Language Exchange: The Pros and Cons of a Language Partner


Language exchange events seem to be all the rage in multicultural cities and places with a high number of expats. They’re seen as good ways to meet new people, learn about new cultures, and generally spice up your life.

A lot of people in the language learning community see language exchange as a very useful tool for language learning. It’s one of many activities that can be added to a study routine and it can provide a number of benefits for refining your language skills.

However…

A language partner can be a useful tool for helping people level up in a language, but it’s far from the most useful tool for progression. Language exchanges can be fruitful if you find a committed, reliable, helpful partner, but this is much easier said than done. Your time is much better spent either consuming comprehensible input in your target language or paying a language tutor to give you more constructive correction.

What is Language Exchange?

A language exchange is pretty self-explanatory – two people (sometimes it’s a group) exchanging languages.

Let’s say you’re learning Mandarin and you find a native speaker of Mandarin to partner up with. Your Mandarin speaking partner’s target language will be your native tongue, or a language you’re advanced in. You will then spend a certain amount of time conversing or studying each others languages, taking turns being the student and teacher.

In the early days of learning Mandarin, I used to think this was a great way to my study time. After all, if you want to get good at speaking your target language, you need to speak it, right? What better way than with a native speaker!

Honestly, I met some awesome people and had a great time through language exchanges in the early days of learning Mandarin.

However, as I marched along the lonely road towards fluency in Mandarin, I realised that my language skills weren’t improving at the speed in which I wanted. I’d put a lot of stock into language exchange, but it began to dawn on me…

Perhaps there was a better way to learn Mandarin.

Language Exchange Pros

Although I’d prioritise other activities over language exchange (we’ll talk about these at the end of this post), there are definitely some benefits to it.

Socialising

I love meeting new people and hearing their stories. One of the reasons most of us learn new languages is so we can open ourselves up a new world of opportunity and connection.

Language exchange brings this benefit forward to those who maybe can’t speak enough of our target language yet. It serves as a taster of what’s to come if you reach a high level of your target language. This can be very motivating, depending on your outlook.

Real time listening and speaking practice

There’s something to be said for listening to a native speaker in real time. Your concentration tends to be more focussed in this scenario as you’re responding directly to what’s being said. This isn’t necessarily the case when you’re watching TV or a movie and listening more passively.

During language exchange, you’re given real-time correction by your partner while speaking. This can be incredibly helpful (and quite frustrating) as you’re constantly being diverted to using language in the correct way.

Granted, these two benefits are there when using a private tutor, but it’s something you get for free with a language exchange.

Language Exchange Cons

Language Exchange or Speed Dating?

In many parts of the world, ‘language exchange’ is kind of like a code for something else.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there who aren’t direct enough or feel too much shame to use a dating app. Instead, they’ll feel a real sense of social acceptance if they meet someone via a language exchange. They feel it’s less sleazy, I guess?

This way of thinking sounds crazy to me, but things work differently in other cultures.

Basically, if you’re genuinely looking for a successful language exchange, you might have to sift through a lot of insincerity and creepiness to find a good language partner.

This tends to be more difficult for women, unfortunately. It turns out men get pretty weird online.

Over reliance on others

Relying on another person to get some language practice can be tricky. If your language partner is just as motivated as you then that’s great, but many people in this world are very, very flakey.

Learning a language to a high level requires thousands of hours of work, and relying on a language partner to get some of that time in is going to hold you back in most cases.

Language Hoggers

Way too many previous language partners of mine have been quite selfish when it comes to language exchange. I know plenty of other people who have been victims of this as well.

Basically, there are a lot of people out there who really push to get their own language practice done, but they couldn’t really care less about yours.

This is annoying, but it’s something you can spot pretty early on with a new language partner. We’ll look at tips on how to deal with this and other issues in the next section of this post.

5 Tips for a Better Language Exchange

If you really want to make the most of your language exchange, take the following tips on board. These tips are mostly common sense but they do come off the back of a lot of personal experience with language exchange in my early years of learning Mandarin.

If you want to find online language partners and tutors specifically to learn Mandarin, check out Where Can I Find Good Chinese Teachers Online?

Set ground rules

From the get-go, establish rules with your new language partner so you both know exactly what you’re getting.

Obviously language exchange is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, so the idea of being firm with rules can be off-putting to some people. However, if you want to do it properly, it’s better to state your ground rules from the beginning so you can find someone who’s just as committed as you are.

If you scare potential language partners away with your rule-setting, this can actually be a good thing – you’re filtering out unsuitable language partners.

Divide time equally

In my experience, this is the most common aspect of language exchange that makes people fall out. Be firm about how much time you’re spending with each language, and stick to it. Don’t be afraid to tell someone to stick to the rule.

If you’re not strict with this stuff from the beginning, it tends to continue or get worse.

Come prepared with topics

This is especially important if your partner is quite shy. This is an issue I’ve faced quite regularly in China, as many Asian cultures in general seem to produce more shy people. There’s nothing wrong with being shy of course, but the more prepared you are with topics and avenues of discussion, there’s a higher chance of a more enjoyable and fruitful language exchange taking place.

Embrace discomfort

Speaking a new language is awkward. Learning a new language as an adult basically consists of thousands of hours of social embarrassment.

Having a language partner really helps take the edge off this as you tend to get comfortable with making mistakes very quickly. You also get to see someone else make the same mistakes in front of you, and this makes you realise it’s totally normal.

If you’re someone that suffers from social anxiety or shyness, the idea of language exchange can seem very daunting. However, with repeated exposure to language practice in this environment, it can serve as excellent therapy.

Ask for feedback

When it comes to language learning, sometimes the spectator sees more of the game. Although we are often our own worst critics, sometimes we can become so wrapped up in what we think our weaknesses are, we might not see something more obvious.

Make sure you get good quality feedback from your language partner. Try to create an environment where both of you aren’t afraid of holding back with true, constructive criticism. Use this criticism to help your progress, as that’s the whole point!

Alternatives to Language Exchange

At the beginning of this post, I claimed that language exchange isn’t the best use of your time when it comes to language progression.

I personally feel that there are too many variables to a language exchange that can cause it to go wrong and become more trouble than it’s worth. Unreliable partners, logistics (unless online), time to establish a bond, etc.

I have written at length on this site about the most effective language resources and tips for learning Mandarin Chinese. There are a couple of activities I believe to be the most effective for learners of any language, especially if you want to improve your speaking skills.

Comprehensible Input

This is what I, and many others within the language community, believe is the single most important activity for reaching a high level in a language.

Simply put, comprehensible input is language that can be understood by someone even if they don’t understand every word in it.

Now, although regular learning tools like apps, textbooks, courses, and tutors can and should be used for language learning, ultimately it comes down to how much time you have spent listening to and reading your target language.

You might be thinking, “How does comprehensible input improve my speaking skills? I only need to speak to get better at speaking, right?”

Wrong.

You need to acquire language to be able to use it, and we acquire language with our eyes and ears.

This is how language learning works. If you want to be able to improve your speaking skills in a language, get more input!

Shadowing

Shadowing is an incredibly effective technique for improving overall language ability with a focus on speaking. It is especially useful because it’s accessible for those at a beginner stage who don’t yet have adequate conversational ability.

Shadowing, also referred to as ‘parroting’, is the act of speaking along (or as close as you can) to audio in your target language, usually with a slight delay.

This brings a range of benefits which I discuss in much more detail here.

You don’t need to rely on a language partner to ‘shadow’. All you need is an audio track, some space, and the desire to mimic your way to fluency.

Hire a Tutor

Although this is a more expensive form of language practice, a good tutor can provide feedback that a language partner might not be able to. An experienced tutor should also know what to look for and when and where to interject and correct you.

In addition to the above, a language tutor generally cares more about your progress as there is a financial incentive to do so.

Personally, I’m not a huge advocate for tutoring to beginners.

I think tutors are more useful when you reach a level where you can converse in your target language (high beginner/upper intermediate).

However, many students feel a huge benefit of having a regular class routine with a tutor, and having someone who can help them navigate through beginner learning material.

Summary

Although language exchange is a better activity than nothing when trying to learn a language, it isn’t the best use of your time and effort, in my opinion.

If you want to improve speaking skills in a foreign language, extensive listening and shadowing are two activities I’d prioritise over all others.

If you are going to engage in language exchange, take on board the tips in this post and make sure you are well prepared.

If you’re looking for resource guides and tips for learning Mandarin Chinese, check out some of the posts below.

再见!

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