The Fine Art of Language Exchange: How to Find that Special Someone to Practise Your New Language
A tear rolls down my cheek as I listen to her story.
My friend lost her cat to a spinal cord injury. Minou was a handsome round-faced tabby with a fluffy racoon tail.
With swollen red eyes, my friend shares intimate details of her cat’s unsuccessful surgery. After a long silence, I hand her a tissue and we break into laughter. The joke eases our sadness for the moment.
What exactly was the joke?
I was attempting to hand my dear friend a tissue through my computer screen. She was in France while I was sitting in California. We started out as language exchange partners, chatting on Skype. A year later, we are genuine friends. I have strong bonds with my Francophone friends because I made language exchange a key part of my learning.
Let’s be honest. Speaking to a new person in your target language can be intimidating. It takes guts and a hardy dose of grit to create a sustainable language exchange.
The first time I did it, I not only suffered from insomnia the night before. I also sounded weird during the exchange. My brain was so busy finding words that I had the social skills of a baby moose (more on that in a moment).
First, let me begin with how I started.
I Started by Talking to Strangers
For writing practice, I submit one or two posts in my target language every week on italki’s notebook section. These folks corrected my French, we got to talking, and things worked out from there.
If you’re looking for a language exchange partner, I recommend that you start by connecting with people online (who speak your target language) on a regular basis. You can do that on italki, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or online forums, or plenty of other online platforms. Do this, and you will make friends who speak your target language. Then you can ask if they’d like to hang out.
I Was Persistent and I Didn’t Give Up
When I was looking for a language exchange partner, I contacted several of the native speakers who corrected my notebook submissions on italki. Using the same email message, I asked if they would be available for a weekly chat. Out of ten sent messages, a retired Belgium man was the only one to reply.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll hit a few dead ends before you find a good fit.
As for my French partner, she contacted me after she corrected one of my notebook entries. I responded to her with a similar generic text.
I Use a Simple Contact Script
Here’s the message I use when I contact a potential language exchange partner. Feel free to use it yourself!
Thank you for contacting me, Jean.
It would be a pleasure to speak with you and practice our target languages together. I am available Monday, Wednesday or Saturday at 15h30/Paris time next week. If you'd like, we can talk for an hour (30 minutes in English, 30 minutes in French) or a half hour (15 minutes & 15 minutes). If you pick a time, I'll meet you on Skype.
Language learning should be fun. I'm a helpful language partner because I speak clearly and have a friendly demeanor. I would write this in French as well but I have to get ready for work.
Wishing you all the best on your language learning journey,
I’ve Made the Chats Part of My Routine
You brush your teeth every morning. I hope. You go grocery shopping every Thursday after work. These simple tasks are part of your routine.
You don’t think about it. You just do it.
By setting up a chat at the same time every week, having a language exchange becomes as easy as walking your dog:
Language exchange has been a regular part of my weekly routine for over a year now. It’s the main reason I am so comfortable when talking to strangers in my target language. During our recurring sessions, I speak with my language exchange partners for 30 minutes in French followed by 30 minutes in English.
After months of weekly chats with my language buds, I find myself forgetting that I’m speaking French. It’s an extraordinary feeling, and one that you can experience too — as soon as you find a language exchange partner.
I Share My Interests in My Online Profiles
Your online profile will help potential exchange partners find common ground with you. Hat tip to Lindsay Williams for that handy-dandy hint.
When you’re on a language exchange website such as italki, potential exchange partners will pop over to your profile to see if you have anything in common to talk about. You can share your favorite movies, music or hobbies in your profile. I enjoy the art of language learning so much I included the tools I use. Here’s a peek at my profile.
My husband and I love visiting Paris as well as other areas in Europe. I've wanted to learn a second language ever since I was a little girl. My current goal is to learn French to B2 level. Once I've reached that level, I will learn Spanish and Chinese.
Some of my favorite study habits and apps:
I Set Expectations Right from the Start
As you can see in my contact script above, I list my availability so that my potential exchange partner can choose the best time for her. I also made sure to explain how the language exchange would work. Setting the 50% French / 50% English expectation makes it easy to stick to this guideline.
A few people responded that they would be happy to chat but preferred to meet spontaneously. That didn’t work for me and I responded with a polite, “No, thank you” message.
I wasn’t interested in hunting for a partner every week. For me, that would be like hiding my toothbrush in a different room every morning. Practicing your target language is a challenging mental workout. Routine can make it a little easier.
As I mentioned earlier, most people never even responded. It’s a numbers game, folks. Don’t get discouraged. Keep trying.
I Let Go When Exchanges Didn’t Work Out
One language exchange partner that was not a fit was Maxime. I enjoyed talking to him. His patient demeanor made me comfortable while fumbling with my beginner level French.
But, he was late. A lot. He would send me a message saying he would be five minutes late due to an important work meeting. Then he’d show up 20 minutes past the agreed start time.
I’m not big on drama. And there is no need to school a grown man. Besides, I couldn’t lambast him in French just yet. After he was late for the third time, I told him that I was no longer available and that I would call him if I had time.
By letting him go, I made space in my life for the best language buds to arrive. Our energetic life is much like tending a garden.
New growth will not occur until there is space available. Keep your language plot weeded and you’ll be amazed at the beautiful flowers that grow with a few organic seeds.
I Keep It Even, Steven (My Sunny California Smile Helps Here)
I listened to Olly Richards speaking about a language exchange partner gone rogue. After they spoke in English for 30 minutes or so, he attempted to switch to his target language but she refused. He’s way more polite than me. He didn’t come right out and tell her it was time to speak in his target language.
He was smart enough to refrain from scheduling a second exchange. As for me, I’m pretty American in that I would have said with my sunny California smile something to the effect of “Okay! French time now.”
I've got a secret weapon. I grew up on the East Coast where being frank is a regional pastime. It comes in handy when used sparingly.
Actually, I have said, “Okay! French time now,” when my language partner and I get carried away in our conversation. I am fair. I do the same when it’s time for English.
I wait for my partner to take a breath between sentences and then I say gently, “Ok, English now.” Then I start answering only in the correct language. It’s become so normal that we continue the subject in the new language.
I Make Sure: Same Time, Same Place, Same Coffee
I keep to a routine, and it works well for me. I do my language exchanges first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee. Actually, I usually go for hot water. But you get the idea.
With this routine, having a goal of 120 minutes of speaking French per week is not only possible, it’s easy. I talk to my buds before starting my day. I plunk down on my meditation bench for a morning mind bath. I brush my teeth. And on a good day, I do five minutes of yoga before a session but everything else happens after we chat.
I Cheat on My Language Partners (They Forgive Me, Honestly)
I usually surpass my weekly goal of 120 minutes because I have more than one language bud. But why have more than one? Because people get sick. Because people go on vacation. Because life happens.
It’s helpful to have partners with different accents, speech patterns and interests. My American partner laughs with me when we can’t figure out how to translate a phrase we use in English like “binge-watch” or the not-used-nearly-enough “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.
My Belgium partner uses simple sentences. He remembers what it was like to learn a second, third and fourth language.
My French partner shows me what American culture looks like through her eyes.
They are each fascinating in their own way.
I’m Prepared for a Mental Workout While Simultaneously Sounding like a Preschooler
It takes courage to set up a language exchange appointment. It takes even more courage to show up. The first month of weekly language exchanges was the hardest for me.
My French speaking muscles hadn’t developed yet. I suffered insomnia. It was due to a mixture of excitement and terror the night before each appointment.
My husband would find me staring off into a corner while mumbling to myself in French. Poor fella. He thought I’d gone mad. As it turns out, I was practicing my introductions.
During the first few weeks, I would also run out of things to say during our chats. My brain was so busy finding words that I had the social skills of a baby moose.
Someone would ask me how I was doing. After five minutes of sputtering, I would finally mumble Ça va (“It's going well”).
This extremely impressive two-word sentence was then followed by a very long, very awkward silence. I completely forgot to ask them how they were doing.
I’ve Learned that “Baby Moose Phase” Is Normal
It gets better with practice, I promise. But it will only get better if you practice.
The first month of conversations were choppy and uncomfortable. I jumped all over the place. Talking to me in French was like talking to a four year old. A four year old who had minutes ago eaten two gigantic popsicles followed by a 20 ounce Red Bull.
“I like frogs. Do you like the beach? Yesterday, we went to the park. Where does your mom live?”
My famous phrase for changing subjects was, “I want to talk about…” And off we’d go.
How to Be a Great Language Exchange Partner in 5 Simple Steps
Quoting Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Or in the case of a language exchange, be the language partner you wish to see in your world. It’s quite simple.
Step 1: Be on time.
I set up Skype before brushing my teeth. I learned the hard way. I missed out on 20 minutes of an exchange because my fickle computer decided it was time to update and restart.
Step 2: Be courteous.
I emailed my language partner with a sincere apology. I also promised to let her know when my computer was working again. Her time is valuable. So, I keep delays to a minimum.
Step 3: Put your freaking phone down.
And keep it out of reach during the entire conversation. Trust me. It won’t kill you.
There is no greater killjoy than to struggle in a target language while the other person sneaks a text. Not cool!
Step 4: Invest in a headset with a decent microphone.
It’s hard enough speaking in your target language. Add not hearing the other person or sounding muffled. You can turn a lovely exchange into an annoying experience.
For 10 bucks, you can miss out on the madness. Your headset doesn’t need to be fancy. I have two sets near my study chair. If one poops out (which does happen), it doesn’t ruin the whole conversation.
Step 5: Be a cheerleader.
Positive feedback to a language learner is like sunshine on a plant. Give it freely. Give it often. Give it wholeheartedly.
Some of the things I say to my language partners are quite simple.
Your sentences have better flow this week. That’s great.
I noticed you are looking up words less and less on Google Translate. Way to go!
It’s actually quite touching to see my language friends bask in the glow of their improvements.
Ready. Set. Exchange!
What I know for sure is that language exchange has made my language learning come alive. It's unnerving to take the plunge but so worth it.
I wish you the best of luck luck with your language exchange adventures. Have you ever tried a language exchange? I'd love to hear your two cents' worth.