How does a language exchange work?
What is a language exchange?
A language exchange is a situation where 2 or more people of different nationalities regularly connect to practise speaking each other’s language, with a view to progressing their skills to each other’s mutual benefit. Depending on where you live, and your available resources, you can do this face-to-face, over the phone, or as it’s becoming increasingly popular, you can carry out your practise online using one of the many different video messaging apps. Using modern technology for language exchange is a great use of your free time and can provide you with a wonderful new skill.
Why should I use a language exchange?
It’s widely recognised that using a language exchange partner as part of your foreign language study, is one of the fastest and most effective ways to learn how to fluently speak a new foreign language. There are many advantages to learning by this method over traditional textbook and schooling. You’ll (hopefully!) make an abundance of new friends, gain a direct understanding of dialect, colloquial expressions and slang that you won’t find in textbooks or the classroom, it’s fast, effective and usually free.
Key areas where learners might struggle
If you choose the wrong partner, you may end up wasting your time. If all you do for your designated hour is nod your head and agree then you’re really not taking advantage of such a valuable opportunity. Your conversations should always be a 50/50 exchange, in both of your languages.
If you’re not good with criticism, then having someone continually pointing out the errors in your vocabulary choice, grammar and pronunciation might be a big hurdle for the more sensitive to get over. The sooner you can learn to laugh off and learn from your mistakes, the better.
You forget why you’re there
Too many exchange partners are guilty of focusing on the wrong things. For some, they turn into teachers and focus on the subtler points of grammar and language rules. Your partner isn’t a teacher, and you’re not there to teach them the ins and outs of your language either. Your primary objective should always be to practise your conversational skills in your chosen new language. If you spend your time debating how the different verbs, nouns, tenses and punctuation work, you’re not allocating your time to creating a comfortable and flowing conversation.
What does a typical language exchange look like?
Decide on the duration
Initially, you and your partner will decide how long you can realistically engage in the process without becoming overly frustrated or burning out. You’ll need to agree on a duration that both of you will be able to retain interest and enthusiasm without falling prey to the associated frustrations encountered by learning through this method. If you choose an hour, then split your learning right down the middle. Spend half an hour conversing in your native language, and half an hour conversing in your partner’s.
Try to minimise the use of your native tongue as much as possible when your speaking in your chosen new language
There are various methods of managing the process. Some partners prefer to correct and offer suggestions during the conversation, breaking out of the practised language to do so. If you aim to speak entirely in the specified language, it’s acceptable that at times you’ll become frustrated, you’ll struggle to find the right words, but you’ll also find workarounds to deal with your problems that will help you progress faster. You will inevitably have to resort to speaking your native language at times, but try and keep them to a minimum. The sooner you can refrain from doing so the quicker you’ll be creating fuller, flowing conversations in your new language.
Advice for beginners
Keep it simple and have some fun. Don't nit-pick but keep your comments and corrections to the main problem areas that reoccur regularly instead of for every tiny detail. Try and keep the conversation flowing as much as possible, and remember, you’re not a teacher either! If your partner is guilty of going overboard with corrections and trying to teach instead of concentrate on the conversation, find a polite way of asking them to focus on the conversation and suggest alternate times and methods to dig into the areas you’re not doing so well with; all in their language of course!
Advanced level issues
When you reach a level where you can comfortably chat away in your new language, then it’s time to set new goals and targets. Talk to your partner about alternative ways to say the same thing and how the resulting perception of those differences affects the conversation. Consider how you would differ your vocabulary between formal and informal situations. You could even try discussing the same subject but in theoretically different situations, for example, at a job interview as opposed to a family celebration.
Entertaining different methods of learning
Depending on your creativity and imagination, there are an abundance of ways to plan and construct your language exchanges. If you’ve got access to face-to-face contact, the location of your meetings will add to the types of conversation and vocabulary you’re likely to need and use. You could role-play different situations that will stretch your vocabulary. Why not pretend you’ve gone out for dinner, to a sports event, a museum or even pretend you’re somebody else? Interview your partner as though they’re a celebrity or a popular figure from history. It’s not necessarily about what you talk about after all—it’s about how you say it.
More than just a lesson in the language—it’s a class in culture too
From your conversations with your native language speaker, you’ll also learn a lot more about their culture, direct from someone living the life. It’s far more in-depth than a lesson from a schoolteacher (who is much more likely to be your own nationality) and definitely more immersive into your lifestyle differences than those of a pre-recorded audio or video lesson.
How do you know when it’s working?
To be sure the process is doing its job, you need to set yourself tasks to measure yourself against previous levels of fluency. Find or create situations where you have to speak to someone you haven’t previously met or spoken with, in your chosen new language. If you can hold a conversation without having to fall back on your native tongue, you’ll be given a clear indicator of how long you can survive in a real-life situation and the depth of your new language knowledge and understanding. Some of the best and easiest ways to do this are to pick up the phone. Call a restaurant and discuss their menu options. Talk to a hotel reception about the different quality of their rooms and suites. The technology is out there to take all these short cuts and create the most immersive learning method at your disposal.
- Language Exchange
- 24 Jul, 2019
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