The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language with an Exchange Partner

Foreign language learning: possibly one of the most daunting tasks but also the most enjoyable, incredible, fun, and rewarding experiences in the world.

If you’re reading this, chances are you are learning a new language, or you want to.  Also, chances are you have asked the same questions that millions of other language learners have asked as well: what is the best way to learn a foreign language?

When first starting out, many people believe or have been told that immersion is the best way to learn a language.  But as we get more advanced in our language and start seeing how others are doing it around us, we tend to see that immersion actually isn’t one of the best ways if not done correctly.

Finding a language partner is one of the most beneficial ways to learn a language.  They are native speakers, they are understanding, they are new friends, and they are free.  Can it get any better than that?

If you are looking to learn a foreign language online, getting a language partner through apps and websites like italki and HelloTalk is highly recommended all over the web by various other language learners and polyglots.

But, just as the idea of getting a language partner seems to be too good to be true, there’s a catch: it can also be very confusing and nerve wrecking, especially if you are talking with a learner of your native language and you are doing exchanges for free.

I never considered myself a shy person when it came to speaking my target language (Mandarin Chinese) about two years ago.  In fact, while I was reading everyone else’s complaints about their shyness,  I was dying to have an hour long conversation in Chinese with a complete stranger over Skype.

However, that all changed about ten minutes before I had my first ever Chinese language exchange.  I was instantly struck with fear, nervousness, and felt like my mind threw out all of the words and phrases I had been learning for years out the window.

So, here’s the thing: if you want your language partner to be useful for you, there are a few steps you must follow.

1. Prepare Rich Topics in Advance

Before going into your exchange session, write down and plan a few topics to discuss in advance.

This will lead to a conversation that lasts for a long time and is beneficial and relevant to your language goals.  And let’s not forget to mention that it also reduces the chance for an awkward “moment of silence” in the conversation.

All in all, prepared topics work great.  In fact, my Chinese tutor prepares topics for us to discuss before our lessons and that’s all our sessions consist of.

To get the most out of your language partner, you have to make the most out of your sessions.  Before your meeting or call, write down a few ideas for discussion topics that you can practice talking about in both your target language and their target language.

Some ideas of good topics are…

  1. Your favorite movies and TV shows
  2. What you like best about the language/what you find hardest
  3. Stereotypes you’ve heard about the other person’s country/figuring out if they are true
  4. What’s popular in your partner’s country vs. what’s popular in yours
  5. Your personality vs. your partner’s personality

Make sure that your topics promise a good, lengthy discussion.  An example of a bad topic would be “the weather”.  It’s boring and won’t tell you much about the culture of your target language or lead to a friendly connection with your exchange partner.

2. Make Mistakes

Part of being a language partner is correcting the other person’s mistakes.  If you’re too shy to correct the other person or you are too shy to be corrected by them, you are being–well–a bad language partner.

Even if you are “pretty sure” you are saying something something right, say it anyways.  It is better to get that clarification than to go on thinking something that is wrong or you are too shy to use.

Furthermore, learn from these mistakes.  Write down everything new that you have learned, including the corrections to your mistakes.  Otherwise, you won’t learn from them.

Personally, the mistakes I make the most are with grammar.  Since school started in 2017, I wasn’t taking near enough Chinese lessons or practicing my speaking like I had in the summer and like I should have been.  Because of that, when I spoke with native speakers (whether it be my teachers or language partners), my grammar was horrible.

But always, always, always, the native I was speaking with corrected me.

Take advantage! You are getting access to a personal, one-on-one language learning resource! Now is the time to make your mistakes, get your clarification, and practice what you need to practice.

3. Be a Copy Cat

Whenever you are corrected by your language partner, repeat it.

Then, ask them to say it again.

Then repeat it again.

Most likely by the second time, your partner will be saying “yes, good job!”

But the purpose of this is not only to drill the new word or phrase into your head, but also to improve your accent.  Having a native speaker who is willing to talk one on one with you is not only a huge chance to practice your speaking skills and learn new words, but also to improve your accent.

When I first started having conversations with online language partners and tutors in Chinese, I was so embarrassed by how “American” my Chinese accent was.  I was speaking Chinese the same way I spoke English, and me being so self-conscious was hindering my learning.

But that all changed when I started trying to mimic my teachers exactly the way they sounded.  Now, my accent doesn’t worry me at all, and I’m much more confident when speaking the language.

4. Have Multiple Exchange Partners

Just like how in high school you’d never write a research paper based on one source, you never want to practice a language with just one person.

It’s not because that person may be wrong–they are native speakers, anwyay–but because you don’t want their speaking style to become your own.

If you want to truly learn how native speakers talk, I highly recommend you to find about three or more people willing to tell and talk to you.  Also, the way one person speaks is going to depend heavily upon what region of the country they are from.

For example, if you are learning Spanish (from Latin America, let’s say), even though it’s considered the Latin American dialect, there are 33 countries in Latin America.  So if your language partner is from Argentina, for example, they aren’t going to speak the same as a person from Venezuela, even though they are both Latin American countries.

If you want to go into even more depth, each country has its different regions.  So not everyone from Mexico will speak the same Mexican Spanish, even though it is one country.

5. Don’t Replace Your Textbook with Them

While learning with an exchange partner is very beneficial, please, please, please don’t throw away all your course materials just yet.

It is important that you are using your language partner solely for speaking and listening practice.  That means no talking about grammar.  Why waste your time with your one-on-one language partner when you could be better investing that time with a textbook or online course?

Grammar is much better off being self studied.  Don’t ask your language partner for sentence patterns or grammar points.  Just speak.  They will correct your grammar if they have to, and if you want to learn more, go to the books.

Also, when talking about grammar, it takes away from the time you have to practice speaking your target language.  It encourages more time in your native language, which is not what you want.

Language exchange partners are great ways to improve your speaking and listening skills…when handled the right way.

To optimize your results and make your time well spent, follow these simple strategies during your next language session.

It is important that you make the most out of your session, and part of that is taking initiative and doing what you need to do before your exchange.

It also means being a good teacher for your partner.  Make sure that you are respecting their wants and goals and doing the same for them that you want them to do for you.

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2 thoughts on “The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language with an Exchange Partner

  1. This is a reaaally good post. You’re right. Many people complain about how hard it is to find language exchange partners qhile their problem is that they don’t know what to talk about.

    1. Yessss, I’ve noticed that so much! Even with me, I started wondering why I wasn’t benefiting from language partners like other polyglots said I would, and that’s when I pieced together why I was doing it “wrong”. So this post is based purely off of personal experience and research!

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