Harry Qiu began learning English as a young boy in Shanghai, China. Over the years, he became fluent, and later came to the United States for college.
Qiu now attends Dickinson College in the state of Pennsylvania, where he studies international relations.
There, he is learning two more languages – Russian and Japanese. And through the school, he gets to talk one-on-one with native speakers on Skype. For example, when he meets with his Japanese partner, Qiu helps his partner practice English. His partner helps him practice Japanese.
We call this a language exchange.
Such exchanges can be one of the best ways to improve your conversation skills. Qiu says they have given him the chance to experience the difference between real life conversation and classroom learning.
Colleges and universities are not the only places offering language exchanges.
Today, there are many websites and apps designed to connect language learners around the world. Popular sites like Conversation Exchange, Lingo Globe, Easy Language Exchange and The Mixxer offer an almost endless number of partners to choose from.
But doing an exchange without knowing what to expect can sometimes lead to wasted time. So today, we have five tips for how to have a great language exchange.
Tip 1- What to ask yourself
Experts say the first step is ask yourself some important questions.
Todd Bryant is a language technology specialist who runs The Mixxer, a website with more than 35,000 active users. The free service began at Dickinson College. But it is meant for people around the world looking for practice partners.
Bryant says the most important question to ask yourself is why you want to learn the language.
People who have a serious reason for learning a language are usually more dependable exchange partners. These reasons can include, for example, moving to another country or using the language for work. Less serious reasons might be wanting to meet new people or use the language for an overseas vacation.
Another question to ask yourself, Bryant says, is how much free time you really have.
“And then also think about how much time you're willing to spend on this so you can then find a good match. ‘Are you willing to spend an hour or two more per week to do this?’”
In addition, consider your preferences. Are you looking for speaking practice or do you prefer written messages? If you are seeking speaking practice, would you rather have video meetings or meet in person?
Knowing your preferred method will help you choose the right website or app. Some websites, for example, list people’s cities, so you can easily make plans to meet partners in person. Others do not.
Tip 2 - Find the right partner
Now, you are ready for tip 2 - finding the right partner.
As I said earlier, many of these websites can have hundreds of partners to choose from in the language you want to learn. So how can you limit your search?
Bryant says, when reading profiles, look for some important signs.
“People who have been on the site and have been active and have a reason to learn the language are much more likely to be good partners than people who have been on the site for a week and don’t really have their profile filled out and haven’t been active and are learning six languages.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that it is better to find at least two exchange partners. People lead busy lives and one person may not be available every week.
Tip 3 - State your expectations
Once you do find a person who seems like a good fit, be clear about what your expectations are in the first email. That’s tip number 3.
Explain to the person things such as how long you’d like meetings to be and how often you’d like to meet. And, for example, if you plan to meet in person, say if you are fine with noisy places or only quieter places.
Bryant says expressing expectations in advance will give the partnership a higher chance of going well. But, he notes, avoid being too rigid. For example, if you’re hoping for Wednesday nights every week, you’ll have better luck if you state other times that also could work for you.
Greg Scott is a Japanese-to-English translator based in Australia. He wrote for Lingualift.com about his early days of learning English . In the story, he noted that it was easier for him to have unplanned Skype meetings with his exchange partner because of his busy work schedule. But this plan was something both partners agreed on.
Tip 4 - Come prepared
Now, let’s say you have secured a partner and your first meeting is in a few days. You are ready for tip 4: prepare ahead of time.
Before each meeting, prepare some questions on a topic of your choice. That will give you the chance to look up related words as well as think about your own answers.
Preparing topics ahead of time will also help you avoid having nothing to say at your meetings, notes Bryant.
“Otherwise, you might find yourself 10 minutes in and you’ve already gone through the ‘What do you do for a living?’ and ‘if you like to travel’ kind of questions and you have nothing else to say.”
Or, you’ll find that you keep talking about the same things at every meeting, which you want to avoid.
Tip 5 – Focus on communication
Now we move to tip 5 – focusing on communication.
One thing to keep in mind during meetings is that the main goal is conversation practice. So i t’s important to let your partner speak freely, even if they make mistakes.
Bryant recommends giving only one or two corrections after each piece of dialogue.
Qiu says he corrects a partner only if the person is struggling to think of a word or cannot finish a sentence.
“If they are trying to speak fluently, you don’t really want to disturb that tempo…so you just definitely keep them speaking.”
Qui's advice to people who want to try a language exchange is simple: Don't be afraid to make mistakes!
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
More Tips from Experts
- Avoid sites that post only profiles of young, attractive people on their homepage. It may be a sign the site is more for meeting people than language practice.
- Be aware that some websites are free but others charge fees to use their services.
- If you plan to only have online meetings, you can use a separate Skype or other video account for privacy.
- Agree in advance on the amount of time you will spend on each language; it is best to split the time equally.
- Stay in each target language during meetings. For example, if you are practicing Japanese, do not use any other language.
- Avoid using the meetings as grammar lessons. Do not expect your partner to act like a grammar teacher.
And don't forget to have fun!
Words in This Story
fluent - adj. able to speak a language easily and very well
practice - v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it
conversation - n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people
app - n. a computer program that performs a special function
tip - n. a piece of advice or expert or authoritative information
preference - n. a feeling of liking or wanting one person or thing more than another person or thing
rigid - adj. not willing to change
translator - n. a person who changes words spoken or written in one language into a different language
focus - v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific
dialogue - n. a piece of conversation between two or more people