whether that be due to social anxiety, being introverted, or just meeting the wrong people.

Personally, I think I’ve just got very good over the years at engineering the right kind of environment for me – and that’s helped me learn my 8 languages.

But it doesn’t always work out, and this story is a case in point.

So, my aim in writing this is to help you reflect on your own experiences with language exchanges, and hopefully help identify some areas that might be improved.

Having said that, I’m fully prepared for criticism and negative reactions to what I’ve written, so let me have it in the comments below!

Have a friend who’s learning a language? Please share this post with them on Facebook, or click here to send a Tweet.

What’s been your experience with language exchanges? Let me know in a comment!

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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

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  • dandiprat

    What makes conversationexchange.com better than other?

    • I’ve just found there to be a decent amount of people who speak various languages, looking for serious language exchanges.

      • Edú Calambur

        Mee too, Olly. I´ve just used this website once and in that opportunity i could met a british language partner. We made a spanish-english tandem. The experience was excelent.

  • Bruno Calife Mota

    Well, it is rather complicated to point out the guilty in those situations. However, if in the end, she kept speaking english all the time, it’s at very least a lack of empathy.

    And regarding the subtle hints of british people, I think it’s cool!

    Boa sorte no próximo intercâmbio linguístico.

  • catfoulkrod

    Ha, I had a similar experience. I met with someone from conversation exchange and she just spoke in English the whole time, despite all of my hints. I was also probably too polite, but it felt too awkward to blatantly call her out on it. I feel you. Now I tend to look for people on conversation exchange who speak English at a lower level than I speak Spanish. It usually works out better that way, and with my current language partner, I actually have to remind her to speak in English when my time in Spanish is up 😉

    • This thing of finding a language partner whose English is not so good seems to be an emerging theme here. I wonder if there’s a way to facilitate this better.

      • hkfun

        Same for me! I am also learning Canto and I made my best progress after I found a partner whose Canto was much worse than my English, so we had to use dictionaries all the time, but it was fun.

  • Neil Moss

    This is a very thoughtful summary Olly, and I think these cathartic activities really help you understand your experiences. I highly relate to activities that put you in a funk for a couple of days. Sometimes I have a terrible italki session that leaves me questioning my potential to really learn Spanish. Am I only choosing “safe and easy” tutors to avoid this? It’s especially tough on the ego if you feel that your relatively mediocre language skills have caused unpleasant situations. This is one reason that “real world” practice scares me.

    • Louise Nick

      Hello Neil, I’m a language teacher, and I think that with a good teacher or tutor, you should never be left questioning your potential after a lesson. It is a teacher’s or tutor’s job to pick you up where you are and then help you improve from there, paying close attention to your pacing and adjusting accordingly.

    • With teachers, just as with language exchange partners, I always try 10, and stick with 1 or 2. I’d never considered the possibility before that I was unconsciously picking the tutors who were “safe and easy”. It’s possible, although I do like a challenge, so I’m not sure I do that personally. Providing you find those 1 or 2 tutors you like, though, you should leave your lessons feeling empowered above all!

  • Jessica Elliot

    Hi Olly, sorry to hear about your bad experience but thanks for writing about it. I can really relate to what your saying, especially the part about the English politeness and not wanting to ‘make’ the other person switch languages. I like the idea of starting with the language that you want to study and think I’ll try that next time I do an exchange. I also agree with the comment above about doing an exchange with someone that has a similar level in English as it feels more balanced.

    • Yes that’s a good idea, although maybe difficult to find that person in practice? I suppose some lang exchange websites do allow you to filter people by language level. In Hong Kong, if you speak English, you’re probably fluent, so it’s trickier there.

  • It’s really demoralizing in general when you are forging forward in a language and the person keeps switching to English. But if there is also a deal in place to share the time, it’s also unfair. I don’t think there was anything you could have done to cure that, other than never exchange with her again. It’s really her loss since it is far harder to find a native English speaker in HK to exchange with than for you to find a Cantonese speaker. Keep us posted on your search.

    • Thanks! Yes, you win some, you lose some, just like real life!

  • Louise Nick

    To me, language exchanges need to have a personal aspect. I need to connect with my conversation partner. Language exchanges where you treat the other like a fruit you are trying to get as much juice out of as possible don’t work for me. I also have little understanding for people who do language exchanges without having any kind of sense where their conversation partner is at and how they need to adjust their speaking to not overwhelm him or her. Barreling on at high speed is more than rude, when your partner clearly is still at a lower level. You may need to slow down or annunciate really well, or both. At one time, I had a speaking partner clearly use me as a freebie teacher. It was my first language exchange experience, and it took me several meetings to really realize what was going on. Then I stopped meeting with her. This was not just about you, Olly, it was also about her. She was what my friend would call a “taker.” It’s upsetting, but luckily all you lost were two hours.

    • Yes, and I got a good blog post out of it too, haha! But seriously, you’re right, it’s no big deal really. I think I was just disappointed in this particular case because I was really hoping it was going to be good. Oh well… onwards and upwards!

  • I was looking forward to reading this article ever since you mentioned about this terrible language exchange on Facebook.

    I’m glad you decided to share it with us, there’s a lot we can learn from it.

    “I was struggling to understand her.
    She spoke Cantonese at 100mph, as if she was talking to her best friend.
    I had to ask to repeat over and over. In fairness, she did… but then carried on speaking at the same speed as before, mostly talking past me rather than engaging in a conversation.”

    Ahhh! This is so rude. You see the other person struggling and yet you do nothing about it. It baffles me.

    At the end of the day, she may have gotten a free 2-hour English lesson, but she missed out on the opportunity to *connect* with an amazing language partner. And this is so much more important.

    Always remember it’s her loss, not yours.

    • Thanks Chiara, that’s really encouraging! You’re right… if she had done things differently, we would have met more times, and learnt more overall. So yeah… her loss! 🙂

  • LoveLearningEnglish

    I feel your pain Olly. This is exactly why I haven’t had much success with language exchanges, and its also why I’m trying to write course material to help my students have more success in their exchanges. I’ve only had 3 or 4 partners. 2 of them very helpful but because they were stronger in English than I in French its hard to keep going with them because you can feel them getting impatient and bored even though they are trying. So we chatted a few times then stopped meeting. I had one TERRIBLE experience with a guy who spoke English with me for 30 minutes (I always do 30mins cos an hour each would be way too tiring for me) I was patient, I paid him attention, I spoke clearly I asked lots of interesting questions and we had a nice chat. But then when it was my turn to speak French, he stopped paying me attention, he laughed at EVERYTHING I said, he started walking around his room tidying (we were on skype) he didn’t look at me or ask me any helpful questions, it was terrible and really put a black mark on my experiences. I really like your tip about asking to do my target language first because they are more than likely stronger in English than I am in French. I’m also thinking about finding much lower level English learners so that we are evened out more. Thanks so much for sharing this experience, its driving me forwards in helping my students and hopefully i’ll use some of your advice for my own exchanges!

    • Thanks so much – that’s why I wrote this, because I hoped some people would find solace in what happened. (Even if others wonder what on earth I’m talking about!).

      Sorry to hear about that bad experience you had – that is truly shocking, and far worse than what happened to me.

  • I know a language exchange is a different kind of scenario but my always preferred method or practicing my target language is with: Kids and ‘older generation people’ (ie: “grandparents”) who don’t know English. Also, as language exchanges go, I have enjoyed group ones so you can switch up when you run into an awkward or “clingy” person.

    • Thanks for the comment William. Do you find you have enough to actually talk about if you speak to much older or younger people? Thinking about it, I’ve definitely found value in that before. I remember when I was in Japan, teaching in a junior high school, I would chat to the kids in Japanese endlessly. We didn’t have much to talk about (they were just fascinated with the foreigner), but it was a very cool experience, and over time really added up!

      • Like you said, their interest is always there from their side. And depending on what you’re working on you can target/enhance certain areas. Two common areas I seem to always be in rotation with is practicing scripts where you pretty much know how the conversation is going to go (and you can prep for as many variants that you think will occur). The second is listening practice. I find that listening comprehension is always my most difficult hurdle and the bottom line is that they can’t escape from your target language unless they want to stop talking to you altogether. Having enough to talk about is only relative to the level you are currently working on.

        Running into a new person is like groundhog’s day or some odd time travel where you get to do it all over again and learn from the last time. So at some point your initial talking points will have been repeated enough to be bored of, but you still have the listening factor to get better at, spoken language at that repetition level starts to sound more and more natural and less “text booky”, and conversations aren’t always linear. If you hit your end then you just need to have communicative pieces for that situation and it’s usually not a big deal or the conversation tapers off. But that’s also a study point for what to work on for that next level/time you give it another go.

        Now finding those people in mass is maybe more difficult depending on where you live. That’s just some of my experiences. Kids will talk to you in which ever language you talk to them in. Parents/Adults tend to always want to talk in English (even if you’re speaking in your target language, sometimes helpful actually but not long term), and Grandparents can only speak in your target language. I’ve thought about volunteering at old folks homes for my target languages but never pulled the trigger on doing that yet. 😀

  • I’m sorry that you had that experience. Speaking for myself, I find that most of the exchanges I’ve tried to have morph into English practice for the other person. In those cases, it was less the other person trying to take advantage of me than it was their embarrassment at acting as “teacher” in their native language, or their being overjoyed at being able to practice English with someone. In those cases, I don’t feel comfortable insisting in practicing their language, but just move on to someone else. What has been more effective for me has been just jumping into conversations with native speakers of the language I’m trying to practice. If I know very little of the target language, I just use the phrases I know and take that as far as it will get me before the conversation reverts to English, or Spanish if I’m in Latin America.

    • Hey Michael. I’m envious of people who are happy just jumping in like that… it would make things a lot easier, and I’m sure it will serve you well! It just all goes to show just how much of language learning comes down to personality, society, and emotions. Interesting stuff.

  • K. Pandapatan

    1)
    My instinct tells me that Olly’s language exchange partner in this situation was so [afraid of something, maybe judgment] that they shut off their vulnerability and chance for connection.

    As Brene Brown put it, connection unravels when attacked with shame: “Is there something about me that if others found out, then I won’t be worthy of love and connection?”

    It can be such a maddening paradox: the basis for connecting with others is accepting our own imperfections and vulnerability.
    “Do not change yourself. Change how you approach the problem.”
    “You are enough – worthy of love and belonging.”

    It would explain why most of the partner’s questions were transactional and that they failed to pick up on most of Olly’s cues.

    2)
    On Olly’s side, he was already tired and since there was a breakdown of rapport, it’ll be a challenge to see this exchange generously. It’s easy to see the exchange partner in a negative light and fall prey to the fundamental attribution error and even the halo and horn effect. Eliezer Yudkowsky explains the fundamental attribution error this way: “When we look at others we see personality traits that explain their behaviour, but when we look at ourselves we see circumstances that explain our behaviour … we explain by permanent, enduring traits what would be better explained by circumstance and context.”

    Mad props to Olly for doing his best to reflect on the experience, not blame the partner’s personality, and for finding ways to move forward.

    3)
    For Olly’s exchange partner in this blog post and those who find themselves doing the same thing, I can only suggest that they keep trying. Self-acceptance and accepting that we’ll look like a fool while getting a new language is par for the course. It’s a transformational realization, not transactional or informational. It takes action to get there, not reading motivational quotes. Work on quantity before worrying about quality.

    Although, it’s not good for the whole community if too many people like Olly get hurt by exchanges like this. I suggest that those who have the same problem (as the exchange partner in the blog post) either:

    a) get comfortable talking to paid teachers (like find a regular one on italki); or

    b) looking for exchange partners who have profiles that make you feel comfortable.
    [For example, just like me, one of my Japanese teachers likes anime and grew up in the Philippines. If you like cooking, then find someone who likes cooking. If you’re afraid of talking to women or richer people, then don’t talk to them yet. Slowly stretch your comfort zone instead of jumping headfirst into the panic zone.]

  • Becky Rider

    Oops! Sounds like you found a sociopath/narcissist.

    If she is, there wouldn’t have been much you could have done to get a better outcome.

    Better luck next time.

  • hkfun

    I’ve definitely had bad exchanges before where I feel like I can’t catch anything and they speak so quickly and use complicated words. I go to an exchange where an organizer pairs people up, and we have two partners a night. So that does kind of help because there’s a pretty good chance that at least one of them will be good.

    Although I have had good experiences with most people, a few people will keep “forgetting” and I have to keep reminding them to speak Canto (I am a direct American). I usually try to be a bit funny about to make it less awkward. Once I had to remind a guy five times in ten minutes…I may or may not have pretended to hit him the last time… Thankfully that doesn’t happen often.

    It is strange how on some nights I will have one partner with who I can talk fairly fluently and understand almost everything they say and then with the next person I can barely understand anything. At least it can give me some perspective.

    • Yes, it’s interesting to hear what you describe. Don’t you think that your patience will eventually wear thin with that kind of lottery?

      • hkfun

        I don’t think so. I have been doing it for three and a half years (going about every week to every other week), and I still enjoy going. In all that time, I still have only had a few partners I haven’t enjoyed speaking with. Even if I have partners who speak faster or use more complicated words, I try to use that as an opportunity to stretch myself, knowing that I can have another partner who speaks more slowly later.

        And I have seen very good results from it! I think it is great to be able to hear different accents/speed, get different perspectives and have different topics to talk about (and therefore a wider variety of new vocab). I can also poll them on cultural issues and get different opinions. I really think it has helped me improve a lot.

  • Marie

    Dear Olly, I feel sorry you’ve been in a bad mood because of this experience. Indeed, maybe it’s part of your fault, I mean you’ve been too kind with her, in a way (and this shows you’re a gentleman :)). But you know, it’s normal to meet a person one day who is just selfish, ill-mannered or weird.

    I also have some experience in language exchange. Three years ago, I met a canadian man (Peter) on a website. We had a lot of topics in common and we chatted once a week during one entire year. He came in Paris, we met each other. Quite right, everything was ok so my boyfriend and I decided to go on a trip to Toronto and spend a week in his house. The first day was nice but after, I still don’t understand why, he became silent and embarassed. When we went to the restaurant, he and his wife did not want to pay, so my boyfriend and I began to pay everything, including drinks, transports and museum tickets…
    Despite this, they continued to be narrow minded. It was awful, horrible. It was the worst trip ever ! When came the day we had to take our plane, he refused to drive us to the airport and called a taxi, without serving us any breakfast. We never chatted again after that. In the plane from Toronto to New York, I deleted his contact on my devices.
    This guy was closed-minded. I wonder how have I been unable to anticipate it ? But now I don’t think it was possible to imagine what will be going on. Like your cantoneese girl, that’s a part of human being. So I tell you : don’t be too tough on yourself.
    I send to you a lot of french good mood and friendship 🙂
    Affectueusement,
    Marie.

    • pughugs

      Marie your mistake was living at his place he took the attitude you were there for a free lunch like living with your in laws you should have set down rules what you pay and what they pay before you went there When you live in someone else’s house you are not in control and they were not your personal friends so the next time you know what to do in a similar situation
      The first time they didn’t pay for anything you should have left
      It was a bad experience for you but we all learn as we go through life

      Good luck with future exchanges
      Cheers
      John
      Australia

      • It’s interesting that he agreed to host them in the first place, though. You’d think that, as a host, he would want to try as hard as possible to make his guests feel comfortable. I suspect there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

    • That’s quite a shocking story, Marie. To be honest I’m not really sure how to react! I suppose all you can do is put it down to experience, and move on. Just like I’m trying to do now… 🙂

  • Lili

    Thanks so much for this blog Olly! I barely survived one language exchange partner (who I met with multiple times via Skype) and thanked God when she canceled our meetings because of her work! I found myself doing much as you did – allowing the dominant language of English to take over, hating the idea of how low my Korean was going to be compared to her English, and really just waited for reciprocity in the communication process which led to her receiving multiple free language lessons >___< Thanks for the encouragement to keep moving forward!

    • It’s amazing how different people can make you feel completely different. Yesterday, in London, I went to a Chinese event and met one girl from Hong Kong who I chatted with for over an hour in Cantonese. It was a great experience, and she was super encouraging. That experience almost erased everything I wrote about in this blog post. (Almost!)

  • Pat Hill

    You are obviously a very sensitive guy whereas she is a very selfish individual focused only on what she wanted, and was determined to get, from the exchange at any cost. The fact that when it came to your turn she rattled off in Cantonese showed her complete disregard for her partners’ needs, that bit was boring to her which was why she kept switching to English, getting back to what she wanted, your needs were superfluous to her goal. Don’t take it too much to heart, life is far too short, there will always be people like her and experiences like that, they are part of life, chalk it up to experience and move on. I am amazed at what you have achieved, this was just a blip, not worth any post mortem and certainly not to be dwelt on. Lesson learned for the future.

    • I appreciate that, Pat. To be honest I don’t consider her as selfish, in the sense that I don’t think it was conscious. I’m wary of attaching labels to whatever that may be, but I think it probably points to a wider issue.

  • Andrea Welch

    Bless you Olly for being so honest and so English! I think many of us are brought up to be so empathic to the feelings of others that it’s a shock when others don’t reciprocate in the same way. Also, some people are very much out for what they can get for themselves. You just met one of the few selfish people. She’s sound likes an ambitious person who maybe was trying to get a promotion or some thing. I think you were just unlucky (and very polite). Don’t change.

    • I think she was just really happy to have the chance to speak English, most likely. I wouldn’t feel right calling her selfish… I think it’s a lack of awareness hardwired into her personality.

  • Anna Makarova

    Wow, thank you for such frankness. It was really interesting and helpful to read it.

    • Very pleased to hear that, Anna! Have you done many language exchanges yourself?

  • Erik Alfkin

    Honestly, I probably would have reacted very similarly in the same situation. Whenever I have something like that happen to me, regardless of the context, I try to define the characteristics that might have given me a clue in the beginning about what it was going to be like. Then I just chalk the whole thing up to experience learned and make that part of my screening process for the future.

    Ultimately, you were manipulated and used. It’s an ugly feeling and you’re probably going to have to work some to get over it. Give yourself some space and time.

    • It’s funny.. I don’t feel manipulated and used, because that suggests some kind of intent. I honestly don’t think she did it maliciously. It’s just a straight-up lack of awareness.

  • Man Olly… I totally feel you on this one.

    It’s moments like these that you feel: “Man, I wish English was NOT my native language!”

    I haven’t done a language exchange often, I totally feel you on this one man!

    Glad you learned from this one!

  • Goshka

    1. I don’t want to tell you ‘you should have…’, you know what you could do and say and what the situation was. I have a suggestion, doesn’t the exchange page have users’ reviews page? so that you could warn others against wasting their time with her, as she obviously doesn’t deserve having good exchanges?
    or, if there is no reviews, maybe you could write to her now, as you are calm, and say how a good language exchange looks like?
    2. where is the message ‘worst language exchange ever. thoroughly depressed.’ you mentioned in the podcast? I would like to read the comment thread. is it ‘fluency mastermind’ private group, or ‘educational page’ olly richards or ‘public person’ olly richards, or is it your private account?

    • That particular thread is on my private Facebook account.

  • Goshka

    3. you encouraged me to have an exchange, I haven’t done it yet! I’ve found a few contacts for my polish-their french on the page you used. I’ll make sure to use your tips.
    4. if you want to hear our stories: I joined a conversational group for English, in a language school. for the first meeting it was only me who appeared. and I remember to this day, he started talking and kept talking for the entire hour! telling about his journeys, life, experience. I was too nice and polite and just asked him questions 🙁 instead of reminding that it’s a Conversational Group, so *I* am to be talking here! some people say that maybe he wanted to encourage me to talk by talking himself. never mind it’s silly because a shy, uncommunicative person already knows others can talk, you don’t have to show it to them to prove it 😉 you need to encourage them by asking questions. But he didn’t even ask me anything to see that I had no problems talking in English, I was comfortable in it already then.
    and it was supposedly a professional language school and I (my parents really) paid normally = a lot for the entire conversational course including an hour of me listening.

    • Wow… it seems this situation is more widespread that I had thought 🙂 I’m pleased you’re restarting your efforts though!

  • Fantastic article, loved reading this Olly. I commiserate with you – language exchanges are exhausting at the best of times. Your Britishness stood out even halfway down the page.

    • This blog post is by far the best thing that came out of that language exchange. It’s shocked me into being more forthcoming.

  • Ursula Holzer

    You know the more I think about that experience, I get the feeling that language exchanges are like friendships. Some work, some are and will never work. I had good ones and some of them that will never work. One person told me to use Duolingo first and chat with him, when I speak the language. That was harsh for me, but then I checked out Duolingo! And I am working with it ever since!

    • I think you’re right – they’re exactly like friendships. I often find myself spending more time with language partners than my friends! You can spend hours with people one-on-one and not develop a kind of friendship.

  • Mariana (aka Kalleca)

    Language exchange it’s what made Spanish teaching my job, I was so tired of me being a better partner. I rather pay for my lessons and I will try exchanging again when my French is more advanced. I recomend my students to do exchanges when they are at least B1. Also I have noticed in verbling that a lot of people do not understand what slowly means, English, Spanish, French. Some people think that slowlier is louder. 🙂

    • That’s a typical response from English people to foreigners. Louder, and the same speed! Haha

  • Fintan Mc Gee

    Thanks for the post Olly. Your good intentions have not gone unnoticed so don’t beat yourself up. This was definitely a clash of cultures (personal or individual) and possibly unavoidable. Maybe you could have done things differently but would you really have wanted to be more assertive just to have more time with Cantonese and an inauthentic conversation meet-up? I think you are looking for real life interactions and this would never be one for you unfortunately. Equality is very important and she crossed the line on that one. It’s unfortunate that she did not pick up on your hints. She should have known about the 1 hour split regardless of your hints. I don’t think you should worry about being too English because it needs to work for you… and you do work with many people from other cultures or with an understanding and respect of your culture which you reciprocate…..at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good her English was if she couldn’t pick up on your English culture (verbal or non-verbal)…..her loss! Anyway, keep the chin up 🙂

    • Thanks man… I appreciate that! I also think you’re right on every count. Doing anything different would have been a concession too far, I think.

  • Gio Minto

    Most of the times i have the opportunity to speak Arabic with natives who have a very high level in my native language (Italian) . So even though my level in Arabic is not that bad and I can handle a conversation easily it feels really awkward to speak Arabic since I know that we could have a much better conversation in Italian .
    How can I overcome this social anxiety? I’d like to point pour that i have no problem whatsoever when I talk with someone I don’t know since I just tell him/her that I don’t speak English, forcing him/her to stick with Arabic