As someone who's studied multiple languages, the key to gaining fluency is, in theory, very simple: you just have to speak. But, as anyone who's spent time studying a foreign language also knows, that's exactly the most nerve-wracking and ego-crushing part of the process!
One of the best ways to get the courage to speak, regardless of your level of study, is to work with a language exchange partner who can provide a safe and encouraging environment to do just that. Conversation exchanges help you practice what you're learning in the classroom and also expose you to how native speakers use their own language.
I've had language partners in Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic and each language exchange brought me new linguistic and cultural understanding -- and occasionally, a real friendship that evolved along the way. I found that the key to making these partnerships meaningful was by entering into them in a thoughtful way. Here are a few ways you can do the same.
What is a conversation exchange?
A conversation exchange, also known as a language exchange, is a partnership with someone who is a native speaker of the language you're studying and is also interested in learning your native language. In most cases, you spend time conversing in each language, with the native speaker helping and correcting the learner. Ideally, you set guidelines between the two of you that help each other learn in the most productive way for your language goals.
Language partners can meet in person or virtually, but I've found in-person relationships to be the most fruitful. This is primarily because you can also learn interesting nonverbal language (have you noticed that Chinese speakers use different hand gestures for numbers?) and visit places in your city related to the culture of the language you're learning. When I studied Arabic, I'd happily agree to meet at shisha cafes and learned a thing or two about good tea in addition to new vocabulary.
Where can I find a language exchange partner?
A simple Google search for language exchange partners and the city you're located in should yield a number of results. If you're located near a university, you can go the old-fashioned way and put up flyers with your information to find international students who are interested in doing a conversation exchange. Otherwise, there are a variety of well-established tools for language exchange online. If you're located in a major city, you'll have better luck landing someone to meet face-to-face, but in almost all cases it's possible to do virtual exchanges through language exchange websites.
- Conversation Exchange. I've used Conversation Exchange for years and although the website itself looks a little antiquated, the community is active and people tend to be responsive to messages. Some people have noted that it's easier to find speakers of East Asian languages on this site.
- Italki. This has been recommended by several polyglot bloggers who use language exchanges to strengthen their language skills. Log in with your Facebook account and search for a "teacher" based on which language you want to improve.
- Tandem Partners. "Tandem" is another term, more commonly used in Europe, for describing language exchanges. This company is originally from Germany, but you can search in English and there are offerings across Europe and North America.
- Meetup. Meetup.com allows people to create events of all kinds, language learning being only a tiny fraction of the offerings. You can join gatherings like "Russian Speakers in Columbus, Ohio" or "European Languages Exchange in New York." From these group gatherings, you can meet native speakers of your target language and initiate a one-on-one partnership if he or she is also interested in that kind of arrangement.
What makes a good conversation exchange?
To be brutally honest, not all language exchanges are useful. Exchanges should be fair, purposeful, and have a certain degree of compatibility (shared interests and agreed-upon guidelines). While both people do not need to be at the same exact level, it can be difficult, for instance, if both people are either complete beginners or if one person is way more advanced than the other, resulting in the tendency for both people to speak in one language more often.
Language partners don't have to be friends, but they should get along and have common interests. Both people should be patient, good listeners, and interested in helping someone else learn. Poor language partners forget that it's a mutual exchange that requires helping the other person and dedicating a fair amount of time to both languages.
If the exchange slides in that direction, it's important to say something or move that person into the category of "friend" versus language partner. In fact, it may be better to study together if you're friendly with one another more than actual friends, where it might be hard to set guidelines and stay somewhat focused.
How do you make sure both people benefit in a conversation exchange?
It's good to set the tone from the beginning by getting together to discuss goals and ideas for the language exchange before either person invests too much time into it. Do you have compatible goals and ideas for how to structure the exchange? Even suggesting that you'd like some structure to the relationship can weed out flaky or incompatible partners from the beginning.
Some important questions to discuss are:
- How long should we meet for? How often should we meet? Having a longer-term partner and a regular meeting time helps keep both people committed.
- Can we both commit to splitting the designated time 50/50 for each language?
- Are we interested in perhaps setting topics for each session so we have direction and inspiration? This is a great way to introduce more depth into the conversations instead of skipping from topic to topic. It also ensures that the topic gets covered in both languages.
- How often does each person want to be corrected? How does he or she want to receive those corrections? How can we make sure our partner feels comfortable making mistakes?
- Does each person want the time dedicated to their target language to be entirely in that language or will they need to revert back to their native language to discuss some questions or finer grammar points sometimes?
- What do we do if one person feels frustrated or tired or struggles to keep the conversation going? How can we make sure we create a supportive and safe environment for learning?
It's important that both people come to the table with ideas and goals for the learning arrangement. You have to know what you're hoping to get out of a language partnership or you can become easily distracted or disappointed.
Remember that language partners are not language teachers
If you're able to provide structure to the relationship and meet on a regular basis, it's hands-down one of the best ways to become a fluent speaker of another language. But remember, language partners are not language teachers.
Conversation exchange should be used as a complement to a multifaceted language-learning approach, which should probably include formal classroom instruction, consumption of books, movies, and other media in the target language, and plenty of listening and speaking practice. Once you've gotten enough of a base understanding of the language, it's an excellent way to practice what you've learned, but it's not an ideal way to be introduced to complex grammar, for example.
While not a monetary investment, you are spending your time meeting with this person with the hope of advancing your language skills, so setting a few guidelines and finding the right partner up front will go a long way towards making both people productive and happy speakers of a new language.
Make the most of your conversation exchange
Finding a language buddy is a great way to navigate speaking a new language as well as acquiring more cultural insights. Conversation exchanges, done correctly, can be of immense benefit to both people involved. Whether you decide to do one face-to-face, online, or even overseas, be prepared to see your speaking skills reach new levels!