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Language exchange: How to do it effectively and not waste everyone’s time

Today, it’s incredibly easy to do a language exchange to help you study a language. By language exchange, I mean getting together with a person who speaks the language you’re learning and helping each other out. You teach them English while they teach you whatever language you’re studying.

Language exchange over coffee

When I was first studying Japanese, it was tough to find Japanese practice partners. I lived in the middle of the U.S. where there isn’t so much diversity. Now, there are websites where you can meet people to study with in-person, on Skype or through email exchange.

Language exchange can be very helpful in learning languages, but it can also be a waste of time. Here are some tips I’ve culled from my experience on making your language exchange fruitful.

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Finding the right partner

The first challenge is finding the right partner who is a good fit for you. I recommend finding someone with common interests, a common lifestyle and/or near your age. This makes your lessons more fun and interesting because you have a great deal to talk about.

One thing to consider is level. If you and your partner are about the same level in your respective languages, this presents a nice challenge (you have to communicate somehow) and makes things equal. If, like me, all of your partners speak English better than you speak their language, the lesson will likely be dominated by English.

Another thing about level to keep in mind is that it takes a great deal of patience to teach a beginner. You’ll be speaking slowly, repeating short phrases and correcting very simple mistakes. You need to be up for that.

The best case scenario is to find someone who is actually a teacher of their language or studying to become one. That’s where I’ve had the greatest success. I have two partners who are both Spanish teachers and they understand exactly where I need help.

Lesson details

Discuss lesson details before you get into anything else. Decide when, where, how and at what frequency you’d like to carry out your lessons. This should be upfront because if you can’t meet, the rest is meaningless. You might be on opposite sides of the earth and one of you has to wake up at 4am to talk.

At first, I wanted to schedule lessons with my language partners, all of whom live in other countries. Then, I discovered that it actually works best for me to get on Skype whenever I’m free or need a break from work, and say, ‘Hey, are you there?’ My schedule changes fairly randomly so it’s easier to meet my partners that way as well. But this is something you should work out when discussing details. Your partner may have a preference as well.

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Making the most of your exchange

I think that language exchange should augment your study. It shouldn’t be all that you do. You should use it to practice what you’re learning. It’s a chance to have a native speaker correct you or offer more natural ways of saying things. Take good notes during your conversations.

At the end of each talk with my partners, we choose a topic for the next time. This gives me a chance to prepare by looking up words and phrases I might use. I recommend this especially if you’re a beginner. For example, I arranged with one partner to discuss how I started playing music. I looked up vocabulary and past tense verb conjugations for words I might use.

I love language exchange because it involves using the real language. The excitement at that moment of realizing you could understand or could say what you wanted is a great motivator for me to keep studying and working hard.

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