10 mistakes people make with language exchanges

We hear a lot about language exchanges and I think they’re a really good way to get in some additional language practice. But a language exchange only works well if you avoid some of these common mistakes.

I’m going to talk about 10 things that you shouldn’t do if you’re helping someone to learn your language. I don’t think anyone does these things on purpose – generally people want to help and do the best that they can, but most people involved in language exchanges are not teachers, and they may not realise that some of the things they are doing are not helpful.

1. Don’t correct every single word

If someone is writing a really important letter, they may well want it to be as good as it can possibly be, but I’ve seen situations where people take apart every single sentence, like a bird hunting for worms, and swooping down on every single mistake. Far from being helpful, this can make the other person not want to speak at all. Of course it’s good to have some system in place for correcting mistakes, but it’s better if you can focus on a couple at a time, or at least wait until the other person has finished speaking before you give your feedback. A language exchange should be a positive experience, and not one that makes the other person never want to speak again!

2. Don’t say everything is fine if it isn’t!

Far from correcting every mistake, I had one language learner complain that people never corrected her. Perhaps she hadn’t communicated exactly what she wanted in terms of corrections, but if you’re working with someone with the goal of improving both of your languages, then you do need to put some effort into helping the other person to improve.

3. Don’t forget that a language exchange should be about learning both languages

It’s natural that you might be tempted to spend longer on the language which is easiest for communication. If you are a more advanced or confident learner than your language partner, this could mean you get an unfair advantage, because you spend more time speaking or writing your target language. Keep it fair and make sure you spend some time on the other language too.

4. Don’t expect the other person to be a teacher

You might get lucky and end up working with someone who understands the grammar rules of their language and who has taught before. However, the chances are that they will be a language learner, just like you. If you want the kind of explanations that a teacher would give, you may well have to pay for a teacher, or do some research together in order to answer your questions. Keep your expectations fair – it isn’t the other person’s fault that they are not a teacher!

5. Don’t pretend you know all the answers

I’ve seen some really bad advice or explanations being given by people who should really have just admitted that they didn’t know the answer. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” or “I’ll get back to you about that”. It’s much more helpful than giving someone incorrect information that they then go on to use in their language learning.

6. Don’t keep asking the same question in different ways

It’s good to find different ways of asking a question if you think someone hasn’t understood you, but sometimes they may just need a bit of time to collect their thoughts or to ask for clarification. I’ve been asked the same thing three times in three different ways. That didn’t change the fact that I didn’t know the answer or I needed to think about how I could explain something that wasn’t straightforward. Sometimes people just need a few seconds to think.

7. Don’t make the other person feel stupid

I think only someone who knows how it feels to start learning a new language and feel completely inadequate with a tiny vocabulary can understand how frustrating it is when you have so many ideas inside your head, but you can’t yet put them into words. Sometimes people will say funny things, and it’s ok if they understand why it’s funny and you can laugh together, but there’s a difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them. Laughing at other people’s mistakes is not cool.

8. Don’t show your impatience

Sometimes it takes time to formulate a sentence. Sometimes a language exchange or language tandem conversation is much slower than a conversation with your native-speaking friends would be. Some people are not naturally patient! But if you want someone to wait for you, you need to be prepared to wait for them as well, and not start fidgeting, looking around, checking your phone or sighing because it’s taking a long time.

9. If you’re looking for a date, do the world a favour and don’t go to a language exchange site!

When I was single, I would have been ok with it if a language exchange had developed into something more, but that wasn’t my primary reason for being on the site. I wanted to learn. There were plenty of other, really nice people who just wanted to learn as well, but there were some who only wanted to meet girls, or guys, and for them it had nothing to do with language learning. There are other sites for that.

10. Don’t be unreliable!

Yes, we are all busy and sometimes life happens. But just because it’s easier to cancel an online meeting than it would be to tell a friend who’s standing on your doorstep that you feel a bit tired and don’t feel like going out, it doesn’t mean that you should do it! If people set aside time to be with you, try to honour that unless there is some really good reason why you can’t.

How about you?

Do you have any more “don’t” sentences to add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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