Ten ways to fix your language exchange

Language exchanges are a really popular way to practise your languages. They’re free, they’re fun, and a great way to really get to know someone who shares your passion for learning languages.

But sometimes there’s a catch. Although many language exchanges start out strong, they can quickly run into some problems. If you don’t prepare or plan for these, your exchange could come to a very premature end. Negative learning experiences like these can be hard to overcome, and may even put you off making more progress in the future.

When language exchanges do work though, they can be great. So next time you set one up, remember these ten problems that you may have and try to plan around them.

1. Overcorrection

It’s not your partner’s fault, but whenever they hear you make a mistake in their beautiful mother tongue it’s like a dagger being thrust through their heart. Like an instinct their index finger will shoot up and they’ll bark out their correction in the blink of an eye. You’re grateful for their help, but after a while it starts to grate. And you’re concerned about what it’s doing to your partner’s pulse.

But what’s more worrying is that this isn’t really getting you anywhere. You now know that you actually make a lot more mistakes than you thought, but you haven’t worked out what’s causing them or how to stop them. Instead, you’ve just started doubting yourself more and you’re less and less enthusiastic to start talking.

You need to look at your mistakes constructively. You need to spot the patterns and work out what grammar gap is causing them. Instead of correcting you every time you speak, ask your partner to write everything down on a piece of paper. At the end you can study it and work out how to stop making them.

2. No common interests

You picked your partner because you seemed to have so much in common. You like languages, they like languages. You’re learning their language, they’re learning your language. Surely this was a match made in heaven, right?!

Well, actually languages are about communication. If you pick a language partner that you don’t have anything to communicate about, then you’re a bit stuck. If you’ve learned anything from this experienced, forced conversation is awkward in any language. A professional teacher may have the experience and skills to overcome this problem, but the chances are that a fellow language learner won’t. Try and find out as much as you can about your language partner before you start your meetings, and think about what questions you’d like to ask them and what you’d like to talk about. Like this you’ll start your meetings full of ideas, energy and motivation.

3. Too much vocab

Native speakers know a lot of words. They can use them to say exactly what they want, when they want and how they want. Remember, they’ve got a lot more years of learning on you and chances are they always will do. So when you ask your native speaker friend how to say something, they will spend a while really thinking about it, then give you four or five different options. These will all be ever so slightly different, all using an incredible amount of words and expressions you’ve never heard of. The result? You’re dazzled by the choice, overwhelmed at discovering there are even more words you haven’t learned, and are wondering whether you will ever truly be able to learn this language!

Language learners have different goals to native speakers. Native speakers want to express themselves as accurately and as articulately as possible, but most of the time language learners just want to express themselves full stop. Nuance and idiom are great, but only once you’re used to speaking at all. Native speakers can often set the bar too high, and while you want to make progress you also need to walk before you run.

Having too much choice for vocab can leave you confused and unsure of which to use, which my friend Michal Grzeskowiak called the “Lion Syndrome” when talking about this problem at the Polyglot Workshops in Poland last February.

4. Not enough structure

We all have different needs and different goals when it comes to learning a new language. Perhaps you have something specific to aim for, or perhaps you’re just doing it for fun. But whatever your motivation and whatever your goals, there is one thing that everybody needs to make your language learning a success: you need to feel that you’re making progress.

This is a key difference between a language exchange and a language course. A language course is a set number of lessons that you take over a number of weeks or months. You enter it with a clear goal: to reach a higher level in that time. The teacher then designs the course to test, improve and practise each of the things you need to reach the next stage of the course, making sure nothing’s left uncovered. Everything follows a logical and straight forward order.

But language exchanges often lack a clear start and end point. Because it’s free it can seem unlimited, as there is nothing to make your time feel scarce or valuable. Neither has to do much thinking or planning of what you’d like to cover in your time together. This can work for a bit, but if you’re left asking “So what should we talk about today?” then that may be a brick wall. This can be discouraging and leave you feeling like you’ve reached a plateau.

5. Imbalance between languages

Exchanges are about balance. Both partners need to share and learn a roughly similar amount. In order to get you also have to give, and that’s often not as obvious as it first seems. If one partner is perceived to be getting more than they are giving, that can put a swift end to any good work you did together.

For exchanges to work best, both partners need to have a similar level in their languages. If one can chat away happily for half an hour while the other is barely at “How are you?”, then you’ve got a problem. Having conversation in the target language with the weaker partner is going to be a lot harder work than talking to the stronger partner. You could either end up spending a lot more time working on the weaker language or alternatively you could just start avoiding it altogether, which turns your exchange into more like free conversation lessons for the advanced learner! Neither of these is a good outcome.

Finding someone nearby with roughly the same level can be hard, especially if you don’t live in an area with a lot of foreigners. The internet can really help here though. There are hundreds and thousands of people to choose from on Facebook groups and language exchange sites like iTalki and SharedTalk.

6. You rely on your language exchange too heavily

Language exchanges can be a great way to complement your studies. But if you’re not careful, they could completely take over. The convenience of having a native speaker on call to answers questions and get feedback can put you off going through the books by yourself. It’s easy to start thinking that just by speaking to a native speaker for 30 mins or an hour per week you’re doing enough to make progress, but the reality is very different.

Always see your language exchange as something to aim for and plan your learning around. Think about sentences you’d like to be able to form, and topics you’d like to discuss. Prepare these and test them out on your exchange partner, don’t expect them to make them for you. That way you will put a lot more thought into the exercise, which will make everything a lot more memorable.

7. Speaking to a native speaker is INTIMIDATING!

Especially if they know your language very well, speaking to a native speaker can be intimidating. When we speak a different language we are not always in control of impressions we’re making or the undertones of expressions we are using. Making too many mistakes can also make you look silly, and generally puts us in a vulnerable position. As a result it’s not surprising that many people clam up when trying to have a conversation with a native speaker.

It’s the job of a professional teacher to overcome this boundary and to encourage you to speak regardless. As part of any teaching qualification they have done, this aspect will have been heavily focused on. Unfortunately not all language exchange partners will be as equipped to deal with this, although it’s likely that very experienced ones will have encountered it before. If you’re unsure, lay some ground rules first about when you’d like to be corrected, what kinds of corrections you’d like to concentrate on, and the kinds of language improvements you’re hoping to make as part of the exchange.

8. Using follow up tasks to make things stick

If you start relying on your language exchange too heavily as a language input source, some other things might start to go wrong too. Learning languages is all about repetition. Repeating things again and again and again, encountering new words again in different contexts, and using them yourself in different exercises is how things stick in our brains. That’s why teachers give carefully planned homework tasks, to give you another hour or so of exposure to the new language outside of lesson time, and to keep everything you just learned fresh and accessible for your next meeting.

You could come away from a meeting with your language exchange partner with pages of awesome new vocabulary from your discussion, but if you don’t do anything with it afterwards then it will all fade away. So it’s up to you to think of tasks and design exercises to keep everything at the front of your mind. You could try writing short essays about topics you’ve discussed, or even record yourself speaking about a particular issue for 3-5 minutes. This will make sure that you are putting all of the words you learned to use, and will really show you where your gaps are, based on how easy you found it to express yourself. Ask your language partner if they wouldn’t mind checking everything over for you, if they have time!

9. There’s no strong motivation to be there

Language exchanges are often arrangements based on goodwill. Two people are helping each other out. You give something, and you get something. Sometimes this really works out when two people really get on, and can achieve great things together. But at others it doesn’t quite seem to be enough of a drive.

So many of the language exchanges I’ve been on quickly ran out of steam. Life just gets in the way sometimes and when you haven’t got anything to lose, you don’t think twice about cancelling or rescheduling a meeting. But that slows down your progress, saps your motivation, and does cost you your language learning. In this instance, I really believe that money talks. If you are paying someone to sit and help you with your language learning – however much or however little – both of you will take a completely different approach. You will make more of an effort to make lessons, and your partner will make sure they are always there promptly and will use the time to best help you. It’s the same as paying for a gym membership when you can run in the park for free – many of us just need that little extra push to keep us to what we set out to achieve.

10. Running out of steam

When you go to your language meeting with that slightly sinking feeling wondering how you’re going to make the time pass, that’s a pretty good sign that you’re running out of steam. You’ve got what you were ever going to get out of this arrangement, and now it just seems to be dragging on.

This is something that doesn’t just happen with a language exchange partner, but even with a teacher too. There’s always going to be only a certain amount that you can influence and learn from each other, and once you’ve reached that there’s probably not much point carrying on. But if you know that from the beginning then you can still make things work. Make it clear that you only want this for a set amount of time: two meetings, five meetings, or even ten meetings but probably not more. The element of scarcity of time will make it feel a lot more valuable, and you’ll both try to pack more in. When you eventually do run out of things to offer each other, you’ll also have been expecting it and won’t mistake it for losing enthusiasm for your language. It’s just time to say thanks and move on to the next stage!

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