German Conversation Exchange: 7 Tips to Avoid Total Tandem Awkwardness

Conversation exchange–or, as the Germans say, tandem–can be one of the most enjoyable ways to improve your German.

But the road to making new friends is often paved with awkwardness.

So, how to avoid the awk and reap the benefits of tandem?

Luckily, I took some notes on my own less-than-comfortable experiences, and I’ve distilled my lessons learned into advice for future tandem participants.

German Conversation Exchange: 7 Tips to Avoid Total Tandem Awkwardness

There are as many reasons to try tandem as there are reasons to learn German. A tandem is a great way to learn more about:

  • slang you won’t hear uttered by your lovely yet downright formal German teacher.
  • social and cultural issues.

My first tandem in Germany was definitely more of an exercise in social awkwardness than an exercise in mutual language learning!

I was looking forward to meeting Hans-Peter–the sheer “Germanness” of his name seemed a sure sign that I was about to embark on a most fruitful journey of German language learning. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

We began conversing in English, speaking actively and in great depth about our shared interest in philosophy. Then we switched to German. Hans-Peter would not budge from the subject of philosophy! My German was rudimentary at best. I tried to nudge the conversation in another, simpler, direction.

Hast du Geschwister?” (Do you have siblings?)

Wo bist du aufgewachsen?” (Where did you grow up?)

Hans-Peter offered only spiritless single words in response.

My questions became increasingly desperate and increasingly simplistic as my supply of German phrases dwindled,

Hast du eine lieblings Farbe?” (Do you have a favorite color?)

It was horrendous! When Hans-Peter suggested that we read Kant in the original German and spend our tandem discussing it, I knew there was no way to salvage this language learning partnership.

Hans-Peter and I might have been a lost cause, but there are some ways you can increase the chances of a fun and effective tandem:

1. Start your tandem by speaking in the weakest language.

My German is usually much weaker than my partner’s English, so usually we start by speaking in German. A good conversation typically gets more complicated and in-depth as it goes on. So, if you’re still a beginner in German, you often can put the knowledge you do have to better practice at the beginning of a conversation.

2. Ask your tandem partner upfront how and when you’ll switch from one language to the other.

This is especially important advice when you find a partner you really click with!

You can easily find yourself at the end of an hour having talked excitedly about things you have in common and realize you’ve only spoken in the stronger language. There are different ways you can agree on how and when to switch.

Some people do best by agreeing on a specific time period for each language and sticking to it–no exceptions. Other people prefer a flexible approach–this is OK, too! If you take a flexible approach, it’s good to reserve some time at the end to talk about how much you spoke in each language and decide whether you want to focus more on one or the other the next time you meet.

3. Talk about how you’d like mistakes to be corrected.

There’s nothing like constant correction to stifle a lively conversation!

This being said, different people have different preferences about how much or how little they’d like to be corrected.

It can also be useful to ask your partner whether there are particular kinds of errors they’d prefer to focus on. Your partner may be less interested in having their grammar corrected than in getting suggestions for more colloquial vocabulary, for example.

Checking in with your partner about your preferences for correcting is a great thing to do if you’re the kind of person who feels shy about pointing out mistakes. If you’ve talked about it and agreed on strategies, you don’t need to feel awkward!

4. Come prepared with some new vocabulary.

Have you just finished reading a great book? Seen a terrible TV show everyone else seems to love? Been in an embarrassing, but ultimately hilarious situation?

These are all great topics to discuss during a tandem!

You’ll get the most out of the conversation if you come prepared with some of the vocabulary you might need to passionately describe the plot of the book, deliver a scathing movie review or have your tandem partner in stitches as you describe the hilariously embarrassing details of your recent experience.

Not only will anticipating the kind of vocabulary and phrases you might need for your tandem help your conversation progress more smoothly, but doing the work to find these words, making a note of them and then putting them into practice will hugely increase your retention!

5. Exchange some simple reading material.

Hey, if it turns out you both can’t get enough of Kant, who am I to judge? Go for it!

I have found, however, that exchanging short news articles over email with my tandem partner before we meet guarantees an active and really interesting conversation.

We’re both interested in law and politics (again, not for everyone), so every now and then I find and send her a news article about some debate or development in Canada (where I myself am from) and she sends one from the German context.

This has not only given us a lot to talk about, but we’ve both learned so much about the not so obvious differences and similarities of our respective countries. Of course, it doesn’t have to be news articles you exchange–opinion pieces, magazines, or lifestyle blogs are great too! The main thing is to find pieces that are brief and at an appropriate language level for your partner.

6. Don’t always meet at a coffee shop. Switch it up!

It can open whole new worlds of language when you go out and actually do something with another person. Wandering around a museum, a flea market, an interesting historical landmark or even playing mini golf can open up new, unexpected lines of conversation, as well as activate different sets of vocabulary and knowledge.

Plus, this can certainly take the edge off of any awkward silences that do arise!

7. Bring a pen and some paper, but for heaven’s sake, don’t spend your whole tandem writing things down!

Use your your school supplies sparingly.

Having a notepad handy for “aha!” moments is great. You know, those moments when you come across a word or phrase you’ve been desperately missing in your life, or when you finally figure out the meaning of a phrase you’ve heard a million times, but have never really been able to grasp.

A notebook can also be handy for jotting down tricky sentence structure–but again, choose your battles wisely! German is full of tricky sentence structures and you could easily spend the entire tandem with your head buried in your notebook. That, my fellow German-learning friends, is a recipe for total tandem awkwardness.

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