Photo by Tessa Kay (Public Domain)
Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that surviving a conversation requires a different approach to the traditional grammar-based method or even more modern app-based courses, like Duolingo. A language exchange provides a simple (and free) solution: find a native speaker of your target language who likewise wants to learn your native language and arrange a call! True, taking a class or working with a private tutor are also great ways to improve your speaking skills. Still, suppose it’s your dream to hold your own in everyday conversation, pick up the slang, and make friends internationally. In that case, an online language exchange could be a game-changer.
Why do an online language exchange?
Covid-19 has thrown a wrench in all our lives, and the value of human connection has never been so apparent. Language learning is also known to boost our mental wellbeing, contributing to feelings of community and achievement. So, once you’ve got a basic grounding in your target language (500 words is more than enough), you’re ready to try out your new skills and start feeling the benefits. It will push you out of your comfort zone, but with new challenges comes new rewards. When I asked my language exchange partner, Maria, why she started doing language exchanges, she said: “I have always wanted to know about different cultures and countries. Language exchanges have helped me with that… it’s the best way to improve one’s speaking skills. Also, I’m happy to have friends all around the world.”
Where to find a language partner
Several platforms and apps offer the chance to meet and exchange messages with other language learners, the most popular being Italki. Primarily an online tutoring platform, Italki has an active and global community of users, many seeking a language exchange. Simply go to Italki to sign up and start a conversation using the hashtag #languagepartner. If you prefer apps, my language partners recommend Tandem. A fast-growing language exchange app, Tandem allows you to set preferences such as language level, goals, and interests, making it super easy to narrow down your search. After all, you’ll need more in common than your languages to keep the conversation going!
The first conversation and beyond
Once you’ve found a potential language partner, I recommend locking them down with a time and date ASAP. Simply tell them when you’re free and ask them when suits (remember to take time differences into account!). Whether you use Skype, Zoom, or any other software, you’re bound to be nervous before that first conversation. It’s totally normal! Ease your nerves by laying down some ground rules: how long are you comfortable talking for? You can suggest 30 minutes in each language, or even 10-15 minutes to get past the initial stage-fright. Pro-tip: if you’re really nervous, bite the bullet and offer to go first. Trust me.
Worried about what to talk about after the customary ‘hello, how-are-you’s’? Fear not, Marissa of relearnalanguage.com, has compiled an epic 400-item list of language exchange prompts, arranged by level, that will keep you chatting well into the future. Also, check out Marissa on Instagram to learn more about her endeavour to create a safe language exchange community for women and LGBT+ people @multilingualmarissa.
These can arise for several reasons, but the most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to feel embarrassed or ashamed about it. Allowing yourself to make mistakes is a gift you give yourself. In the end, it’s the only way to improve. Try preparing some simple phrases in advance, such as ‘Sorry, could you repeat that slower, please?’ and ‘What does X mean?’. For my first language exchange in Russian, I wrote a couple such phrases out on A4 paper and stuck it to the wall where I could see it. There’s nothing wrong with practising potential answers beforehand, either. You might be surprised how much of our everyday language can be predicted, especially if you use the handy list above! If all else fails, don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. Remember, it’s not a job interview, and you don’t need perfect grammar. Besides, as my language partner Kateryna says, there’s no pressure to stay in touch if you don’t click.
In short, language exchanges can significantly enrich your life, especially in the challenging and somewhat monotonous times we’re living through. We may not be able to book a holiday anytime soon or even go to the pub with friends, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop living, learning, and challenging ourselves. So, if you’ve always wanted to dive into a new culture or wow the locals on a future holiday, there’s no time like the present to find an online language exchange partner. Who knows, it might even change your life.