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What is a language exchange partner – and what’s the best way to find one?
In this article, I’ll answer both these questions to help you understand what language exchanges can do for you, where to find language exchange partners, and how to choose the best ones for you.
Language exchange partners are a fantastic resource when you’re learning a new language.
And you can find the perfect language exchange partner, if you know what you’re doing.
I’ll start by giving a brief overview of how language exchanges work. Feel free to skip to the next section if you already know this!
What is a Language Exchange Partner?
A language exchange partner is someone who volunteers to chat with you in your target language. For example, if you’re learning Spanish, then your language exchange partner will talk with you in Spanish. Typically, this exchange partner would be a native Spanish speaker, though they may speak Spanish as a foreign language to an advanced level.
Here’s where the exchange part comes in.
In exchange for them chatting with you in your target language, you will chat with them in their target language (i.e. your native language).
To continue our example, if your native language is English, then you’d spend time chatting with your Spanish exchange partner in English as well as Spanish. You do this because they want help learning English.
Typically, you’d give equal time to each language. So if you booked a 30-minute session with your Spanish exchange partner, you’d spend 15 minutes chatting in English and 15 minutes chatting in Spanish.
How to Find a Language Exchange Partner
I use the website italki to find language exchange partners to video chat with. You’ll find exchange partners for all major languages, and many lesser-spoken ones, on italki. I recommend it!
That said, finding the right partner for a language exchange isn’t always easy.
I know this from experience, because when I first started doing language exchanges, I had no idea what I was doing.
I thought it was as simple as blasting out messages to other users on italki who spoke my target language and were learning my native language, then chatting with them for an hour.
But after a few failed exchanges, I realised that I was going about it all wrong.
I needed to spend more time up front finding a partner who was a good match so that I’d save time and have more effective online language exchanges.
Here are my top tips – learned from my own experience – to boost the odds of you finding your ideal language exchange partner.
Be Up Front About What You Want From the Language Exchange
When you’re looking to regularly connect with someone for a tandem exchange, it’s important to clearly state what you’re expecting up front. Here are a few things to consider:
- Are you at the level where you want your half of the exchange to only be in your target language? Or will you need to revert to your native language sometimes, for example to discuss grammar?
- How long do you want the exchange to be? How long can you stay focused?
- How often do you want your exchange partner to correct you? And how do you want to receive those corrections? Do you want them to correct every mistake or just the ones you make repeatedly? Should they correct you immediately, or tell you all of your mistakes at the end?
- Do you have common interests? This can either be a pro or con. Having common interests gives you something to talk about. At the same time, not having common interests gives you the opportunity to introduce the things you enjoy to another person.
You need to know what you want in order to get it. Time spent thinking about what you need from a language exchange is time well invested. Be sure to share what you need with any exchange partner you consider speaking with. If they don’t agree, then they aren’t the right partner for you.
Don’t Click With Your Language Exchange Partner? Don’t Sweat It
There may be a variety of reasons you and your exchange partner aren’t a good match:
- They are at a much higher level than you and tend to keep the conversation in your native language.
- You have nothing in common.
- You just don’t get along with them.
- They aren’t able to help you the way you need.
- They cut you off to correct you far too often even after you asked them not to.
Trying to force an exchange that just isn’t working is in no way worth it. It’s not only a waste of time for you, but for your partner as well. Your time is better spent finding someone who you click with.
Look for Exchange Partners Who Can Keep the Conversation Rolling
Doing your part when you’re new to a language can be tough. If you commit to a 30 minute exchange, that’s an entire 15 minutes that you need to talk in or listen to your target language. And it can be exhausting or even overwhelming.
If your exchange partner isn’t good at helping you keep the conversation rolling in your target language, then you probably don’t have a good match. Look for someone who asks you questions or prompts you in some way to keep going. Don’t settle for someone who lets the conversation fall flat when you run out things to say.
Avoid Language Partners Who Hog the Limelight
There are exchange partners that tend to take over the exchange and completely forget that they’re supposed to help you, too. And if you find that you enjoy the company of that person, it can be difficult to keep things on track and push them to give you your equal time because you don’t want to put that strain on the relationship.
No matter how well you may get along with someone, remember that part of the reason you’re chatting with them is to get language practice. If they aren’t giving you your fair share, it might be time to find a new partner and just switch your status with that person to ‘friend’ rather than ‘exchange partner’.
Language exchanges might not be a monetary investment, but they are definitely a time investment and your time is valuable. Don’t waste it. You can always chat with your new friend when it isn’t your study time.
Need a Teacher? Then Invest in a Tutor Rather than a Language Exchange Partner
Exchange partners are very rarely, if ever, able to teach their native language. Looking for a lesson? Then you’re better off investing in a tutor. Language exchange partners are for conversing. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to explain grammar points or rules to you. A language teacher can.
This is when saving your time and investing money becomes the better option.
Make Sure Your Language Levels are Compatible
You want a language exchange partner whose language level is compatible with yours. This doesn’t mean you each need to be at the same level in your target languages. In fact, if you’re both complete beginners, you may have a rough time of it. On the other hand, if one person is far more advanced than the other, you may find that the exchange stays in the language of the more advanced person and the exchange becomes unfair.
Try to find an exchange partner whose level compliments your own so that you’re more fairly matched with them.
Remember the Key Attributes to Look for: Reliable, Focused, Engaging
I’ve had my fair share of language exchange partners who showed up to our meetings late, unprepared, and distracted. It’s never fun and it makes the exchange a drag. It ends up being a poor use of my time.
If your exchange partner is late or distracted once, it isn’t a big deal. If they’re unprepared or late repeatedly, it becomes a big deal. When this happens, it’s time to look for a new exchange partner.
How to BE the Perfect Language Exchange Partner
It’s easy to write off a language exchange, claiming it’s the other person’s fault that it didn’t work out. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you’re at fault for a less-than-perfect exchange. There are a ton of ways that you can mess up your exchanges on Skype, so it’s important to do what you can to avoid making mistakes as an exchange partner.
Here are a few tips for how you can be the perfect language exchange partner so that when you find the person that’s perfect for you, they’ll also want continue chatting.
Plan Out Conversation Topics in Advance
One of the best ways to waste your language exchange is by failing to plan ahead. If you don’t prepare topics in advance, you risk not having anything to talk about during your exchange.
Plan out conversation topics in advance, and check to see if they interest your partner. Also, study and prepare phrases or questions that are appropriate to the topic in advance.
You could even consider writing a script to read in full or use as a prompt if you feel stuck during the actual exchange.
Once you’ve found a solid language exchange partner, commit to them.
Before language exchanges, commit to preparing.
When you’re in a language exchange, commit to staying focused.
By being committed, you’ll find you get much more out of your language exchanges – and your exchange partner will too.
Give People a Second Chance
Sometimes the first session won’t go the way you hoped. Remember that you’re getting to know a new person and explore how you best work together. It might take time for you to “click”.
If you feel like the first session had a few hiccups, but that your exchange partner had potential, give them another chance.
Take Notes During Your Language Exchange Sessions
Take notes during your sessions (or immediately after). I recommend having a document open on your computer for this.
That way you can note down any new vocabulary and phrases you learned. And you can plan out things you can ask your exchange partner when you next converse.
Did they tell you about an upcoming interview or exam? Make a note to ask them (in your target language) how it went. Did they mention they have brothers or sisters? The next time you chat, ask how their siblings are doing.
Ask Them What They Need
Earlier, I recommended that you let your language exchange partner know your expectations for any conversations you have. Likewise, be sure to ask them what they expect from you. Then do your best to fulfil those expectations each time you meet. And if you’re not able to, be honest about that.
Send a Follow-Up Note after Every Conversation
A day or two after each exchange, follow up with an email to your partner to thank them for their time, and ask any questions you have. You can also offer feedback. And if you want to meet them again, have a date and time ready to suggest.