The best way to improve your English is by speaking as regularly as possible. But, for many of you, it might be difficult to find people or opportunities to practice speaking. So, on this episode of Thinking in English I am going to provide a detailed introduction to language exchanges, explain how to find conversation partners, and give you some tips to make sure you have the best experience possible!
Proficiency (n) – skill, ability, and experience
The job ad said they wanted proficiency in at least two languages
Competence (n) – the ability to do something well
Her competence as a teacher is unquestionable
Intuitive (adj) – understandable without needing to think about it or justify it
Most people have an intuitive sense of right and wrong
To resemble (v) – to look like or be like someone or something
You resemble your mother
Uncomfortable (adj) – not feeling, or making you feel, comfortable and pleasant; embarrassing
These shoes are really uncomfortable
To filter (v) – to remove or select a particular type of information from something
Most email apps use spam filtering tools
To fill out (phrasal v) – to write or type information in spaces that are provided for it
You must fill out your tax returns before September!
Prompt (n) – something used to help you remember things or inspire discussion
The actor forgot his lines, so the director gave him a prompt.
Conscious (adj) – being aware of or worried about something
Consumers aren’t as conscious of prices as they were last year
One of the most beneficial and most enjoyable ways to practice your English is by joining a language exchange or finding a language exchange partner. Language exchange is a method of learning language by practicing with learning partners who are speakers of different languages. Most of the time, this is done by two native speakers teaching each other their own native languages. For example, imagine you are a German person who wants to learn English. If you join a language exchange, you will try to find a native English person who wants to learn German, and help each other study and practice. In a language exchange, both learners have the opportunity to improve their target language skills and overall proficiency while developing intercultural competence at the same time! Sometimes the exchange can be a little more structured and involve teaching phrases and vocabulary, while many people prefer to have a more informal conversation.
If you search online, you’ll soon find hundreds of different tips and tricks on how to learn English faster. No one wants to be a beginner forever. We want to be able to have conversations and be fluent as quickly as possible. But, as you may know, most of the tips and tricks recommended online probably don’t work. I, and many others, believe that the only real way to learn a language faster is to get as much speaking practice as possible. Language exchanges are a simple and intuitive way of getting speaking practice. Traditionally, for one half of the conversation you talk in your own native language, so your partner can practice their new skills. For the other half, you talk in your partner’s native language and practice your new skills. It requires a lot of patience and trust. You must be comfortable to be both a teacher and a student. If you are only interested in learning English, and don’t care about helping your partner learn… well you’ll probably find that they won’t want to meet with you anymore.
After I moved to London about three years ago, I began using a few different language exchange applications, found a few partners who really helped with my Japanese and Mandarin skills, and even attended a couple of larger language meet-ups. I assume I was like many of you. I used vocabulary apps, textbooks, and even attended evening classes to improve my language, but I always felt that something was missing. Eventually I realised that something was conversation! Having language exchange partners who eventually became friends gave me the regular opportunity to converse in a foreign language, experiment with things I had learnt while studying by myself, and learn how to interact with real people. It didn’t just give me the opportunity to practice, but also the motivation to improve! I wanted to have deeper, more advanced, and more specific conversations, and having a partner who wanted to do the same really helped.
There are three main ways you can do a language exchange: online, face-to-face, or at meetups. In the current pandemic world, online language exchanges are probably the easiest, and safest, type. Moreover, in my case at least, online language exchanges led to real life meetings. The internet has made communication with people all across the world possible, and there are many different platforms, websites, and apps that are designed to make exchanges possible. Online language exchange can vary from emails and instant messaging, to phone and video calls. And depending on the way you want to communicate, you are able to practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing!
There are many different platforms out there which offer language exchanges. In many ways they resemble dating apps, as you look through profiles and choose who you want to practice with, send a message and hope they reply. Importantly, you have to remember to be safe. Like everywhere on the internet, there are weird people online and you should remember this. So make sure the person you are exchanging with really wants to learn your language, especially if you are a woman. In fact, if you are a woman, I would probably recommend either hiding your profile from men or looking closely at male users profiles and reviews. There will also be people out there who don’t want to help you with English, they just want to learn your language. Or maybe people who are not native English speakers. Choosing the right partner is an important step, and once you do this you will have a great experience.
Here are some of the most popular apps. I’m not recommending any of them, but I’ll leave links on the blog if you want to check them out. HelloTalk is the biggest language exchange app with millions of users, hundreds of languages and lots of interesting features that other apps don’t have. Tandem also has millions of users and focuses on one-to-one conversations. It has been called the tinder of language exchange apps, but don’t let that put you off; most people on the app want to study. Bilingua matches learners based on your personalities, language levels and interests. MyLanguageExchange has an old website, but many users who are looking for long term language exchanges. The Mixxer is focused on Skype, or video chat, based exchange which is nice as many of the other apps are designed around instant messaging. Speaky lets you have instant exchanges, Reddit has massive and active language exchange communities. Facebook has lots of private groups online as well. If you look at all of these places and can’t find a good partner, you always have the opportunity of paying for conversation classes online. Language tutoring websites like cambly (I tutor on here and you can book a lesson with me if you click here), italki, and Preply allow you to find online tutors.
For me, I was never really interested in online language exchanges. I’m not the best at using social media or sending instant messages, and I find calling on the phone very uncomfortable. So, although I used a few of the apps I mentioned, I actually preferred meeting people in person. Now, I was fortunate that I lived in London (a large city with many people also wanting language exchanges) and this was before the pandemic. I met people through friends and at my university to exchange with. A few of the apps allow you to filter people by gender and location which is really useful. In fact, most of my partners found me (like I said I don’t like messaging people) by looking at my profile and finding out I was in London. Then, after a few introductory messages, we’d agree to meet at a café or a pub and have a face-to-face exchange. We could divide our time between languages, and were able to clearly hear and see each other speaking. A lot of communication is non-verbal: things like facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures. These are difficult to learn online. The social element of face-to-face exchanges was also great, and I personally feel it is easier to talk to someone if you can see them!
The final type of language exchange are meetups. Meetups are when groups of language learners, ranging from a few to hundreds of people, meet in a location and practice their skills. The advantage of this type of exchange is that there are always new people to meet and talk to. If you don’t like one person, you can just move on to someone else! In London I attended a meetup at a pub and my university, while I know of other meetups that took place in parks and even bowling alleys. When I lived in Japan, I also went to a BBQ meetup organised by a friend. If you want to look for meetups, the best place to head to Meetup. They are usually free or cheap, and if you live in a native English speaking country, you could always join non-language meetups like hiking or book clubs!
So, now that I have introduced what a language exchange is, I think it would be good to offer a few tips, tricks, and pieces of advice to make sure you get the most benefits from your experience. They are such a great way to practice speaking, but many people make mistakes or bad decisions when choosing partners and planning for their exchanges. Hopefully, if you listen to my advice, you won’t have to face these challenges.
Ask Yourself What You Want
My first tip is to ask yourself what you want. Before you even download an app or organise an exchange, there are many questions you need to ask yourself. First, why do you want to learn English. Is it for work, for study, for travel, for meeting new people? How much free time do you have? How much time are you willing to spend speaking to other people? Are you looking for regular exchanges with one person, or one time exchanges with many people? Do you prefer speaking practice or written messages? Would you rather meet in person or online? Do you want to meet one person or in a group? Do you want a friend or a teacher? Thinking about these questions will help you to decide which app to use, and what kind of partner to look for!
Choose the Right Partner
I’ve mentioned this before, but choosing the right partner is really important. Don’t just go with the first person to send you a message. All of the apps I mentioned in this episode have hundreds or thousands of active users, so how can you find the right partner? In my experience, there are a few signs to look out for. Look closely at profiles. If someone has been active on the app recently and has been using the app for a while that is a good sign. Also, if their profile is filled out and has detailed information that is great too. When I used language exchange apps, I never talked to anyone who didn’t fill out their profile. Also, I recommend not talking to anyone who has multiple (more than two) languages listed on their profile. If someone is interested in learning French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Korean, Italian on their profile… Do you really think they are committed and interested in learning languages? I don’t! Moreover, find more than one partner! It’s ok to experiment and try different people. Remember you are not dating!
Talk About Expectation Early
Explain how often you’d like to meet, how long you’d like to meet, and how you want to language exchange. Make sure they are comfortable and have similar expectations.
Make it clear you want speaking practice. On language exchange apps, it is really easy to message people, but can be a little awkward to move to speaking. It is fine if you just want to message back and forth, but don’t be afraid to politely ask if you can speak. You could ask “Would you like to speak on video chat soon?”, “would you like to send voice messages”, or would you like to do language exchange on WhatsApp?”
You should talk about dividing your time equally. Structuring your conversation so that half is in your native language, and half is in English is important. Make it clear you expect the partner to help you! Otherwise you might find yourself being a teacher instead of a language exchange partner. Decide how often you want to be corrected, and how you want to be corrected. Think about what you want to discuss, and whether you want a natural conversation.
People are often worried that preparing for a conversation will make it weird and unnatural. I wouldn’t care too much – language exchanges aren’t natural anyway. Plan what topics you want to talk about, think of some questions you could ask, or even bring an article, exercise, or prompt to discuss. If you are unprepared, you will quickly find yourself having boring conversations and asking questions like where are you from? Do you have any siblings? How old are you?
I’d recommend making notes as well. Writing notes helps you remember things, and can make it easier to review what you practiced with your language exchange partner. Of course, I don’t want you right down everything your partner says word for word. That would be crazy! Instead, if you hear an interesting word or phrase, note it down. Try to find three things in every language exchange that you have learnt!
Furthermore, don’t just come prepared to learn, but also to teach. Now, you are not a professional teacher, but you should be conscious you are helping someone learn. Speak clearly and try to avoid slang or colloquialisms that a learner might not know! Ask questions to help guide your partner’s conversation, and if you really can’t think of what to talk about, try teaching some idioms or expressions! Everyone loves to learn informal language! You should also give helpful corrections. As a teacher, I find that giving long explanations for mistakes is not always the best method. Instead, try repeating their sentence back to them with corrections, as though you are affirming instead of finding errors. For example, if your partner said “I eat ice cream yesterday” you could say “oh, you ate ice cream yesterday? How was it?”
On this episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to give you all a complete introduction to language exchanges. They are an excellent way to improve your English skills, and can provide you with the opportunity to speak English regularly! Online or in person, texting or speaking, there are many different options to suit you! I hope that one day this podcast grows big enough where I can help organise language exchanges, book clubs and study groups. But for now, I’ll continue trying to produce the best content possible for all of you!