Quick quiz: What is the main reason that people learn a foreign language?
Answer: Quite simply, to talk!
Literally. Though reading and writing are important components of language learning, what we all dream of is to speak fluently, to travel to a country where our target language is spoken and sound like a local.
If your dream is like mine, keep on reading, because the clearest path to fluency is finding a language exchange partner.
I’ll explain the benefits of language exchange, tips on how to get the most out of your language exchange sessions, and of course how to find partners both online and offline.
So what are you waiting for? Scroll down!
Benefits of Having a Language Exchange Partner
Positive Social Motivation
Learning a language on your own can be tough. As hard as you try to listen to audio lessons online, use flashcards or take advantage of online resources, it can be hard to keep your motivation high. Traditional courses, with their focus on exams and grades, aren’t exactly a low-pressure solution.
So here’s a fun, positive option: a language exchange partner. Meeting up with a friendly face—someone who only wants to see you succeed and can provide a barometer on your language learning progress—is a great way to not only reduce the loneliness of language learning, but provide some positive momentum as well.
Training Your Ear
One of the biggest challenges facing new language learners is training your ear to hear the nuances of language and accent. Sitting over a textbook or listening to audio tapes is just not the same as living and breathing a language. Since you can’t just go to the country where the language is spoken, why not find someone in your town or community to speak with?
Something you’ll quickly find out is that there’s more to language than just words. Facial expressions, hand gestures and inflections are all unwritten parts of a language, and there is no better way to learn these than one-on-one with a language exchange partner. Moreover, understanding these aspects of a language can make learning vocabulary easier.
So we know that the benefits of having a language exchange partner are huge. But how can you make the most of your meetings?
Getting the Most out of Your Language Exchange Sessions
When you’re heading to your very first language exchange, the butterflies might hit. I barely know how to speak this language! What are we going to do for an hour?
First of all, don’t worry. Language exchange is supposed to be fun—stressing out is never a good way to learn a language. Here are some tips on how to get the most of your language exchange sessions, and have fun doing it!
Warm Up with FluentU
To get your mind thinking in your target language before you meet with your language exchange partner, spend 5-10 minutes on FluentU. FluentU is an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
FluentU is designed to get you comfortable with everyday language, by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with easy-to-read subtitles and FluentU’s highly-effective “learn mode.” This is also a phenomenal way to improve during the week, between meetings with your language partner.
Stay on Schedule
This is key. You should definitely have some time to get to know each other, and have friendly conversation in your mutual, best language. But then, get down to business. Set up a reasonable schedule: 30 minutes in the language you’re trying to learn, 30 minutes in English (or whatever language your partner wants to learn) is a common and great way to divide the time. It’s easy to get off topic and waste time–don’t let that happen!
The longer you wait between meetings, the less likely you are to remember what you learned. I recommend meeting once a week, with once every two weeks the bare minimum. Anything less and you won’t have time to train your ear and learn.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Remember, you’re not being graded! Mistakes are part of learning—in fact, they are the best way to learn. Can’t think of a word? Try to describe it using the language you’re learning. Your partner doesn’t understand you? Try speaking it out slowly.
Here’s a tip: Smile when you make a mistake, and begin turning failure into laughter. Then your fears will fade and your mind will open to the trial and error necessary for deep language learning.
Like the saying goes, it’s better to have tried and failed, than to have never tried at all.
Practice Between Meetups
I recommend bringing a notebook with you and, without distracting too much from the conversation, jotting down any difficulties you’re having or new words you’re learning. Then, when you’re back home, practice whatever you found most difficult. It could be pronunciation, or maybe a challenging verb tense or conjugation.
The best part? When you show up to your next meeting and impress your partner with how much you’ve improved!
How to Find a Language Exchange Partner
Now, I know what you’re thinking: The benefits are all swell, and I’m itching to put those tips into action, but I don’t know a single person who speaks French (or Russian, or whatever language you are learning)! How can I find a language exchange partner?
Don’t fret. We live in a multicultural era, with people of all ethnicities, nationalities and languages traversing the world for globalized opportunities. Chances are that there are people in your community or city who speak the language you want to learn, and would be interested in having the chance to improve their English through language exchange.
If not, there is an alternative: a virtual language exchange partner. Though tools like Skype, you can reap most of the benefits of an in-person exchange through many online resources, accessible wherever you have an internet connection!
Finding an In-person Language Exchange Partner
Here are the best ways and resources to find yourself a language partner with whom you can meet face-to-face:
- Craigslist: The world’s top classified site has a section for “Activity Partners” where you can both post a request for a language exchange partner.
- University Message Boards: Do you live near a university? Most American universities, no matter how big, small or remote, have international students from all around the world. Post an ad at the university either online or on bulletin boards on campus.
- Forums: Does your town or city have a forum on a site like InterNations? If so, do a search or put up a post.
- Meetup: Meetup is a website dedicated to organizing small group get-togethers around shared or common interests. They have numerous language exchange meetups in cities all across the world. This is especially useful for popular languages—like Chinese, Spanish, French, German, or Japanese—but may not be as useful if you are learning a more obscure or less popular language.
- Local Language Centers: Similarly, there might be a local cultural center that offers language courses, or provides a venue for language learning, in your community. Alliance Francais (French) and Goethe Institute (German) are two common ones. Google is your friend!
- Couchsurfing: Couchsurfing is the world’s largest travel social network. Though its focus is getting locals with extra space in their homes to host travelers, the site also has a wide host of events in cities all around the world. The best part about Couchsurfing is, after you register and create an account, you can search for locals in your area by the language they speak. This is fantastic way to find language partners in more obscure or less spoken languages.
In my experience, a friendly introduction message to a Couchsurfer, with an offer to meet over coffee and exchange language, will usually work (though you might have to send messages to a few profiles to get a response).
I, for one, was able to use Couchsurfing to find an Indonesian language exchange partner, a language for which there are nearly no exchange groups in the United States.
Finding a Virtual Language Exchange Partner
Having trouble finding an in-person partner? Do you live in a place without a large university or a diverse immigrant population? Or is the language you are trying to learn too obscure?
Don’t fret. We live in an interconnected world, where distance no longer matters as it once did. The web is connecting people all around the world, and there are several sites where you can set up a profile and find a virtual language exchange partner and gain nearly all the benefits of in-person exchange from the comfort of your home.
Here are a few of the most popular ones with recommendations to help you decide which is best for you!
- italki: This is my pick for the best overall language exchange site. It is large, well designed, easy to use and has a good diversity of languages and members. You can log in directly using your Facebook account, which will save you time as you won’t have to fill in as many details, and then you can search for a “teacher” based on your language level and which conversation skills you want to improve.
- ExchangeLanguage.com: Though not quite as user-friendly as italki, this site tends to have more members who speak European languages. The registration process is fairly straightforward, but be careful when searching through profiles that the user you are contacting has logged into his or her account recently.
- Conversation Exchange: This site has an older layout, but is still very reliable with an active community. You make a profile and write about yourself, then you can browse the profiles of other users based on their target and native languages. There are three possible modes of interaction that you can look for: face-to-face conversation, correspondence (pen pal) and text/voice chat. I recommend checking this site out if you are learning an Asian language, as they have a large number of profiles from people in East Asia.
- The Mixxer: For those of you specifically looking for Skype video exchange partners, the Mixxer is a great option. It is a free educational site for language learners hosted by Dickinson College, and is designed specifically to connect language learners around the world to have video exchanges. They also have lessons plans and other resources that you can use to improve language skills and plan out your exchange sessions.
- LiveMocha: This site blends language lessons with the ability to find language partners. After you register and put your native language and the language you want to learn onto your profile, LiveMocha will automatically give you a list of potential partners that match your needs. This is a great option for those of you who want a more comprehensive option.
- Reddit: For those of you who love message boards and chat forums and don’t mind a bit of mess, check out Reddit. There are subreddits for nearly every language in the world, making it a great place to post and find a partner, especially for obscure or less popular Asian and African languages. Registration is simple and forums are open to all, as long as you don’t post spam.
- Location-specific Sites: Many cities have their own regular language exchange events or partner-finding sites, like loquo in Spain or GoLingo in Montpellier, France. Use Google and Facebook to find out if your city (or a city/country you plan to visit) has its own site for finding language exchange partners, or its own weekly language exchange event.
Multiple Language Partners: Double Your Learning
If one partner is so great, why not have two? Or more? Here I urge you to move with caution, as sometimes more is not necessarily better.
Meeting in groups of three can mean less pressure, and you can train your ear to distinguish between multiple accents. The downside is that there’s less time for you to speak, and the conversation tends to go to the level of the one who speaks the worst of the language, which can limit your ability to improve.
So think carefully about what you want to gain from a language exchange. If you feel that just meeting with one person would be best, then go for it. If you think that meeting in a group is better, then follow that path!
Here’s another option: meeting two people separately, one-on-one. This will allow you to have more exposure, perhaps learn different accents, but also means more commitment on your part.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there, find a language partner, and fast track your language skills!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.