By the end of this post, you’ll have done 3 huge things.
1. You’ll have saved yourself $1,200.
2. You’ll be able to meet someone who’ll drastically change the trajectory of your linguistic journey.
3. You’ll look at Skype in a whole new way.
What’s $1,200? It’s the average price of a ticket from Seattle, USA to Madrid, Spain. It’s also the price of your typical Japanese language immersion class.
Bottom line, that’s the price you pay when you want to have an immersive language experience and be surrounded by native speakers, regardless of the language you’re learning.
Enter language exchange websites. These are places online where people who want to learn a new language go to meet the native speakers of their target languages.
The magic of language exchange happens as follows. Let’s say you, an English speaker, want to learn how to speak German. You go to a language exchange site and look for a native German speaker who wants to learn English. (Maybe he’s planning to go to the States soon and wanted to practice English beforehand.)
So, anyway, it’s a match. You want what he’s got and he wants what you got. Then you help each other out.
3 Simple Steps for Starting a Language Exchange
1. Go to a language exchange site and answer the two crucial questions. These questions are, of course, “what language you do want to learn?” and “what’s your native language?” The site will find matches for you in a matter of seconds.
2. Make the move and message a partner-of-interest. Say, “Hello there. I’m…”
3. Boot up Skype. Once you’ve made initial contact and have exchanged messages back and forth, export that “friendship” to Skype and engage in video chats. This takes the connection to another level and puts a face behind those Hi’s and Hello’s.
For those who’ve been living under a rock, Skype is the coolest thing. Unlike the old rotary phone, it lets you see the person you’re talking to. This gives you access to language partners all over the world—for free.
The question on your mind right now is probably, “where do I find these language exchange sites?” Well, you don’t need to look for them. I’ve narrowed the numerous possibilities down to the 10 very best language exchange sites.
The Top 10 Sites for Skype Language Exchange and 10 Tips for Success
10 Places Where You Can Trade Languages
“Become Fluent in Any Language”
This a popular language exchange site that’s gaining tons of new sign-ups by the hour. You have the choice of getting lessons from (1) professional language teachers, (2) native speakers who love to tutor and (3) language exchange with another language learner. You’re looking for number 3. It’s completely free and you’ll gain a new friend in the process.
“Real Conversations with Real People”
Livemocha is a community of people who function as both teachers and learners. Its language exchange section allows you to incorporate all those vocabulary, grammar & language usage lessons into guided conversations. Livemocha pre-empts the “so, what do you wanna talk about?” question with its unique guided conversations feature outlining how the session will go. Thanks to this, there will be no awkward pauses. Only thoughtful ones.
“Which language would you like to learn?”
Busuu is a language spoken in Cameroon. Busuu, the web site, is the world’s largest language learning network. It has won numerous accolades over the years including the European Language Label Award for 2009 and the Best Education Startup Award from Tech Crunch in 2011.
Busuu offers free learning modules for 12 major languages. Its language exchange section houses a great number of language enthusiasts and native speakers who can give you infinite number of practice hours of your target language.
4. Lingua Swap
“Love Language, Live Life.”
This one’s a real treat for students learning a foreign language. The site is for students to have the chance to practice the language they’re learning in school with native speakers who are their own age. So if you’d prefer to interact with people your own age for language exchange, Lingua Swap connects you with fellows in the right age bracket. Winner of the European Language Label Award for 2013, the site is still in Beta.
“Learn Languages as a game”
As the above tagline explains, Coeffee is a game-oriented language learning resource. What’s quite unique about Coeffee’s games is that they’re played in teams. So in games like “Word Explainer” you might be playing with a learner from the Middle East against a team composed of an Australian fellow and a Chinese genius.
The game spirit fosters not only friendly competition but community as well. Because of the bonds forged in the games, the next natural step is to export that bond to Skype and get the language dirt that only native speakers can give.
“Your Language Exchange Online Community”
This is a no-fuss language exchange site boasting over a million members from 133 countries studying 115 languages.
If you don’t find language partners on other sites because you’re trying to learn something esoteric, you might have better chances here. Dan Yuen, one of the site’s founders, says that My Language Exchange tends to attract the serious language learners, who, by extension, turn out to be great language exchange partners.
“Over a cup of coffee?”
This is one of the earlier language exchange sites and has a very basic interface. Just by typing in the appropriate boxes, you can use it to find native speakers of your target language and engage them in 3 different ways.
One, you can set up a face-to-face meeting if that route is practical. Two, practice your written and grammar chops with text-based correspondence. Finally, and the most recommended route, go to Skype and video chat your way to second language fluency.
This one’s not just a simple language exchange site. People here expect you to be more than a language partner. They actually want to be pals. So exchanges here aren’t so much, “how do you conjugate the Spanish verb estar?” but more like “what are your hobbies?” or “what did you have for lunch?”
If your idea of language exchange is leaning a bit on the friendly or romantic side, then Interpals is a good place to look.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Travel is the cousin of language learning. CouchSurfing is a hospitality-exchange concept where a host takes care of you when you visit his or her home country. And when she visits your city in turn, you return the favor and show them a good time. Of course, returning the favor isn’t an obligation—it’s just fun!
The site is full of fun and outgoing personalities who can teach you a thing or two about their native languages. If people on this site are willing to open their homes to strangers through hospitality-exchange, don’t you think they’d be ecstatic to help you with languages?
Sign up, get involved in the online community, chat with people and start making friends. You might end up planning an international excursion in the process!
Think about it. Everybody’s on Facebook. And not only that, you can learn so much about your future language partner. Not just because of her hundred pictures, she also lets you in on her likes, dislikes, hobbies, favorite movies, books and more just by “friending” you. Just looking at her profile, you already know so much about her.
Try this: type “language exchange” into the Facebook search bar. See what it gets you. For starters, there’s a group called Language Exchange Through Skype. There’s plenty more out there just like that, and many are specific to certain languages.
Okay, now that you know where to find these people, let’s see how you’re going to approach, interact and develop relationships with all of these wonderful fellow language learners.
The 10 Commandments of Language Exchange
1. Manage expectations and start off on the right foot.
Tandem learning is an art and not a science. There are no codified rules for language exchange.
In short, you and your partner will make up the rules for your specific situation. So even before you relocate the exchange to Skype, make sure you’ve got the ground rules covered. In your text chats, for example, determine details like: How long will each session be? What will happen during the session? What are your expectations?
Communicate them early for a smoother experience later. But this doesn’t mean they’re etched in stone. When you feel, for example, that the time allotted is too long or too short, by all means change it into something more agreeable for both of you.
2. Don’t be late
Be considerate. Your partner might be sipping coffee because it’s 2AM where he’s located. At least have the courtesy to be on time.
3. Watch your back
Remember, this is a video feed. People can see the wall behind you. Please tidy up the mess in your room and bring down posters that are in poor taste. They’ll be very distracting and send the wrong message. Have you seen the interviews done via Skype on major news channels? Ugh! Make yourself presentable on screen.
You may not think it makes much of a difference, but you should also clean yourself up before you meet your language partner. The eyes can smell. Yes, even if you’re on the other side of the world.
This is called a language exchange for a reason. Your partner is giving you the time of day because he’s expecting to learn something from you as well. Don’t be so obsessed with your target language and your personal goals that you forget your obligation to impart something of value to your partner.
If all you do is take and take, your partner will feel like he’s wasting his time. Remember, this is give-and-take. Divide the time equally between the two of you and your respective target languages.
5. Don’t be a bore
Your partner probably went to one of the sites above because he got comatose-bored by teachers in the classroom setting. Are you gonna serve him the same experience?
The solution to many of your concerns, like “what do I say next?”, “how do I avoid the awkward pauses?” and “how can I be an interesting language partner?” is preparation.
Believe it or not, you have to prepare a bit for your Skype sessions. It’ll make a world of difference. It’s good to at least have an idea of what the session will be about, so a slightly structured approach is advisable.
Have a cheat sheet of topics you’d like to discuss. Be ready when the conversation hits a brick wall and segue into other topics. Prepare especially for those times when you’ll be talking in your partner’s native tongue. Prepare so that you can say what it is you really want to say.
6. Consider yourself free to make mistakes
You’re there to learn, not to prove to your partner that you know how to speak his language. Liberate yourself from the need to be grammatically perfect. Don’t be embarrassed when you make mistakes, and don’t stop when you make a booboo. Continue, get into the rhythm and then later ask your partner about the most common, repeated mistakes you made.
7. Don’t overwhelm your partner
This is the other side of the coin. When it’s your partner’s turn to speak or practice, don’t correct him every 3 seconds. Instead, listen patiently and take note of his most common mistakes. Let him finish. And when he’s done, give your comments in as constructive a manner as possible.
When you teach him about your native tongue, don’t be a showoff and overwhelm him with too much material. Trust me, he won’t get any of it. Give him tidbits of info instead. It’s not your job to upload your knowledge of a language that took you years to master.
8. Let it be more than language exchange
Paradoxically, successful language exchanges don’t involve partners who obsess about each other’s grammar rules and vocabulary. Instead, it’s really a conversation between friends who correct each other’s usage from time to time.
It’s not so much about “How do you conjugate this verb?” It’s more like “You did that on vacation? Amazing! Oh, by the way, you should conjugate “saltar” (jump) this way because it’s in the past tense. So tell me more about your vacation.”
You really have to be interested in your partner as a person, not just as a language resource. Ask interesting questions. Get to know as much about him as possible. Share info about yourself also. Tell him your hobbies, your dreams and things that friends talk over a cup of coffee. Of course it’ll be a bit awkward and difficult at first. But as long as you’re having fun, language acquisition will only be a matter of time.
9. Have a reliable internet connection
This might seem obvious, but a bad connection is very common for native speakers whose countries are playing technological catch-up. If this is the case, you might have to settle for times when internet traffic is lowest, at odds time of the day.
You have no idea how troublesome a lag can be. It’s irritating and disorienting for anyone Skype conversation—how much more frustrating would it be to have lag when you’re trying to listen to a foreign language? Make sure that when you hear that ubiquitous Skype ringing tone, you can have smooth and interruption-free conversation.
10. Have more than one
You should only have one girlfriend. Good thing to remember. But that rule doesn’t necessarily apply to language partners. In fact, get as many as you can manage.
This is so you can get as much practice as possible. And not only that, language exchange is an art. Some of your language partners will be better than others. Some partners will be less dedicated and not show up to Skype dates. You have to play the numbers game so you can land language partners who’ll do you loads of good.
So there you go. 10 sites that lead to language partners and 10 commandments that tell you how to deal with them.
Now, take deep breaths. Listen very closely.
Can you hear the reverberations of the Skype ringtone?
It’s your language partner calling from the other side of the world.
What are you gonna do about it?
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