Language exchanges (or conversation exchanges) are such a great tool to vastly improve your language speaking skills. It is necessary to have human interaction with other people to truly become fluent in any language. But there is a science to doing a language exchange – just finding someone to practise with isn’t enough. I talk about language exchanges a lot (like here and here) because I have just found them so useful, but I realise I haven’t really explained the best way to do an exchange, so this is what you need to know to do a language exchange successfully.
There are many things people do wrong in their language exchange which can actually be detrimental rather than useful.
- Speak in your target language and have the other person answer you in your native language.
This is not an effective method to learn a language. The idea of a language exchange is to simulate a real-world environment where you would use the language. You will never encounter this situation in the real world. Perhaps even more importantly, doing this does not train your brain in the right way. When you are having a conversation in your target language, your aim should be to think completely in that language. If you are having a conversation half in one language and half in the other, you will be constantly translating thoughts, which is not a sustainable way to learn and won’t result in you speaking any language fluently.
- Have full conversations in each language
The fairest and most productive way to do a language exchange is to have full conversations in each language. Try to keep the conversation fully in one language until you move onto another topic or it is an agreed time to switch languages.
- Spend too much time speaking either language
Remember that this is a language EXCHANGE, and the idea is for there to be a mutual benefit for each party. Don’t be that asshole that takes advantage of the other person’s language abilities without helping them with theirs. And if your language partner is like this, never be afraid to ask to switch languages, and be firm about it. You are not doing an exchange just to help someone else.
- Split up the time in a disciplined way
The best way to ensure that you both receive an equal benefit and get the same out of the exchange is to stipulate rules for when and how you will speak each language. One of the most successful exchanges I’ve had was really strict: we would decide how long our meeting was for, and then we would split the time exactly and set an alarm for when it was time to change languages. This made sure we both got to practise for the same amount of time.
- Treat it as a student/teacher relationship
Keep your student/teacher relationships for your students and teachers. Remember that your language exchange partner, unless they are qualified in their native language or have a teaching degree, are probably not experts on spelling and grammar. The purpose of a language exchange is to experience the language in a natural way and see how natives speak it in everyday life. Do not expect them to teach you about grammar or to speak the way you have learned the language in the classroom. Listen to the colloquialisms and the slang. Likewise, don’t try to change your speech or speak too formally to your language partner.
- Treat it like a friendship
Some of my best friendships have come out of language exchanges. Treat the other person like you would a friend, and watch how easy and natural the relationship (and conversation!) becomes. It is even better if that person introduces you to their friends and you can hang out with a group of people in your target language! Try and do something fun with your language buddy to use the language in different contexts, e.g: go to town together, go to a theme park, go to the beach. A language exchange doesn’t have to just be over coffee!
- Dismiss the other person’s mistakes
It goes without saying that your language partner will make mistakes when speaking or writing the other language. In a normal situation, you might dismiss this as something ‘normal’ for someone who is just learning a language. But in the case of a language exchange, it is literally your job to correct the mistakes the other person makes. Once someone is participating in a language exchange, they are officially giving you permission – read: asking you – to correct their mistakes and help them improve their language abilities. Don’t be afraid to tell them when they say something wrong.
- Correct mistakes immediately and ask that the other person does the same for you
The best way to help your language buddy is to correct the mistakes they make as soon as they make them. I mean, you can let them finish their sentence, but let them know as soon as you get the chance what they could have done better. Also, don’t be ashamed to tell them if you don’t understand what they said. Make sure your language buddy knows this is what you want as well – and don’t get offended or upset when they do correct you!
- Exchange with someone who has a more advanced or more basic level than you
It might sound harsh or superficial, but there is a legitimate reason for this. Any time there is a noticeable difference between your level and that of your language partner, it is natural to automatically lean towards speaking the language of the more advanced partner. This makes it an unfair exchange for the less advanced partner.
- Find someone with a similar level to you
Try to look for fair exchanges, always. If you are more advanced, make sure you give the other person an equal amount of time to practise their language – and be patient!
- Go unprepared
Remember you are meeting up with someone who probably has a different culture and lifestyle to you, and who you have never met before. If you don’t have anything to talk about, one of two things can happen. 1: Things can get really awkward, fast, or 2: You end up going around in circles talking about the same mundane topics that do not challenge either of your language abilities.
- Have some topics in mind before you meet up
Something I have done is write a whole list of discussion questions which range from ‘what is your most embarrassing moment’ to ‘what are the political effects on climate change’ and everything in between. If you already have an intermediate level of a language, chances are talking about yourself and basic topics is really easy. To make the most of your language exchange, try to challenge yourself and offer something unique to your conversation partner.
- Do your language exchange with just anyone
Just because someone claims to speak a language, does not mean they speak it well. Don’t automatically trust someone’s ability to speak a language. If they are not a native speaker, have them prove their abilities.
- Do your language exchange with a native speaker
Your best bet is to do a language exchange with a native speaker of your target language. If you really can’t find a willing partner, find someone who has proven credentials in said language (be it a University degree, or C2 level in a recognised institution).
Have you ever done a language exchange? What do you find the most useful about it? Share your experiences in the comments!~