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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