The world has moved on.
Gone are the days of using text speak and awkward emoticons ;-) to fit your meaning into 160 characters.
No more bashing those number keys until the letter you want finally appears—over and over and over again.
No, these have been replaced by emojis, GIFs and endless conversations in WhatsApp groups.
Did you know that more than 55 billion messages are sent using WhatsApp every day? And that 1.3 billion people use it every month? That’s roughly the population of India!
WhatsApp is a versatile and instant way to communicate with people all over the world. So why not use it for your language exchanges?
A language exchange is a partnership with a person or people who speak your target language and who want to learn the language you speak. You practice each other’s languages—and make friends along the way! It’s a powerful, fun way to quickly progress in a language.
Language exchanges are often done in person, but that can limit you if you don’t live in a particularly multicultural area. Thankfully, WhatsApp has come to the rescue to help you meet language exchange partners with your phone.
The basics of using WhatsApp
Install the app
The basic WhatsApp app is completely free to use. Messages and calls use your Wi-Fi or data service—meaning no more hefty bills for contacting your friends. (As long as you’re careful with your data service!)
You can get the app for Android phones, iPhones, Windows phones or your Mac or PC. Just visit your relevant app provider online and search for WhatsApp, or head to the WhatsApp website and click the appropriate links.
Download the app, go through the setup as guided and you’re on your way!
Add your contacts
As part of the setup, WhatsApp checks whether the contacts in your phonebook have WhatsApp and allows you to start a new chat with them. To do so, tap the speech bubble in the bottom right corner of the app and search the alphabetical list for them.
Every time you add a new contact to your phone, this process should occur anew. If you don’t see a contact in the list, tap the breadcrumbs (three dots in the top right) on the “New Chat” screen and tap “Refresh.”
You can also add new contacts directly in WhatsApp. Simply tap “New Contact” on the “New Chat” screen.
Key WhatsApp features for language exchanges
Why is WhatsApp so good for language exchanges? Here are the key features and how to find them:
The most basic use of WhatsApp. Simply tap “New Chat” or select an existing chat on the main screen of the app, tap the text box, write your message and press send.
Pictures and videos
In the text box, you’ll see a paperclip. By tapping this, you can access your camera and take a picture or video right there and then. You can also choose a photo from your gallery to send one you’ve taken or downloaded before.
Select it, add any caption you want and hit send.
Emojis and GIFs
You can make your messages more visually interesting by adding an emoji—a little pictorial representation of a face, animal, symbol and much more. Choose the smiley face to the left of the text box, scroll, select and send.
You’ll also see the option to choose a GIF, which is an animated picture, often taken from movies or TV shows. These are increasingly popular in online exchanges!
There’s a little image of a microphone next to the text box. Hold it down to record a spoken message and release to send. If you decide you don’t want to send it, swipe left while you’re recording.
Voice and video calls
At the top of the chat window, there’s a little telephone icon and a video camera icon. These allow you to make a voice call or video call respectively. This is free with Wi-Fi and uses your data connection if you’re not connected to the internet. But remember, this can add up if you don’t have unlimited data!
Some people are members of so many groups on WhatsApp that they don’t know how to keep up! To create a new group of three or more people, go to “New Chat” and tap “New Group.”
Choose your contacts, give your group a memorable name and icon and chat away! Group chats allow texting, pictures, videos, emojis, GIFs and voice notes, but not video calls or voice calls.
I’ll go into a little more detail below about how to use these features for your language exchanges. But first, let’s dive into how to find a language exchange partner through WhatsApp.
What’s up with WhatsApp? You Can use WhatsApp for Language Exchanges!
Nervous about chatting with an actual native speaker? It helps if you’re already at least a little familiar with the native accent, regional slang and the culture.
If you’re looking for a method to improve those skills, FluentU is the way to go!
FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news, inspiring talks and more.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them.
Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Find your WhatsApp language exchange partner
What to look for in an exchange partner
Of course, the basic criteria for your exchange partner is that they want to learn your language and you want to learn theirs. Ideally, you want a native speaker, but a language learner who’s proficient can be just as useful. However, there are a few other key points to look for, too:
- Try to find someone who speaks your language about as well as you speak theirs. I know from experience that it can be frustrating and even embarrassing when you’re able to have a conversation about global geopolitics in one language and can only talk about family and pets in the other. Ultimately, it’s most rewarding if you’re able to make progress at a similar rate.
- It helps if you have something in common with the person you choose. The main purpose of the exchange is to improve your language ability, but language exchanges are more successful—and more fun!—when you also enjoy speaking with each other. Awkward conversations don’t make for great learning. Sharing an interest in sports, music or movies gives you a solid starting point.
- Find out your prospective partner’s motivations for improving. If there’s a clear objective, the exchange is more likely to last for a decent amount of time. For instance, if you’re looking to learn Spanish for when you travel to South America next year and you meet a Spanish speaker preparing for a year of study in the USA, you can help each other prepare for those goals.
Once you know the kind of partner you’re looking for, you can start making those connections.
How to find WhatsApp language exchange partners online
The world is a big place, and most of the people who speak your target language are probably far away from you. Luckily, there are websites dedicated to helping you find them.
The key is using sites that have a page dedicated to language learners searching for WhatsApp exchanges. The website Language.Exchange is the perfect example.
MyLanguageExchange is another outstanding resource for finding a partner, as everyone lists their native language, target languages and location. You can also search by age and gender or specify whether you’re looking for video or text message exchanges.
You can also take a look at discussion pages, where people learning your language will reach out. They give you a sense of their personality, which can help you determine if you’ll be a good match. For example, take a look at this post on the amazing website, italki.
If you want even more options, get in touch with people via Reddit. It has subreddits (message boards) dedicated to any language you could hope to learn, as well as ones for finding exchange partners—like the Exchanging Languages subreddit. The great thing about a subreddit like this is that people often give details about what they’re looking for, so you can keep an eye out for posts like this one, in which someone is specifically looking for people to use WhatsApp for a language exchange.
How to find WhatsApp language exchange partners in person
Using WhatsApp for your language exchange doesn’t exclude you from talking to that person face-to-face, too.
A great way to find people in your area is to join a group on Meetup. Using this site, I was able to find a weekly language exchange that took place at a bar near my house. By getting the contact information for locals who spoke Italian and were learning English, I was able to build a network of language exchange partners. By meeting them in real life, I was also able to find out the kind of person they were and get a sense of whether we’d be a good match.
Once you meet these people face-to-face, you can keep in touch with them using WhatsApp so you don’t have to wait for your next Meetup to practice.
How to make your WhatsApp language exchange successful
Set ground rules
A key feature of an organized language exchange is a time limit for each language, e.g. 10 minutes in English, then 10 minutes in German. This may not be so formal on WhatsApp, but it’s still a good idea for you and your partner to set expectations from the start. You don’t want to feel short-changed because you’re only speaking one language. That isn’t much of an exchange!
Similarly, make sure you give each other an idea of your availability and how often you want to message. This is also an incentive to maintain the exchange regularly. Finally, it’s good to agree that you’ll correct each other’s mistakes—this is helpful and will keep either of you from taking it personally!
Use WhatsApp’s key features
Remember those features I mentioned above? That was the technical bit—here’s how you can actually use them to augment your language-learning experience on WhatsApp:
- Text messages. The great thing about texting is that you have time to edit, check your grammar and look up words you don’t understand. Text regularly and correct each other when relevant.
- Voice notes. For me, this is the most useful WhatsApp feature for language exchanges. We all know that, no matter how good you are at writing and reading, it can be difficult to overcome awkwardness and doubt when speaking. We also know that understanding native accents can be really tough. With a voice note, you can listen and re-listen to your partner’s messages, rewinding to sections you didn’t catch the first time. You also get plenty of time to plot out your response. This is an outstanding way to build your confidence speaking in your new language.
- Pictures, videos, emojis and GIFs. You might think these are frivolous compared to the other features. However, these features add depth to your interactions. Emojis can be used to help your partner understand what you mean when you use unclear language; pictures and videos are ways to incorporate your culture into your conversation; and GIFs, well, they’re just fun. I’d also encourage sharing memes in your language: humor can be one of the hardest things to grasp in a new language, so anything you can do to help your exchange partner improve will be appreciated.
- Video calls. When you can’t see each other in person, what better way to practice than talking through video? Schedule a time and duration in advance, make sure you’re somewhere with a consistent Wi-Fi connection and chat away.
Join group chats
Earlier, I mentioned group chats—use them! Even if you only know one person via your exchange, you can both add friends to the group who are learning the other language and make it more fun, varied and engaging.
Here are some techniques to make the most of those bigger groups:
- Open a conversation about where you are and what you’re doing. The great thing about WhatsApp is that you can instantly connect with people in different countries. Share a video of a typical cultural experience from your country and encourage others to do the same. This is a perfect opportunity to get into vocabulary that you might not otherwise know.
- Share relevant articles, blogs and videos that you’ve seen online, either in your target language or your mother tongue. This is an ideal way to give your exchange partners some authentic material.
- A really handy thing about WhatsApp is the “reply” function. By swiping right on an interlocutor’s message, you can reply specifically that message. This means that, even if the conversation has moved on quickly—WhatsApp groups have the tendency of getting away from you if you’re not looking at your phone for a while!—you can go back, pick up on specific words that are used in another language and ask about them. You can also correct those little mistakes others make. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it!
A group chat gives a different dynamic to a language exchange. Try it out!
Once you start your WhatsApp language exchange, keep it up! Set reminders on your phone to chat with your partner regularly and talk about what’s going in your life to keep the conversation current.
Who knows? You could make a friend for life.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.