Build a Language Exchange that Works

I love online language exchanges. They’re a great way to meet like-minded, motivated language learners from all around the world, and they give you a chance to use real language, from your own room, regardless of what’s going on in the outside world. You can immerse yourself in a language without leaving your house! You’ll meet the brightest, the most eccentric, the most positive, the kindest people. And speaking your new language is easily one of the most thrilling, exhilarating parts of learning a language!

But that doesn’t mean that they always go exactly to plan. You’re going to meet all sorts of people from all walks of life, and from time to time, you have to be prepared for some bewildering experiences ranging from the inconsiderate, to the strange, to the downright hostile.

If your language exchange partner is behaving in a way that is unreasonable, offensive, or inappropriate, just leave the conversation. You have no obligation to continue talking to someone who is being disrespectful. You don’t need to tolerate any behaviours in a language exchange that you wouldn’t tolerate from friends in real life. And remember that all language exchange apps have a block and report facility.

But if any of these things are happening, it’s also a definite sign that something needs to change:

  • Your partner talks and talk and talks, and you can’t get a word in edgeways.
  • You both spend a lot more time speaking in your native language than theirs.
  • Your partner interrupts you constantly to correct you.
  • Your partner expects you to be able to explain and teach them complex grammar rules and large amounts of vocabulary, and you start to feel like a volunteer teacher.

If something is not going right, it’s never too late to say so, and to request a change in arrangements. You both need to be upfront about your needs and expectations for the exchange to work.

When you’re looking for partners, obviously you need to consider things like their time zones and availability. You might want to filter by country if you’re aiming for a specific accent or dialect (e.g., if you’re learning Mexican Spanish, you might not want your first language exchange partner to be from Madrid). But here are a few other things to consider:

Think about your levels

Personally, I look for people who are at a similar level to me. I find that if there is too much of a difference in level, then it can often develop into a student-teacher relationship rather than an equal exchange. That might not be the same for you, though. It might be that you want to work with advanced speakers of your language, because then you can discuss a wider variety of things in greater depth when it’s their turn. It might be that you get real satisfaction out of helping beginners.

Think about your goals

If you’re learning for a specific purpose, there can be real benefits to finding someone who’s doing the same as you. If you’re preparing for a business exam, look for people who work in business. If you’re preparing to move to the country, why not look for someone who’s already lived abroad?

Things to agree when you start a language exchange:

How will we divide up our time?

I have done language exchanges where we simply split the time in half, and I’ve also done exchanges where we speak one day in my language and one day in theirs. In the beginning, half and half is probably the best place to start. It is less tiring, especially if you’re not used to speaking, and it means that even if you only speak to that person once, you’ve got had a chance to practise. But you know you best. See what works for you!

Do you want to be corrected? When, how, and what things should they correct?

When someone corrects you all the time it can be incredibly frustrating. But remember that it probably comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, so don’t be afraid to have a quick conversation to let them know how best to help you. It’s not unkind and it’s not ungrateful. It means you’ll both get the best out of your exchange.

It is entirely your choice as to whether you want your partner to correct you when you speak, and you don’t both need to have the same arrangement. But one thing is for certain, and that is that nobody should be stopping you every ten seconds to correct yet another minor mistake. Here are some things you could ask for:

  • Please don’t correct me at all
  • Correct me only if you can’t understand what I’m trying to say
  • Correct me only when my mistake changes the meaning of the sentence
  • Correct only one specific kind of error (for example, correct only my use of past tenses today)
  • Correct me only if I pronounce the same word wrong several times
  • Suggest one thing I should work on at the end of every conversation

Then, when do you want to be corrected? As soon as you make the mistake? At a quiet moment when you’ve finished speaking? At the end of the conversation? If you’re using an online platform like Tandem/ Skype/ Google Meet/ Zoom, do you want them to type a correction while you’re speaking so as not to interrupt you? 

How should we structure our language exchange?

If one person in the language exchange is naturally more talkative than the other person, it can lead to one member sitting silently as a captive audience while the other monologues for an hour. In these situations, it might be worth setting a really clear structure for your language exchange rather than open conversation, as an exchange of questions and answers on a specific topic. It means that you are guaranteed to get some time to speak.

Finally, set boundaries on your role

When you are part of a language exchange, you should definitely not be made to feel like an unpaid teacher. You probably aren’t a qualified teacher, and you should never feel obliged to be creating resources or “teaching” the language at all. If a language exchange is going to work, both of you will need to arrive at the conversation, having done some studying yourselves, and practise what you’ve learnt together. So if you are receiving messages on a language exchange app that say “hi can u teach me English”… no. The answer is no.

Equally, have a clear idea in your mind about what you are willing to do as favours. Checking over a few pieces of work or grammar exercises? Maybe, if you feel comfortable doing that. Helping to prepare for a job interview? Maybe, if you feel comfortable doing that. But you definitely don’t need to do anyone’s university work for them or translate their CV just because “you’re a native, it’ll be so easy for you”, or let them sit their children in front of the screen so you can act as a makeshift au pair while they cook dinner (all true stories!). It can help to think about these things in advance so that requests in the middle of a conversation don’t take you by surprise.

I’ll say it again. It isn’t selfish to tell your language exchange partner what you need, and you have every right to feel listened to in your language exchange. Your language learning, your rules. 

1 thought on “Build a Language Exchange that Works”

  1. This is such good advice! I get really anxious about being corrected every other word, so setting boundaries is a good tip.

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