Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How to Get Most Out of Language Exchange


Photo by Adam J White

It has never been easier to learn languages. The internet has made many language resources accessible for everyone. Language exchange platforms went even further: they facilitated the hardest part of the learning languages online. I’m talking about finding a language partner for speaking practice. Many websites and mobile applications dedicated to language exchange have been launched recently. You register on one of those websites/ applications, indicate what language you speak and what language you’re learning, tell a bit about yourself, and the system makes an automatic match for you, suggesting dozens of potential language partners willing to talk to you. It no longer matters where you live; you can always find someone who speaks your target language. Some language exchange (LE) websites are more popular and populated than others. Some applications offers more features, others have better user interface - we all have plenty of options to choose from.

The growing popularity of LE platforms is easy to explain: LE websites and applications meet the increasing demand for language learning (in the global world monolingualism equals illiteracy). They correspond to the needs to communicate in a language rather than to consume artifacts created in a language, and resonate with the money-less digital economy models. Yet, as good and exciting as it seems, language exchange is only a tool, and, like with any other tool, one should learn how to use it efficiently and develop some specific skills.

As a language teacher and learner, I heard the following complaints about language exchange:
  • We arranged a meeting on Skype, but we both felt too shy to talk, so most of the time it was mumbling, not a conversation;
  • The person who invited me to an LE session confused it with a dating website;
  • We met online, but neither I nor my partner knew what to talk about;
  • We set up an appointment, but my partner never showed up or was late;
  • My language level didn’t match the language level of my partner, so we both were bored;
  • I can’t make any progress; probably LE is not for me.

There are many objective reasons why talking to a stranger (online or offline) may frustrate you. Yet, it doesn’t mean that language exchange sessions are doomed to failure. Here are a few tips how you can arrange your LE sessions and get the positive experience from learning languages through talking with native speakers:

Be picky and discriminating when choosing a LE partner.
Success or failure of your LE sessions depends on how well you pick a partner. Choose somebody with similar or close interests. The mere fact that a person speaks the language you are learning doesn’t make him or her a good fit for LE. Read user profiles carefully before inviting a potential partner to chat; filter out everybody who doesn’t seem a perfect match and never feel bad about it.

My best LE sessions were with people who share my beliefs, who like the same things I like and are into the same things I am into. Because we matched so well, we never had awkward pauses in our conversation, never had problems with bringing new topics and always knew what to talk about. Well, sometimes I had LE sessions that were hard to end in time, because there were so much we wanted to say to each other…

Schedule your sessions like you would do with regular lessons.
Spontaneous chat with native speakers can be a part of your language practice, but it is more convenient and practical to schedule your online sessions the way you would schedule a regular appointment. Create an event in your digital calendar, add an alarm (I prefer to set all my alarms 10 minutes prior an event), ask your partner if he or she wants you to send them an alarm as well. Think about how long your sessions should be. I personally prefer one hour sessions - 30 minutes for each language. If a session lasts longer, both participants may get tired, while sessions shorter than one hour may give not enough time for both of you to practice.

If you language partner didn’t show up or was late for more than 15 minutes and failed to provide reasonable explanations, look for another partner. It doesn’t make sense to spend your time on someone who doesn’t respect it.

Plan your conversation in advance.
Take your LE sessions as an opportunity to learn more about life and culture of the country where your partner lives. You started learning a new language for some reasons, so why not to satisfy your curiosity and ask your language partner as many questions as possible about things that are interesting/relevant for you? For example, if you are learning a new language because of new employment opportunities, ask your partner how job interviews are arranged in his or her country, what HR managers usually ask about and so on. In different countries, employment procedures look different, and you can learn about it during your language exchange sessions. If you are mostly interested in tourism and learn a new language because you want to travel independently and explore the world on your own, ask your partner where locals go for shopping and where he or she would suggest to go (beside the usual tourist sights).

Not all sessions should be divided into two equal parts.
Though the whole language exchange idea is based on mutuality, it doesn’t mean that you should dedicate equal amount of time to each language every session. Sometimes (honestly, pretty often) it is more natural to speak one language for the whole 60 minute and dedicate the next session entirely to another language. Switching back and forth is harder for our brains that putting it into one mode and stay in it for an hour. If you realize that in order to switch to another language you have to interrupt the natural flow of your conversation, just don’t do it - keep talking! You’ll have your turn next time.

The list of LE platforms:
- Wespeke
- Tandem
- GoSpeaky
- HelloTalk
- iTalki