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How do you have a successful language exchange? What is the best app for language exchange? How do I find a language exchange partner?
I’m going to be answering all those questions and more in this article. Serious language learners know how useful language exchange can be which is why it’s so important that it’s done the right way.
As enjoyable as language exchange can be, it can be equally as overwhelming. Speaking honestly, it can seem quite scary– especially when you’ve never done it before.
Most solo language learners don’t get nearly enough speaking practice. And the listening practice is often slowed down and accompanied by subtitles. Two facts that make language exchange all the more overwhelming.
Prior to the digital age, language exchange was done purely in person. (Now that’s scary.) But thanks to the internet and language exchange apps, language exchange is now done nearly entirely remotely.
Although this isn’t one of my tips listed below, I strongly suggest keeping language exchange remote, at least in the beginning, to reduce any anxiety surrounding the situation.
There are numerous perks to keeping language exchange virtual, including:
- translation tools
- shorter conversations
- a variety of partners
- personal safety (and health during the covid-19 pandemic!)
Regardless of it’s medium, by no means does language exchange have to be intimidating. As long as you have a decent foundation in the language, particularly in listening and speaking skills, you’ll be just fine.
Your language exchange partner is likely just as insecure about their foreign language skills as you are! (And even if they’re not, they totally empathize with your communication struggles.)
Consider language exchange a judgement-free zone. As long as you both start your exchanges with a mutual understanding concerning how both partners will benefit, there’s no reason to be nervous about how the call will go.
All the partners I’ve ever had have been perfectly fine with me talking nearly entirely in their native language and them talking in mine. (Although we both will happily speak in our native tongues if needed during points in the conversation!)
In addition to language exchange you’ll still need some writing practice, so make sure you check out 50 Unique Ways to Practice Writing a Foreign Language.
But without further ado, let’s get into my 10 tricks for how to have a successful language exchange.
How do you have a successful language exchange?
1. Come prepared with clear communication vocabulary
You don’t want to start a language exchange call without knowing the phrases needed to clarify or enhance your understanding. This includes questions, words, and statements.
Some really good vocabulary to come prepared with include:
- Can you please repeat that?
- Can you please speak slower?
- I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
- Do you know how to say it in English?
- Can you write it down for me?
- Did you understand me?
- “What?” or “Huh?”
- Can you please say it louder?
It’s also handy to know how to ask questions that’ll expand your knowledge of the language. Fortunately, you’ll pick up on grammar rules gradually throughout your calls, but vocabulary needs to be clarified if not obvious in context.
If they’re more fluent in your native language than you are in theirs, they’ll be a particularly useful teacher. Take advantage of that and ask questions like:
- How do I say [English word] in [your target language]?
- How do I translate [English phrase] in [your target language]?
- Do you know how to say [English word/phrase] in [your target language?]
Oftentimes they’ll know, and if they don’t, they’ll normally help you figure it out. After all, it’ll be useful for them to know as well.
2. Start with short conversations
Understandably, speaking and listening to a foreign language can take a toll on your brain’s mental power. Particularly if you’re exchange partner speaks more in their native language than in yours.
Language exchange is meant to be educational and enjoyable. Once you feel yourself fatiguing it’s totally okay to end the conversation.
If you’re still at a lower level of proficiency, the longer the conversation goes on the more likely you’ll delve into vocabulary you haven’t learned yet.
So as a general rule of thumb: gradually increase the call lengths as your proficiency in the language increases.
Your partner is a partner. Not a teacher (unless they state otherwise) and you shouldn’t expect them to teach you the language.
They’re there for you to practice the language. It’s not fair to expect them to offer translations for everything.
Even just ten minutes is enough to assess your speaking and listening skills.
Recognizing your own limitations is key to reducing the overwhelm that typically accompanies language exchanges.
3. Have a way to send text messages
Let’s be real– speaking and listening to a foreign language can quickly become overwhelming. Particularly when your partner likes to speak at the speed of light.
So after you’ve asked them to repeat themselves and slow down, and you still can’t understand what the heck they’re saying… ask them to write it down.
Lots of language learners are better at reading than listening so you may be able to understand what they said in written form.
Once you see it written down, you’ll likely see words that you know. You may even be able to use context to figure out the rest of the sentence. There might even be cognates that sound totally different when squished into a phrase.
For the ultimate learning experience, ask your partner to write what they’re saying down before asking them to translate into English. (Afterall, there’s a chance they may not even be able to!)
However, even if you can’t, there are plenty of translation tools that can. If you met your partner through a language exchange application — like Italki, HelloTalk, or Lingbe — there’s even built-in text translation features.
However, if you use everyday apps like Whatsapp, Facebook, or imessages, you can easily copy a text message and paste it into Google Translate. (Check out this article on the right way to use Google Translate!)
And if you’re communicating with your partner on a desktop, Google Translate’s Chrome extension instantly translates any text you “highlight.” Pretty nifty, if you ask me.
4. Have a translation tool ready (preferably with audio features)
No shocker here. There can easily be parts in your conversation where language truly becomes a barrier.
If your partner doesn’t know how to say something in English and you don’t know what they’re saying in the language you’re learning, it’s time to whip out a translation tool. Unless he or she is able to speak in simpler terms, there’s no really no other choice.
While a dictionary is cute and all, it’s really not practical when translating sentences.
There are way to many digital translation services to be confining yourself to paper books anyway. Sorry not sorry.
Google Translate, Bing Translate, Linguee, and some others are great translators. Even if they’re not spot-on, they definitely let you understand the gist of whatever it is your partner is saying.
Google Translate even has a conversation feature for instant verbal translation between either language. While your partner is speaking, you can hold your device up to Google Translate on another device, click the microphone icon, and view their words instantly translated. If you don’t understand what I’m trying to say, check out Google Translate for yourself and you will. I promise.
If you’re looking for a digital “dictionary” that doubles as a language learning powerhouse, check out Innovative Language.
By joining, not only do you have a virtual dictionary filled with example sentences (gotta love context), but you also get new language lessons, all the time… for free. From Beginner to advanced, and it’s available in 34 languages.
The languages that they offer full search-based virtual “dictionaries” in include:
It definitely doesn’t hurt that audio translations are provided as well.
It’s an easy way to practice your listening and reading skills between calls.
5. If possible, choose a language partner who complements your language proficiency
You remember how in school, we learned that the complementary colors are red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple? You need to find the green to your red.
If you’re an upper beginner (’cause lord knows an absolute beginner shouldn’t yet be doing language exchange calls), don’t choose a partner who is a beginner of any means.
If you can hardly speak their language and they can hardly speak yours, what’s even the point of the call? Neither of you will understand the other and your “conversation” will end up being a waste of time.
If you’re a beginner, stick with a language exchange partner who’s at least intermediate at speaking your language.
If you’re intermediate, you’ll be best off sticking with a partner who’s intermediate as well. I think this combination makes for the best two-sided learning experience.
If you’re advanced, or at least B2, you’ll have the most flexibility in who you can choose as your language exchange partner. But I suggest speaking to a beginner to ensure the most time spent speaking and listening to your target language. Neither of you will really have a choice if your partner can’t speak but a small amount of English.
6. Have a note-taking system (flashcards!)
Taking notes is so crucial in making sure you actually retain the benefits of your language exchange calls. Unfortunately our minds don’t work like sponges and we don’t automatically absorb everything we take in.
Your partner is providing true native-level translations. They’re providing you with colloquial language and conversational vocabulary that you’ll actually use in everyday life.
Don’t take that for granted. Treat the encounter as you would any other language learning experience. Taking notes and asking for clarification.
Don’t worry if you’re a major techie, I’m not talking about pen and paper. I’m talking about digital notes that can’t ever be lost or destroyed. Yes, that means taking your notes on a cloud-based platform where everything is automatically saved online.
For me, my notes are done entirely on Anki. Anki is what I consider to be the best of the best flashcard systems.
All your notes are saved on digital flashcards that are shown to you later down the line through spaced repetition. I have too much to cover in this article to go into depth, but check out this mini course on how to learn languages with Anki like a PRO. It’s free and full of great tips.
7. Come with conversation topics
This is basically the first step any language exchange regular will give you. Don’t start the call with absolutely no idea as to what you both will be talking about.
It’s a painful waste of time for your call to be filled with awkward silences. Under most circumstances, you and your partner will be relative strangers so it won’t be hard for you two to run out of something to talk about.
Fortunately though, as in the beginning phases of any friendship, you can easily fill the call with in-depth introductions.
Where are they from? Have they ever been to your country? Why are they learning your language? What’s their career? Are they in school? Do they have kids? Are they married? For how long? Would they be open to a relationship with you? Just kidding about that last one. Please don’t ask that (without obvious signals from them.)
If you’re good at keeping conversations going, you should have no problem.
But you can’t keep a conversation going if you don’t know how to get one started in the first place.
All you need are two or three broad topics to fall back on if the call suddenly goes dry.
So search online or rack your brain beforehand. Both you and your partner will be glad you did.
8. Have your easily navigable notes in front of you
For the virtuous scholar, having your notes out to reference may feel like cheating… but I promise you it isn’t.
We all have brain farts. And for the sake of keeping the conversation flowing, it’s a big help to have your notes out.
But notice I said easily navigable. Going back to the subject of note-taking, I strongly suggest using Anki or some other note-taking platform that’ll let you quickly search through your notes.
Over the past year, I’ve accumulated 1,888 cards in my Vietnamese deck. Anki’s “browse” feature means that by simply typing in one or two letters, my whole deck is instantly filtered.
So if my partner has just told me some good news and I’m trying to remember how to say “that sounds exciting”, all I have to do is search “exciting” and Anki will only output cards that contain that word.
Speaking honestly though, I consider this to be a last resort after totally racking my brain.
Don’t rely on your notes. You won’t have them in real-life conversations. Use them as stepping blocks until you don’t need them anymore.
9. Close your eyes
You know how people will tell you to take a deep breathe to take the overwhelm out of a situation? Closing your eyes will take the overwhelm out of a listening to a foreign language.
I learned that trick from my Spanish teacher. It forces you to zero in on what you’re listening to. Our eyes are distracting so closing them will help prevent yourself from getting distracted.
Plus, if you haven’t noticed, our eyes typically start looking around a bit wildly when we’re anxious. When your partner starts speaking quickly and you’re only understanding every fifth word, suddenly you’re scrunching your brows and looking right, left, up, and down as if you’re somehow searching your brain. Been there, done that.
Although closing your eyes isn’t going to miraculously make you understand words you don’t, it’s an easy way to really focus on what’s being said.
It won’t instantly produce a successful language exchange, but at least it’ll take some of the overwhelm out.
10. Prep with audio resources between calls
Reiterating what I said under the “translation tools” step, it’s never a bad idea to recruit multiple resources to improve your listening (and speaking) skills.
Your partner is there to help you practice, not to teach you the language. Even if they seem awfully “teacher-ly”, you owe it to them to practice on your own between calls.
I like to consider language exchange calls as assessments of the the skills I’ve gained on my own. They’re the perfect situations to find out whether or not you’ve actually retained what you’ve learned.
Which means that your solo study can’t merely consist of reading and writing. However appealing that textbook may be (although it’s probably not), you’l be better off sticking with well-rounded language learning platforms.
Let’s be real– language teaching applications have come way too far for you to be confining yourself to pen and paper. This isn’t’ the early twentieth century after all.
Whenever you can, I strongly suggest you employ resources that tackle all 4 of the language learning pillars:
And as you’ll quickly learn, language exchange calls make it necessary for you to go with language learning resources that tackle the former two. There’s a good chance that a portion of your exchanges will be through text message, so don’t neglect your reading and writing skills either.
My all-time favorite audio resource is Pimsleur. Pimsleur’s 30-minute audio lessons are more than enough to keep my speaking and listening skills up to par.
Pimsleur will even get you that near-native accent you’ve always wanted.
A quick run-through of all 10 tricks for a successful language exchange:
- Come prepared with clear communication vocabulary
- Start with short conversations
- Have a way to send text messages
- Have a translation tool ready (preferably with audio features)
- If possible, choose a language partner who complements your language proficiency
- Have a note-taking system (flashcards!)
- Come with conversation topics
- Have your easily navigable notes in front of you
- Close your eyes
- Prep with audio resources between calls
Keep learning languages my friend, and I hope to see you again real soon!