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!
The major thing I want you to take away from this article is that you can make language learning fun. That’s what we’re all about here at Cultured Simplicity. And I’m going to show you how.
Ever wondered: what is the best way to learn a second language? Or simply what is the best way to learn a language by yourself?
If you can’t quite relate to those two questions, you’ll still likely answer yes for one of these next two.
Is that sedentary lifestyle finally getting to you? Or perhaps the ever-growing trend to get 10,000 steps per day? You’re not alone. Keeping active was a struggle before quarantine; but now? It’s a very effortful commitment.
However, what If I told you you can have your cake and eat it too? As in you can effectively learn a new language by yourself while keeping up a movement regiment?
Spoiler: you can. Thanks to a little thing I like to call self discipline.
If you weren’t yet aware (which I find highly unlikely), both language learning and exercise require self discipline. You have to be willing to take a leap to do both and more importantly, stick with them. (Already lost you? Check out these 10 reasons you might hate language learning and how to boost your language learning motivation!)
When it comes to learning a new language by yourself, you have to use as much mental power as you possibly can. Your energy is so valuable. But fortunately, you have more than one kind.
You can use mental energy and physical energy simultaneously without either taking a toll on the other. Have you ever been physical exhausted after solving a riddle? Or mentally drained after going on walk?
Quite on the contrary, right? In most cases, you feel rejuvenated.
After figuring out some complex math problem or riddle, you’ll feel like a boss, and more motivated to crunch out a workout. (Even if you’ve never noticed it before! Exercise really is mind over matter.) And if you’ve just finished walking, your mind will likely feel clearer, more focused, and ready to tackle your next mental task.
I say all that to say that you shouldn’t be worried that movement will disrupt your language study focus. You definitely can do both.
Not only is moving a great way to make language learning fun, but it’s also a great way to keep you from dozing off. If you keep your body physically alert, it’ll be alot easier to keep your mind mentally alert. (And vice versa, for sure!)
So here’s how to
make language learning fun get moving during your language study routine! Don’t forget to pin or bookmark this article for later; you’ll be needing it.
1. Stretch / Yoga + Pimsleur Audio Lessons
Stretching and low intensity yoga are some of the least mentally taxing and least physically exerting workouts out there. They’re all about moving with the flow and feeling good.
You can easily prop yourself into a down dog or cobra while focusing on one of Pimsleur’s amazing 30-minute audio lessons. Speaking from personal experience here.
Pimsleur is perfect for busy bodies who want to drive, clean, exercise, cook, or do something else while listening to a language learning podcast. But of course in our case, we’ll be stretching and flexing our joints.
Pimsleur is essentially an interactive “podcast” that you talk back to. It’s the closest you’ll get to having a conversation in your target language without actually having a conversation in your target language.
As for the movement part, I suggest starting out with stretches. Then gradually progress to easy yoga poses and build the intensity from there.
The major thing to remember here is that the movement shouldn’t distract you from what you’re listening to. You should still be able to listen and respond to the prompts regardless of what yoga pose you’re in.
But as implied earlier, the longer you acquaint your body with the movements, the easier that higher intensity poses will feel. You may not be able to focus on the audio lesson in a downdog position at the very beginning, but give yourself two weeks and you’ll likely be just fine.
Practice makes perfect. Or at least proficient. In both language learning and yoga.
Same goes for stretching. If you’re on the verge of tears when attempting a butterfly pose, you won’t be able to focus on the audio lesson.
Gradually progress to more intense stretches but don’t let them interfere with your learning. Keep in mind that learning a new language is more or less a forever (or at least a 6 months worth) goal. So you don’t have to rush the progress.
2. Walk & Listen to Language podcasts or audiobooks
This one is quite similar to number one. If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to make language learning fun, or at least more enjoyable, go for a walk.
Grab your earbuds (or airpods for you fancy people out there) and hit the sidewalk, trail, or street, if you like living recklessly.
While Pimsleur may be my favorite audio-based language learning platform, there are still tons of audio sources out there for learning a language by yourself.
Of course, there’s YouTube — although audio lessons are harder to come by than video lessons.
And then there’s Audible. You can either try Audible Premium Plus and get up to two free audiobooks (like I did) or try Audible Plus. At the end of the day, they both give you access to audiobooks… and that’s all you need to get your language learning on.
Of course, you’ll need an audiobook or podcast that’s suitable to your proficiency in the language. If you’re still a beginner, I strongly suggest finding audiobooks or podcasts that are actually for learning a new language. As in skip the Spanish Harry Potter audiobook and go for that Spanish travel phrases audiobook.
Which is another reason why Pimsleur is so great. It’s geared toward your level of proficiency, explains new vocabulary, enforces grammar rules, and actually gives you the opportunity to practice your speaking skills.
That being said, I’m sure there are other platforms out there that are audio based and let you practice speaking that I just don’t know about.
So don’t be scared to do a little digging of your own. While yoga may not be for everyone, walking is. (If you’re not physically handicapped, of course.)
And if you already take regular walks, then simply plugging yourself into a language audio lesson while doing so won’t be hard at all.
You can even take your canine friend along with you. Breathe in the fresh air, stretch your legs, get your heart rate up, and soak in some Vitamin D.
All while learning a language.
3. Language exchange phone calls and pacing around your room (or house)
Italki is likely the most popular language exchange platform… and for good reason.
With Italki, you’re able to choose from over 10,000 teachers for 1-on-1 lessons based on your goals and interests. You only pay per lesson and at the price that meets your budget.
Plus you can learn from literally anywhere and at any time— all sessions are scheduled for when works best for you. Italki may be a fave among polyglots, but it’s emphasis on video calling is not always preferential over audio calling (If that’s what people call phone calls anyways.)
It’s easier to walk like a madwoman/madman when you don’t have to worry about your language exchange partner staring you down.
When it comes to audio calls, my favorite application is Lingbe. Their promise that users can “start real-time conversations with native speakers at the touch of a button,” is by no means an embellishment.
You literally just click the phone button and they’ll instantly ring others who are either learning your target language or native speakers of your target language. My only hang-up (no pun intended) is how quickly their in-app currency runs out. You spend 6 “lingbees” per minute when you talk to a native speaker, meaning your convos top off at about 10 minutes without a paid plan. It’s pretty hard to save up Lingbees if you’re not responding to ‘tasks’ posted by other users or spending your money.
So here’s my pro tip. Use Lingbe to meet a language exchange partner (or five) and then switch to another platform. Ask them for their Whatsapp or phone number. Bear in mind that Lingbe doesn’t allow the sharing of personal contact info in messages, so you’ll have to share your phone number one digit per message. Or ask for their Whatsapp in a language other than English, since Lingbe prevents you from sending messages containing the word “Whatsapp”.
As for the movement part, any old head knows the famous trek around a room one takes when he or she is in a serious phone call. And by serious, I also mean juicy.
Pacing around makes any conversation instantly more interesting. Walk the walk. Talk the talk.
And learn a language while you’re at it.
Didn’t I say you can make language learning fun?
4. Treadmill/Walk in place & watch foreign languages videos, shows, or movies
Now I know your mind probably immediately jumped to YouTube and Netflix for this one, but unfortunately, they’re just not as effective as actual language teaching applications. Especially if you’re going to be using English subtitles.
My suggestion? Innovative Language.
With Innovative Language, you learn directly from native speakers. Lessons are like personal classes, except you learn at your own pace.
You can learn practical, native-level conversations in minutes. Their teachers explain it all, word-by-word, in every lesson.
By joining, you get all new language lessons, all the time… for free. From Beginner to Advanced, and it’s available in 34 languages.
The languages that they offer both free and paid subscriptions in include:
- Chinese — Cantonese
- Chinese — Mandarin
And of course, Pimsleur would work perfectly as well. Walking in place is not a mentally taxing task at all, so you’ll definitely be able to focus on what you’re watching.
Oh, and if you’re on a treadmill, just don’t turn the speed up too high. Increase the elevation before you increase the speed if you want to intensify the movement. Jogging or running involves quite a lot of bobbing of the head.
And let’s be real– tiring yourself out physically easily translates into tiring yourself out mentally. Physical movement is only rejuvenating up to a certain point, and then it just becomes tiring. Save that precious brain power of yours.
Dance to foreign language songs
The fifth way to spice up your study routine and make language learning fun? Play some foreign music and get a solo dance party going.
Depending on the language you’re learning, it can be extremely easy to find straight-up bops in your target language. And there are even plenty of English songs that have been translated into popular foreign languages (especially Spanish and French.)
So hop on YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, or whatever your application of choice is and search for songs.
And if you don’t know where to start, just head over to Google and search “popular songs in [your target language]”.
Keep in mind this is definitely a more advanced option, so you’ll probably want to get a pretty decent foundation in the language before hopping into songs.
However, children’s songs just may do the trick for beginners. So don’t hesitate to throw a bit of pride away. Trust me, nobody cares. Everyone has to start somewhere right? And technically you’re still just a kid in the language that you’re learning. (Maybe even a baby — and that’s okay!)
Dancing is definitely a fool-proof way to make language learning fun. Just don’t have too much fun.
Same as the earlier tips, your movement shouldn’t distract you from what you’re hearing.
Learning comes first. Dancing comes second. So save your boogiest grooves for Saturday night.
Don’t miss out
So now that you you know you can make language learning fun, I hope to see you back at Cultured Simplicity very soon — or dare I say, muy pronto 😉
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Keep learning languages my friend! And I look forward to seeing you again real soon.