Skype language exchanges are easy, affordable and incredibly effective.
What’s more, you can do a language exchange without ever leaving your hometown, or even your house. So no more excuses about how travel is too expensive, keeping you from practising your language with native speakers.
Here’s how a language exchange works. You sign up with an online language learning website such as italki, and then search for italki users who speak your target language and have your native language as their target language. When you’ve found these people, you drop them a line, and schedule a face-to-face language exchange. This can be done on Skype, FaceTime, or even in-person if your conversation partner lives near you.
Understandably, language exchanges can be nerve-wracking. What if you do things wrong, or offend your exchange partner? It’s actually pretty hard to mess up on a language exchange, since the point is to mess up, then learn from your mistakes.
Even so, there are a few things it’s probably good to avoid doing. Here are the mistakes you don’t want to make before or during a language exchange session.
Mistake #1: Waiting Until You Feel Ready
When it comes to language exchanges, waiting for the right time is the biggest mistake people make. Signs that you’re making this mistake include putting the exchange off for another day before you’ve even arranged to meet someone, or rescheduling because you’re too nervous to make the call.
Why is this mistake so common? Because people want to wait until they feel ready. Maybe you’re afraid your conversation partner won’t understand you at your current level. Or perhaps you worry that you’ll butcher the language so badly that your conversation partner won’t want to talk to you anymore.
No matter your current level in your target language, it’s never too soon to have a conversation with a native speaker. You might not be able to talk about convoluted topics like the plot of Lost, but who says you have to? The beauty of a language exchange is that you can talk about any subject you want, for as much (or as little) time as you want. In fact, I recommend that you have your first language exchange just seven days after you start learning a new language.
Mistake #2: Dominating the Conversation
A language exchange is not a free language lesson. In a language lesson, you spend the whole time learning another language, and you pay for the privilege. In an exchange, you take turns at learning and teaching. The key’s in the name: it’s an exchange. The point is that you should each benefit equally.
Sure, you might be super excited at the prospect of practising your target language. But remember that the other person is equally excited and deserves the same amount of time dedicated to practising their target language.
How can you make sure you don’t dominate the conversation? Use a timer. For instance, you can spend thirty minutes chatting in only your native language, followed by thirty minutes chatting in only the other person’s native language. This doesn’t have to be thirty consecutive minutes. I’ve heard of conversation partners who alternate the language every ten minutes! If you’re inexperienced in having extended conversations in your target language and are worried about your brain melting before the conversation is over, this is a useful way to keep up the conversation’s momentum, while still speaking your target language 50% of the time.
Mistake #3: Switching Back to Your Native Language While You Should be Speaking Your Target Language
Make a pact with your conversation partner before the talk begins that no matter what, you’ll keep the conversation in the correct language until it’s time to switch. This is especially important if the other person’s skills in your native language are better than your skills in their language.
When you know that the other person will understand perfectly what you want to say if you switch back to your native language “just for a minute”, then it’s really easy to let yourself slip back to it every time you get stuck. But you need to force yourself to power through these tough parts in your target language, otherwise how can you ever expect to reach fluency?
Mistake #4: Expecting the Other Person to Steer the Conversation
Be an active participant in your language exchange. Don’t sit back and make the other person think up all the questions and conversation topics. It’s not fair to them to have to keep coming up with interesting material to talk about.
Worried that you’ll run out of things to say? Then before the language exchange, write down a few topics of conversation, along with key vocabulary related to each topic. Whenever there’s a lull in conversation, rather than hoping that the other person finds something good to say (or worse: ending the call prematurely), change the subject to one of your prepared topics. This is also a brilliant way to boost your vocabulary!
Once you have a couple of language exchanges under your belt, you’ll get the hang of having impromptu conversations and won’t need to work so hard to find topics to chat about.
Mistake #5: Using Your Webcam Every Single Time
Listening comprehension is usually the last skill that language learners master in their target language. Most learners tend to get a false sense of confidence in their listening ability when it comes to face-to-face conversations, because they have some visual context to rely on when they don’t understand every word in a sentence. Things like facial expression and overall body language go a long way in helping you fill in the gaps when conversing in your target language.
Turn off the video during a language exchange to instantly see (or rather, hear) how good your listening comprehension really is. If you turn off video and are surprised at how much harder it is to understand the other person, then that’s a sign that you should spend more time on your listening comprehension. Start asking your conversation partners on a regular basis to spend part of the language exchange with the webcam off so you can both practise listening skills.
Mistake #6: Skyping the Same Person Over and Over
You can easily get used to one person’s speaking style in your target language, and tailor your listening comprehension toward that style. But just like your native language, your target language can sound very different depending on the speaker. If you only speak with the same person over and over, you’ll probably find it difficult to understand a new person when you chat with them in your target language.
Even if you have one or two favourite conversation partners that you really “click” with, be sure to speak regularly with new people so your ear can get accustomed to several types of speech, accents and dialects. Choose young people, old people, men, women, and people from a variety of geographic regions.
Mistake #7: Asking Grammar Questions
Language exchanges are not the place for grammar questions! Save specific grammar questions for when you’re paying a teacher. Most native speakers of any language (who aren’t teachers of their language) have never really given their language’s grammar a second thought, and probably couldn’t explain the rules to your satisfaction anyway. Plus, grammar questions can get annoying after a while.
If the other person is fascinated by grammar, then by all means, ask away. Otherwise, make brief notes during the conversation of any specific grammar questions that come up while you’re speaking and listening. Then schedule a language lesson with a teacher so you can get clarification.
Mistake #8: Keeping the Conversation in Your Comfort Zone
Even if you’ve only been speaking your target language for a short time, I bet that there are some subjects that you can already talk about with complete fluency. There are certain topics that come up over and over in conversations with new people, such as your favourite foods, what your family’s like, or what you do at your job.
These are precisely the topics that you should avoid talking about during your language exchange (Exception: when you’re just starting out). You’ve already mastered these subjects. They’re old news. Your time would be better spent talking imperfectly about a subject you’re having difficulty with than talking perfectly about a subject you know well. This is how you’ll master a greater variety of vocabulary and learn to speak fluently about nearly any topic.
Mistake #9: Asking Only Closed Questions
Nothing makes a conversation fall flat faster than a question that can only be answered with “yes” or “no”. Don’t fall into the habit of asking your conversation partner things like, “Do you like Thai food?” or “Do you enjoy your job?” These types of questions offer no opportunity for the other speaker to expand on the topic and branch out into a deeper conversation.
Instead, ask questions such as, “What are your favourite types of food?” or, “What do you enjoy most about your job?”. Then watch how the conversation continues flowing naturally after the other speaker answers your question.
Mistake #10: Making Inappropriate Jokes
When you meet with a language exchange partner, bear in mind that you’re not only exchanging languages. You’re also exchanging cultures. It’s important to do this in a way that’s mutually respectful.
Appropriate humour is is fine – and is vital to effective learning. But it should go without saying that you should avoid any jokes that could be considered offensive to your conversation partner.
Also, don’t try to be clever by using pop culture references or double entendres. This makes it difficult to follow what you’re saying, which isn’t at all fun for your language exchange partner.
Over to You
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in a language exchange session? Let us know in the comments.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.