So, you’ve found someone willing to practise with you, sharing the mutual interest of helping each other progress in your chosen languages and at a similar level. You’ve arranged when you’re going to meet up (in the flesh or online) and how long you’re going to practise. All the basics are taken care of, you’re chomping at the bit and raring to get stuck in; so what are you going to talk about and how?
DURING YOUR PRACTICE
For your practice to flow naturally, it’s important to have a lesson plan and to stick to it for as much as you can, or need to. As your proficiency develops, you’ll happily wander off-topic and if you can still keep chatting, wherever you’ve strayed, then great! You’re having a real conversation and at a level of fluency that has overtaken your need to stick to the rules. If your secondary conversation has distracted you off-topic, then you’re in a real conversation, and that’s exactly what you’re here for. Give yourself a pat on the back! Set yourself a short time for your introduction. You can use this to highlight anything you’d like to concentrate on in your session or to ask your partner if they have any specific requirements. Otherwise, stick to your plan, hit the go button on your timer, and get down to business!
RESPECT THE TIMER
You should get used to set a timer to define the time allocated to each part of your sessions. It will make sure everything is fair 50/50 for both partners and also help you stick to your schedule. You might want to break down your lesson plan into sections and allocate smaller blocks of time to each of them. Make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to practise the areas you need to practise the most instead of getting carried away with the areas you’re already comfortable with. If you find that you don’t get enough time for particular sections, you can readjust your plan, or decide to extend your sessions to cover everything you feel you need.
TAKE THE LEAD
When it’s time to speak in your second language, it’s up to you to take charge. Make sure you ask questions about anything you’re unsure of and don’t be afraid to ask your partner to repeat anything you didn’t hear correctly or don’t understand. Also, never be afraid to ask your partner to slow down if they’re speaking a little too quickly. Conversation speeds can advance with your level of expertise. Learn at a pace you’re comfortable with, and hopefully, you’ll pick things up faster and easier.
ALLOW YOUR PARTNER THE LEAD WHEN IT’S THEIR TURN
It’s just as important for your partner to be able to follow their own plan when it’s their turn to practise their new language. Give them plenty of space to feel comfortable; their pace might be different to yours so figure it out, and work with them. The more helpful you are, the quicker they’ll learn. And the more they advance, the more help they’ll be to you.
MAKE LESSON PLANS
Create lesson plans around specific topics, and if you can think up or research some speaking games you can play to make everything a little more fun and a less like being at school! Your lesson plans should include what you would consider being typical conversation topics. A beginner might feel comfortable speaking about family members, friends, or the people you go to school or work with; typically the sorts of things that you learn about when you start learning a foreign language. You can talk about jobs, sports, hobbies and socialising. These areas will operate at a depth of vocabulary you would expect a beginner to be able to cover with reasonable comfort. Pick 10 or 20 questions to ask your practise partner about each topic. Allow yourself to let the answers develop into a conversation. Remember, the aim is to practise speaking fluently with each other, not just firing out questions and getting simple answers. As your fluency level progresses, you can pick more in-depth topics. Perhaps you can use a session to talk about your favourite books, films or theatre? Discussing the plot, the author, its twists and turns, and how you felt through the build-up and at the ending. Showing an interest in your partner’s culture is a great opportunity to discuss news events in their country. Dig in deep and ask them about their reactions and views to the current affairs at the time. If you’re learning a language to help you further your career, then create a lesson plan around industry-specific topics. If your partner isn’t familiar with your particular industry, it gives you a chance to explain it to them, in their language of course, and that gives them an opportunity to guide you towards your best delivery and to help you see where you’re not getting things quite right.
BE SENSITIVE TO YOUR PARTNERS NEEDS
As you would want from your partner, speak at a pace you think they can understand. Make sure you give them plenty of time to speak as well as to listen to you. Every aspect of your practice should be 50/50, and that includes listening and understanding to what your partner is saying, as well as speaking the language. You should speak loudly and clearly. This is a must for beginner levels and even as you progress, clear diction and focusing on the correct sounds of your natural language is imperative for your partner to pick up correct pronunciation and nuances.
STRIVE FOR COMMUNICATION, NOT PERFECTION
Ultimately, having a practise partner is about conversation—and your ability to speak fluently. Try not to get too focused on minor details that could get in the way of your flow and a good natter. Remember that your main aim is to understand and be understood. Your language teacher will cover the finer points of grammar, technique and other details in your foreign language lessons, so let them. Use this time purely for conversation practice, or for just as much as you can.
LET THEM DICTATE THEIR RULES FOR CORRECTIONS
Ask what type of correction they would like to focus on. At the end of the session, or whenever you decide to send each other feedback, you can offer ideas of where you feel their strengths and weaknesses lie and what type of practice might benefit them in future sessions. Feedback between sessions is a must, as it will keep your practise sessions free for just that—practise!
It’s impossible to force fun when it isn’t there, but as much as you can, try to relax, throw off any embarrassment, and use those opportunities to learn from your mistakes and wherever you can. You will learn so much faster if you’re enjoying yourself with your language exchange If your new language feels like a fun new hobby, your brain will perform far better than putting it under the stresses of it feeling like a chore.
If you’re still struggling to find a partner, have a look at our article on a language exchange in the modern world for some ideas.