Making the Most of Language Exchanges

I have been doing language exchanges since I studied abroad in Russia in 2003. I was teaching English to some university students, and sometimes I would meet one of my students outside of class. I would help her (it was always a woman, in my example) with her English, and she would help me with Russian. That is the idea behind language exchanges – two people who are learning each others’ native language get together and help each other.

I  endorse language exchanges for a variety of reasons. First of all, it is a low-cost way to learn a language – at most, an hour of private instruction will cost you a cup of coffee or tea. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a very good way to meet native speakers, learn about the culture and how it is different from your own, and make friends.

But not all language exchanges are created equally. I have had some very, very productive language exchanges, and some less productive ones. I currently have a language exchange with a Chinese woman and a Lebanese man, and these weekly meetings have definitely helped my language ability progress in Chinese and Arabic. Here are some tips to making the most of language exchanges.

Step 1: Find a language exchange partner

If you are living abroad, you will likely find people who would like to do a language exchange with you fairly easily by asking friends. This is especially true if you are a native English speaker like me.

You can also look for announcements on craigslist.org or sites devoted specifically to language exchanges, like conversationexchange.com. This works especially well if you are not living abroad.

Another, very low-tech way to find a conversation partner is by posting a flyer (yes, a paper flyer!) at a university with international students.

If you are living abroad, I would encourage you to start by asking friends, especially because depending on what country you are in, posting an announcement might lead to far more responses than you would like to deal with. When I lived in Russia, one of the American guys posted a couple flyers looking for a language exchange. His phone was soon ringing incessantly with more language partners than he could possibly handle.

Similarly, when I spent five weeks in China, Chinese students would approach western-looking students and ask them if they wanted to do a language exchange. This happened to me around three times every day, and became extremely annoying. I can’t imagine finding a language partner in China would be difficult.

Another note of caution, especially to women: Some people think of language exchanges as a dating service. If that is not what you are looking for, just use regular caution the first couple times you meet your language exchange partner. To be honest, I think that a language exchange is a perfectly good way to meet a romantic partner, just like it is a perfectly valid way to make friends. But a language exchange will not be successful if both partners aren’t genuinely interested in practicing a language and helping each other. I’ve never had an issue with this, but some women I know have.

Step 2: Establish a Place and Time to Meet

My most successful language exchanges have been set up almost like a class – at the same time and same place every week (or more frequently). I think this is very important, because otherwise as soon as there was something I would rather do I might ask my language partner to switch times, than he or she might cancel one week, and then before I know it we’re not meeting anymore.

Don’t make the meeting place too far away or frustrating to get to. This will seriously diminish the likelihood that you will stick with meeting with your language partner regularly.

Part of this step is preparing a format. I have always met with language partners for two hours at a time, and done one hour of English and one hour of the other language.

Step 3: Prepare a Lesson for Yourself

A language exchange can be as simple as a just chatting. But chatting with someone  you don’t know in a language you don’t speak fluently will probably prove challenging.

In my experience, the best way to get the most out of language exchanges is to have a lesson plan for yourself. Bring exercises or a book or article to read, and know what you want to work on – reading, writing, pronunciation, etc. If you want to work on speaking, think of a particular topic you want to talk about. This will help you learn more from the experience and will be less frustrating for both of you.