Five Common Problems with Language Exchanges (And How to Fix Them)

A language exchange is a session–usually over Skype but sometimes in person–in which two people practice speaking each other’s language. It’s been popularized in recent years by the site iTalki.

For example, consider a Spanish speaker learning English and an English speaker learning Spanish who meet up. In a common setup, the first half of the session would be a conversation in Spanish, and then the second half would be a conversation in English. This way, both people get some practice–for free.

I follow several language-learning blogs and lurk on a few forums. Something I’ve observed: Language exchanges are hot. At times, they’re even fetishized. But you’re inevitably going to run into a few problems…

1. You have unrealistic expectations.

Some people–especially those new to languages–believe that simply sitting there talking to someone for a half hour a day will make them learn a language. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen with language exchanges alone. I’ve never met anyone who has learned a language to usefulness by only chatting.

The problem, then, is that you try out language exchanges, realize you’re not making as much progress as you’d hoped, and simply give up on them. Or worse yet, you get so discouraged that you give up on learning languages altogether.

The solution: Realize that a language exchange is a tool. It is beneficial and serves a specific purpose. But don’t stop doing the other stuff, like watching TV, listening to the radio, taking courses, studying vocab, and even studying grammar.

2. You’re not getting much out of sessions.

So you’ve been talking to one or more partners for a while, and you’re starting to feel like you’re spinning your wheels. Lot of repetition of tasks and subjects. Maybe you’re seeing improvement in one or two  areas, but you don’t feel like your sessions are altogether all that productive.

The solution: Structure your sessions. Don’t just chat about your day or your favorite hobbies. Try different things: Pick a specific subject to cover–e.g., cars, music, sports. Or role play–e.g., pretend to be a customer ordering at a restaurant. Or try to work on a specific sentence construction–e.g., use a structure like “I’m going to <do something>” over and over again. If that sounds like too much work, consider hiring a tutor who can help do the hard work of session planning for you.

3. Partner is too easy on you.

One of my language exchange partners complained that I was too easy on him. I didn’t offer enough corrections.

I’ll give my side of the story in a minute, but he had a point. He was trying to improve his English, and I was letting him get away with grammatical murder. You definitely need some feedback to improve, and I needed to give him some.

The solution: Ask your partner to do two things. First, to let you know when you’re completely incomprehensible. Second, to note any recurrent mistakes and help you fix them. Do not ask them to correct every single mistake, because that’s not realistic or even useful. But if you leave every session with 5 to 10 things to work on (writing them down helps) then you’re going to make progress.

4. Partner is too hard on you.

In line with what I just mentioned, some well-meaning partners want to correct every single thing you say. That’s not useful either. In fact, I think it’s extremely harmful.

If you’re trying to speak with any degree of fluency (grr, that word again) then you need to be given a safe space to speak. If someone is cracking your knuckles with a ruler every time you make a mistake, you’re going to become neurotic. You’re going to be so worried about making mistakes that you’re not going to concentrate on speaking or on actually communicating your thoughts.

It’s a challenge just being comprehensible. If you’re uttering sentences like “me like soda” or “she no likes soda,” not only are you getting your point across, but you’re 75% there. Get used to making yourself understood, and then make a small number of corrections every day until your speaking is where you want it to be.

The solution: Tell your partner your concerns and suggest the approach I mentioned in #3 above.

5. Personality conflicts.

Sometimes you’re just not going to get along with an exchange partner. Maybe they’re too flirty. Or maybe they’re flaky. Or maybe they spend most of the time working on their language but not helping you with yours. Personality issues are possible anytime people are involved.

The solution: You can try to work it out, but honestly, if you’re having issues, it’s probably better just moving on to other partners. If you’ve been a good language exchange citizen and holding up your own end of the bargain, then your studying time is too valuable to be wasted on people who aren’t helping you.

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