Dear friend, in this post we talk about language exchanges: what they are, how they work, if they are worth the effort, where to find the right partner, etc.
It may appear like a no-brainer: “Fabio, I perfectly know what they are, why explain the obvious?”, to which my rebuttal is: really? 🤨
Are you sure you are aware of what they are and their hidden dynamics? I, for once, not only have wasted much precious time in pointless language exchanges, and to make matters worse, a few partners frighten the living daylights out of me.
In this post, I’m going to describe language exchanges and then sink my teeth into what matters for us: if they are truly useful for improving our language skills, and if they are, how to organize them, where to look for suitable partners, etc etc. The conclusion may surprise you. 😶
Ah: this article is available in MP3 format on: https://soundcloud.com/el-archivo-podcast/de-cuento-5
Language Exchange: what is this?
I’m going to make this as simple as possible for language exchange newbies. Let me begin with an example.
I, Fabio, learn Chinese; Wang, a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, learn Spanish. We agree that once a week we come together to mutually improve our language abilities. The first half-hour we talk in 汉语: Wang guides the conversation and corrects my mistake; then we speak Spanish and I return the favour.
Where did I find Wang? Well, in this case, it was online, but it could have been in real life. Normally, language exchange opportunities are indeed available in both dimensions. 💻
Offline: at bars, universities, language schools, public libraries, bookshops, etc. In most Western cities, at least medium-sized, there are venues where people customarily gather to have language exchanges, on a certain day of the week at a certain time.
They can be more or less structured, as well as focusing on a specific language or not. Sometimes there are three dudes, sometimes sixty; sometimes all fluent, sometimes more basic-intermediate speakers. 🗣️
Online: on websites or Apps like Conversation Exchange, Tandem, Italki, Reddit, Meetup or countless Facebook groups. Users can agree on a tool and practice there: Skype (the one I use), Google Meet, Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp or sometimes the very tool provided by the platform itself.
They normally are 1-2-1 sessions; in some platforms, you can post your texts and upload a brief audio message so that users could correct you, ask questions to other users, make the leap to teachers, make your profile available only for members of your same gender, etc.
Soooo, circumstances taken into consideration, you may wonder now…
Is it good to have a language exchange?
If you learn a language and you live where it is not spoken, a language exchange – online or in person, we’ll see it in a few minutes – is recommendable.
- it involves real talking with a native speaker (not a teacher), 🧍
- in the long path towards fluency, talking without hesitation is a major – necessary – step,
- we both absorb real language, with all its quirks and issues (language from books can be simplified and/or aseptic, sometimes),
- there is an emotional component in a 1-2-1 exchange, which fosters memorizing new words, grasping cultural elements and taking off a bit of our foreigner accent, 🧠
- it’s fun to exchange languages and ideas with someone from a different background. Benefits go beyond the mere linguistic sphere, in a way.
“Wow!”, one may extrapolate, “I’m rushing to find my language exchange partner for improving my Italian“.
Slow down your horses, friend: it might take a while before getting the right person. Few of the learn-languages-for-free gurus mention this, but… there are issues with this whole language exchange thing. 😒
I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I have gone through all sorts of upsetting experiences: most proved themselves to be ridiculous time sinks and a few petrified me like Frodo within reach of the Nazgûl.
Let me walk you through.
The issues with language exchanges
In fairness, I could have added more and provided creepy examples for each of them, but I decided to keep it sober.
Hard to meet the right partner in real life
Finding the right language partner for you might be troubling. If you were in London and you wished to improve your Polish in exchange for your native Hindi, you would have an easy time; if you lived in Ystrad Fflur, good luck.
You could resort to the Internet, granted. Still, this would be a minor inconvenience: brace yourself for what’s coming.
The frequency issue
Sometimes you want to practice twice a week, but your partner is available only once a fortnight. You have to accept it, and if you want/have to practice more, you’re bound to rummage for another partner. 🔍
Many speak worse than they believe
It’s the number one time-drain for me. I’ve lost count of how many folks proclaimed “I believe I have a B2 in Spanish”, but then when talking they weren’t even A2.
I’m sure they do not do it on purpose, but the proclivity to overestimation is staggering. I also have to add that in the Far East, in my experience, they rather tend to understate their language mastery. 🌏
This leads me to a huge piece of advice: at least, make sure you have a B1 level before searching for a language exchange partner. You’re welcome.
Connection problems for onliners
This issue is in the top three of all issues in this realm. Either using a laptop, a tablet or a mobile phone, some people do not have a stable Internet connection.
If it were good enough to have a voice call rather than a video one, you could still be happy with that. But I often had issues with some partners even with voice calls, spending most of the time staring at Skype and the message “poor network”. For goodness’ sake… 😔
Nonetheless, having audio-only interactions does not come even close to video calls: you lose A WEALTH of information without the video. It feels more impersonal, you can’t rely on body language, you can’t see facial expressions, you can’t lip-read.
Many just want to hang out
It is true for in-person gatherings, but also for online language exchangers: large swaths of the population aspire to socialize, with or without a pint of beer in front of them. Languages are secondary.
I sometimes had language exchanges, at bars and on Skype, with people so uninterested in languages I couldn’t, for the life of me, establish any meaningful relationship.
You know what I’m talking about: the sort of you-speak-very-well remarks that actually mean “I care sooooo little about your language skills”, no intention of correcting me, zero attention when I try to explain for an hour in a row that you can’t say “Yo habla espaniol”.
I often had the impression I could communicate better with a kangaroo.
Having something to talk about
Shared passions: if you two had very distant interests – or personalities and values – you wouldn’t last long.
I had dreadful experiences with people who were relentlessly trashing the place where they had settled in or just wanted to talk about things that have never elicited the slightest interest in me, no matter how hard I tried, one of which is motorsports. 🏍️
Even if everything else had been perfect, I just couldn’t talk about race cars or anything of the sort, not even for the purpose of learning languages.
However, talking about cars would have been an improvement sometimes: with some blokes, after a five-minute exchange, I didn’t know whether to call the Interpol or to vanish from sight in the blink of an eye.
Many do not know there is Tinder for dating now
Well, it’s a well-known secret. Many – mostly men – use language exchanges as opportunities to flirt: now, I am not a puritan and I am aware that love can sparkle anytime anywhere, but that is just silly.
With language exchanges being what they become, women either run away from them or end up wanting only other women to brush up on their language abilities. Men with serious linguistic intentions, on the other hand, can’t get to practice with women; if they see a man approaching them, they believe those too want to hit on them.
It would be so easy to go to the App Store and type “dating app” to see the plethora of available outlets for meeting the love of your life or whatever is you look for.
Language exchanges are much like NYRs
Yeah. Just like New Year’s Resolutions, a huge number of language exchanges start bold, then three weeks in life got back to normal and… no exchange anymore.
Thus, sometimes you took your time to track down a good match for your language combination, with similar tastes and levels, agreeing day and time and venue, and… in no time you are left with a handful of flies. 🦟
Unsurprisingly, professional fraudsters use language exchange platforms too to pursue their goals. Rich African princes or beautiful Asian ladies abound here too, with their promises of gold and happiness. I have seen them both online and in real life.
Sometimes they come forth soon enough; some others you may be practising for months, until one faithful day they reveal themselves.
They may come to visit you and they’re mysteriously stuck at the airport in urgent need of cash; they may suddenly have diagnoses of terrible diseases that need thousands of pounds to be dealt with… the list goes on and on. 🥸
Too many mistakes a language exchange partner for a teacher.
They want them to correct their grammar AND to explain them the rules behind it, or to check their homework, or to be available on-demand: oh blimey, that does not work like that. 🥴
Getting the language variety you want
If you’re in need of polishing up your language skills before an exam, align your language exchange with your goals.
A brief example. Ages ago I took the DELE C2 exam: an insane test assessing an insane proficiency in Spanish. 📝
I had been practising for many years with a friend from the Dominican Republic and I had grown very fond of her: but the Spanish she was employing wasn’t the one I had to produce in my exam, which had to be – I decided – European peninsular Spanish. I had to put her on hold for a few months.
Likewise, when studying for the qualifications of the Cambridge Assessment English, I couldn’t mix varieties. I chose to go for British English and RP – toned down as it may be, so I looked only for speakers of this variety, notoriously more difficult to find. 🧐
Conversely, had I not had this obligation, I’d have loved to practice with anyone from the English-speaking world.
Some languages are under-represented
You may be thinking: “Well, suppose you learn Basque and want to practice it, you are certainly going to have to try harder to find a language exchange partner”. True, but it happens for plenty of other languages too, English included.
Native English speakers are in huge demand in this realm: why? Well, because:
- English is the world’s language. Ups, spoiler alert… 😂
- Despite being half a billion worldwide, for every native Anglophone there are ten non-native earthlings willing to practice English, and then…
- native English speakers are less inclined to learn foreign languages than other groups. So for every American, Aussie or Irish available for practising, there are forty foreigners who want their English.
It doesn’t work for unforeseeable reasons
Just as it happens in other encounters with fellow human beings, also in language exchanges you meet people that draw you into their magnetic field with a strength hard to resist, and others that do not provoke the slightest chemical reaction. 🧪
I can’t explain it, any more than I can’t explain why and how it happens in the workplace, at the local book club or at the gym: with some guys, there is an immediate bond even though you are quite different from one another; with others, you may share diet, religion, passions, education, family background, coffee tastes and yet you can’t stomach them.
I kept practising with people who weren’t perfect matches with my pastimes and fluency, as well as I stopped arranging sessions with others that, on paper, had to be my buddies for life but they weren’t.
Chatting machines more than language exchange partners
In any language exchange platform involving instant messaging, there is a good deal of users who use it precisely the way I hate: sending back and forth 24/7 short, mindless sentences when not audio messages that are equally pointless.
This is more dawdling than anything. On top of not learning a language, you constantly deviate your focus from other meaningful activities: there are a plethora of books out there to explain to you in hard scientific terms why it’s terrible for you and for the human species.
If you want to get as frightened as you should be, here are a few recommendations, in their audio version because we’re all a bunch of lazybones:
- Deep Work, by Cal Newport
- Indistractable, by Nir Eyal
- How to Break Up with Your Phone, by Catherine Price
Too indolent even to listen to them? Okay, this is a brutal but not inaccurate resume: instant messaging platforms, among others, shatter your brain. If you can’t focus, you are so doomed that not being capable of learning a language becomes the least of your concerns.
But to add fuel to the fire, there is a legion of thick users who can’t wrap their heads around a simple fact: normal people have a life. So you have them stalking you in conversations like the one below:
And now, time to sum it up.
In short, is a language exchange worth the hassle or not?
Despite all the hassles I mentioned above, a language exchange could be worth having, if the following conditions are met:
- You do not need professional help for improving your abilities: in that case, we have these marvellous professionals called teachers.
- You have no money to hire a teacher or tutor anyway. 💸
- You have time and patience to seep through the vast pool of wanna-be language exchangers. Or…
- you are mainly doing it for meeting new people yourself – being true language practice secondary.
Now, as I am a self-righteous chatterbox, let me give you a few tips for getting the most out of it. 😉
Tips for the best language exchange experience
Either online or offline, I’d give you these tips if you go for a language exchange:
- At least, be mildly fluent: B1, at the bare minimum.
- Approach elders: they may be satisfied with talking in their mother tongue. No exchange with yours. I often did it.
- Prepare a topic beforehand to make the most out of it. Establishing in advance a topic of conversation may be a good idea, especially if you’re more intermediate than advanced.
- Remind your partner to correct you and do the same to them. Take note of their corrections.
- Be light-hearted: life is gloomy enough and no one likes spending time with curmudgeons. 😊
- Be careful with jokes when it comes to sex, religion, age, race, politics: the world boasts a unique variety of cultures, senses of humour and sensitivities.
- We are all wonderful people, but as Confucius said, be wary of giving out your phone number and home address.
Be especially on your guard with online acquaintances. I am as circumspect as a paranoid CIA agent and yet a couple of times I bitterly regretted having shared the above, even after a long time.
And at this point, you may wonder…
So, Fabio, is this how you roll?
Yes and no. 🙂
I am inclined toward getting private tuitions for myself even for just talking. I am not affluent by any stretch of the imagination, but I make money to pay teachers. By giving up one coffee a day at Starbucks, by Sunday I have enough cash to pay for two weekly lessons. ☕
The reasons for me are the following:
- I can find the right teacher in no time, and because I pay, I set the terms of my practice.
- I prefer to put a few bucks to pay a pro and have one hour of practice ENTIRELY focused on MY target language, no 50/50. And if I were at an in-person event, I’d have to pay for a filthy beverage anyway.
- I never had a teacher stalking me.
Nonetheless, if I still want to find a language exchange partner, I have my to-go place and it’s online.
Looking for language exchange partners
I go straight to Conversation Exchange. I know there are myriad websites and apps: some are outright BS though, some offer… a bit of help, but in my opinion, no platform equals Conversation Exchange.
My preference is driven by many reasons:
- It is straightforward to create an account and to reach out to potential partners.
- It has no photo BS, so people aren’t driven to choose partners based on their appearance. 📷
- Filtering is dead easy: by age, country, language, etc.
- The platform attracts a vast, mature (of the brain, not of age) audience.
- You introduce yourself on your profile, then you message someone who may be interested in exchanging with you and eventually you agree on practising on a platform of your choice at a mutually convenient time, period. 🗓️
- Likes and dislikes on other people are kept to a minimum.
- Advertising is very light, compared to other websites.
- It’s free (unless you would enjoy an ad-free experience, at which point you would pay a ridiculously low fee).
It’s the most effective, nonsense-free platform I have found. Just beware of people who seem practising many languages, all of which are spoken at a low level: they likely aren’t serious in their intention.
So, if you go and find useful Conversation Exchange, please consider supporting these guys by buying them a coffee: they’ve done an amazing job. ☕
Giving a chance to real life
As hinted, I do not go to any bar, club or anything in between in my hometown of Valencia. Why? Generally speaking, the focus is on the social aspect of the get-together rather than the language and there are too many people.
So, do I have merely online exchanges? Not at all, the real world is still appealing to me, but I roll differently: I use my passions.
Let me bring up another example. A few months before Covid hit, I took part in an international event about food production and sustainability. Most participants were Spanish but some came from as far away as the USA, France, Belgium, Portugal.
We had lectures and workshops: plenty of opportunities to bond. What do you think I have done? While attending the event, I reached out to the foreigners, using their languages to communicate with them; before leaving we exchanged contact details and we’ve been keeping in touch ever since, by email and Skype.
Why getting to practice languages through your hobbies is wonderful? Because:
- Passions coalesce people: I do not even engage in a language exchange with them, we rather exchange ideas about something we both love. And because we are not in a language exchange environment, I got to practice THEIR languages all the time.
- I actually HAVE SOMETHING to talk about with them. 😀
- Passions make it possible, for me, to have conversations with others even when my level is substantially lower than theirs. Why? Because passions, like love, work wonders. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, “he who has an interest can bear almost any language level in his fellows”. 😀
But other than that, I leave room for surprises. Over the course of my life, I have engaged in conversation with a gazillion people: in trains, airports, parks, restaurants, farms, streets. People reading books I devoured, photographers taking pictures of views I loved, horse riders in the country, fishermen at the harbour, co-workers in departments unrelated from mine, visitors of expos I enjoyed, tourists looking lost, you name it.
I’ve been doing it everywhere since I decided life is too short to be pathologically shy. Did I turn them all into affectionate language exchange partners? No, obviously: but I routinely had pleasant experiences and a few are my friends to this day. 💚
Why wouldn’t I suggest relying only on this strategy to find language exchange partners? Because it’s more of a long-term investment, it is unpredictable and it certainly takes longer.
It’s always a great idea to give life a chance to make you happy – and multilingual. 😀 But ehm, let’s end this overly long post.
I hope through this post I made some clarity about what it means to invest a bit of time and energy in a language exchange. Let me now summarise this all. If you:
- have more time and patience than money, ⌚
- you don’t have to improve at a high level and in a short time, and/or
- you rather use languages as an excuse to expand your social circle, 🥂
then a language exchange could be your thing. ✅
Conversely, if you:
- are above 25 years of age,
- have a busy schedule, 😓
- a few bucks spared,
- a no-BS personal tolerance,
then I strongly encourage you to, rather than seeking a language exchange partner, get a professional tutor. 🥼
If money were an obstacle, keep in mind you can relapse on teaching newbies: they have lower tariffs than established professors, but they’re still in the pro guild. Besides, if you go online, some reside in places where the low costs of living enable them to apply convenient fees.
And now that we’re at it, do you know that I provide private tuition? 😁 Why choose me? Well:
- I’m bilingual Spanish-Italian;
- my home Internet connection reaches 300 Mbps;
- rather than a refined Nigerian prince, I’m an uncouth Italian low-born, so no sham on sight;
- available morning to evening, provided you keep in mind I am in the GMT+1 time zone (Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Stockholm);
- I’m funnier than a cat video on TikTok. 😹
Now, a couple of short questions for you: have you already had language exchanges? How did they go? It would be great if you could comment below, as the experience of another fellow language enthusiast is always enriching.
Thank you for the time taken to read this. Be healthy, be safe, be polyglot my friend 😉
Your personal linguogeek,