You’ve found yourself a practice partner willing to share the journey in building your mutual 2nd language conversation skills, but what can you do to offer them the best possible experience and get it all back by return? Here are a few pointers we believe will make you a standout language exchange partner.
FIND A PARTNER AT THE SAME LEVEL AS YOU
This should be a no-brainer. To help each other progress at a similar rate, ideally, you should both be setting off from the same starting point. This means having similar levels of fluency and understanding in each of your opposing languages. You’ll soon see if either one of you is out-performing the other to a point where it’s holding back progress. Don’t be afraid to change partners if you aren’t making progress or having fun. If you do find that you’re not suited to your partner, whether that’s due to different levels of fluency or that you just don’t click, don’t be afraid to cut your losses, make your polite farewells, and move on to the next possibility. Language exchanges are designed to help you practise having foreign language conversations. If your partner doesn’t interest you, or you can’t pick up a flow, then it’s not really a conversation. Admit defeat and move on!
Have a selection of partners, and don’t be afraid to have groups of 3 or 4 as your proficiency allows
The previous section carries us on nicely to the fact that you don’t have to stick to one partner. If you have 2 or 3 practise partners to switch between, you’re much more likely to detect the differences in how they speak. You’ll spot regional variations, accents, and different types of slang. These things won’t appear in your textbooks or language lessons, but they’ll be in every practise session you have and be incredibly valuable to giving you a natural flow instead of a robotic-like delivery. Once you’re up-to-speed, you’ll find group conversations a whole new experience! Finding ways to insert yourself into a 3- or 4-way foreign language conversation, hearing several voices at once, and having to up your translation speeds, are all hugely beneficial to your progression in natural fluency.
You don’t have to be friends, but it helps if you’re on the same wavelength
If you can find some common interests with your practise partner, hopefully, your conversations will have a great starting point as well as opportunities to be distracted to diversify your conversations. One of the best things when practising foreign language conversations is when you find that you’ve become so involved in what you’re talking about, you forgot all about the fact that you’re actually there to practise speaking the language. Language exchange sessions are designed to help you build fluent conversations. If you’ve organically ended up in the heat of debate because of mutual interest and passion, then you’re onto a winner!
ESTABLISH A ROUTINE AND MAKE A PROPER PLAN
The human brain loves routine far more than discipline, so make a regular practise time that suits you both. There’ll be far fewer missed sessions, far few sessions you fail to organise if you’re leaving the timing to chance, and far fewer chances to miss out on that vital practise you both desire. Once you’ve outlined the days and times for your sessions, then you should consider exactly how you’d like each session to unfold. The golden rule is that you should keep everything 50/50.
FOCUS ON THE 50/50
Your sessions should be split right down the middle to keep things completely fair; carry out half the session in your language—half in theirs. Break both language sections into 50/50 splits too. Speak for the half the time; listen and translate for the other. There are two of you after all, and good conversations in any language are built on both speaking and listening. Don’t let your practise session conversations be any different to those you have with your friends. Be a good listener as well as having your say.
PREPARE CONVERSATIONS/LESSON PLANS
As with so many of the things we engage in throughout our lives, preparation is key. The more work you do beforehand, the less practical areas you’ll have to contend with in your session, leaving the bulk of your time free for what it’s meant for—conversation. Prepare your lesson plans around topics you can both speak about. Things that interest you will be more natural to find a flow with, and hopefully open up the door for your partner to ask you more about it. Bingo! It’s a conversation. You could have a predetermined list of topics with your partner that each of you could put together 10 or 20 questions about beforehand. These are simple methods to help prevent your chat from drying up. Don’t waste your time wondering what to talk about when your practise time is so valuable.
DON’T ALLOW A STAGNANT OR UNHELPFUL ROUTINE TO CONTINUE
Always be upfront about your learning goals and how you can achieve them. If you become stagnant and you don’t feel as though you’re progressing or learning anything new, then talk with your exchange partner about it, and see if there’s something either of you can do to remedy the situation. Hopefully, you’ll make plenty of friends along your learning journey, and build natural relationships with the people you practise with. This will make your learning much more fluid and natural. If there’s nothing you can do to turn an unhelpful situation around, don’t be afraid to call it a day and move on to a new exchange partner for some fresh perspective.
Have open conversations about how the system is and isn’t working for you
Feedback is so important. You should discuss up-front how you want to handle your corrections and feedback. If you’re happy to interrupt a conversation to have your errors pointed out and corrected, and that works for both of you, then great. If you’d rather use your sessions purely to practise your conversation skills, then feedback may be better presented afterwards, or between sessions. Take plenty of notes without being too distracted by them, or record your sessions if possible. You can email each other with your thoughts and suggestions. Text and email chat is another great part of practising your conversations too, albeit in written form instead of spoken word, so it’s a win-win! Alternatively, you could allow time at the end of each session, or each half session, to go over your problem areas. Just make sure it’s planned into your timetable, so it doesn’t eat into any other delegated areas of your practise.
Don’t worry if you have problems, read about how to fix them.