How to get the best out of language exchanges

Language exchange partners, sometimes also known as tandem partners, can really help you to grow in confidence and develop your language skills. Here are a few tips for you to consider when you are looking for and working with tandem partners:

1. Your choice of exchange partner

Think about the kind of person with whom you would like to work. If you’re posting an advert on a language exchange site, it’s up to you how much information you disclose about yourself but try to be clear about what you want to gain from the exchange and what you have to offer. Do you want to improve your speaking skills? Do you want someone who will help you by correcting your writing? Are you looking for someone who shares one of your hobbies? How can you help someone who wants to learn your language?

Most people on language exchange sites are genuinely interested in learning languages but there are some who have other motives such as finding a partner. Be aware of this but don’t let it put you off as there are plenty of people out there whose genuine motivation is to learn another language and you may also find some really good friends this way.

If you speak a language which many other people want to learn, it might not be possible for you to start corresponding regularly with everyone who writes to you, so think about which tandem partnerships are likely to be successful and useful and try not to overcommit yourself if you get a lot of messages or you may end up feeling overwhelmed. Be honest with yourself and your exchange partners about how much time you have for the exchanges.

Sometimes it’s easier to write to other people rather than to wait for someone to write to you – that way you can see how they have presented themselves first.

Sometimes people have good intentions but they don’t write back after a few messages or they don’t have time for future meetings. This happens sometimes and this is why it can be good to have several language exchanges so you are not left without a learning partner if one exchange doesn’t work out.

2. Do you need a plan?

Sometimes it’s really good to be spontaneous and, particularly if you arrange to do an activity together, you will find plenty to talk about. Even if you just meet for coffee or go for a walk, you will find topics for discussion such the things around you, current affairs, films, music, books, travel or mutual interests.

Learning a new language also gives you the opportunity to learn about another culture and to tell somebody about yours.

However, if one person is a bit shy or not confident about speaking the other language, it might be a good idea to agree on a topic so that you can think about what you want to talk about beforehand and look up some new vocabulary without feeling under pressure.

If your partner is not very confident, try to think of questions that will encourage them to give longer answers. You could also find something that interests them. People find it easier to discuss their favourite subjects because they are used to talking about them.

Some people may have very specific ideas about what they want to do. For example, they may need help with homework or they may be working with a specific language book.

3. Keep it fair

The idea behind an exchange is that both people get something out of it. Some people ensure that this happens by having a set amount of time to speak each language or by speaking one language during the first meeting and the other during the next. You can also be more flexible but keep an eye on the language balance as it is often the case that people naturally use the easiest language for communication. This results in the more proficient or more confident learner getting a better deal whilst the other person is “short-changed”.
Consequently, they make slower progress because less time is given to the language that they want to learn.

Ideally, both people should come away from the meetings feeling that they have benefited in some way.

4. Online language exchanges

Online exchanges can help you with your writing and speaking skills. If you’re happy to work online, the pool of possible language exchange partners is much bigger and you don’t have to find someone who lives locally. This may also make it easier for you to find a native speaker.

If you’re going to speak online, set aside some time to do this and try to keep to these times. Remember – being stood up online is no less annoying than being stood up in real life!

Try to find somewhere quiet so that you won’t be disturbed by noise or other people and try to be aware of the other person’s time zone if it is a lot different to yours.

5. Have fun!

If you are enjoying yourself, you are likely to relax. Learning a language means that you have to invest time and effort but it doesn’t feel like such hard work if you are having fun. Using the language in a practical situation will make it more relevant and give you the chance to practise the things that you have learned. If you build up trust between you and your learning partner, it will be easier for you to learn from one another and learn from your mistakes without feeling self-conscious or embarrassed.

Your ideas

What are your experiences of tandem learning? Do you have any tips to add?

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Kirsty working with students