Josef Wigren is a Swedish language lover I have been friends with for more than six years. We have been exchanging ideas and talked about a lot of interesting stuff over the years on a lot of varying subjects including marketing and languages. He lives in Uppsala, Sweden together with his wife and runs his own website http://josefwigren.com and is the co-author of the LingvoStart website. He speaks six languages and is now learning Russian as his seventh.

How language exchange is like tug of war

When you learn a language you will eventually come to the stage where you want to practice what you have learned and start using it in real situations. When you come to this stage, you might start looking for a native speaker of your target language, who is in turn learning your native language. When you do find someone who is willing to practice with you, it can lead to a mutually beneficial language exchange and even good friendship. More about this in a little bit.

When should I start with language exchanges?

Some people will tell you that you should start speaking right away, using what you know and push yourself to gain better understanding through putting yourself out there, while others will tell you that you should first internalize the language, the rhythm, the sounds and gain a lot of vocabulary  before you speak. Some even go so far as to say that you shouldn’t speak at all  until you have a better understanding of the language you’re learning. Whatever way you choose to go, there will at some point come a time where you need to start speaking, if you want to be able to use the language.

You probably will benefit the most from language exchanges once you reach an intermediate level in your languages (due to being able to express yourself better and being able to understand explanations and replies given in the language), but in my experience, it is good to get speaking practice even from when you are in the early stages of your learning, just to get used to producing the sounds of the language. If you keep putting it off for later, when you know the language better, you might get caught in the trap of understanding a language, but not being able to speak it at all. It’s good to progress your level evenly over the different areas of learning a language, so make sure that you don’t only build up a passive vocabulary. This is where you need practice speaking the language.

Finding a language exchange partner

Finding someone to practice with can be quite difficult, if you are learning a rare or exotic language, but the most difficult thing is to find someone who you enjoy talking with and who can help you with your language learning. There are many websites for getting in contact with people who want to practice languages such as sharedtalkbusuu, and livemocha. There are a lot of them, so you only have to search on Google for language exchange and you will find more sites than you’ll ever be able to go through.

Once you have found a language exchange partner, the initial session is in my opinion the far most important one. That’s where you decide what languages are going to be practiced, and you get to know each other.

Tug of war

When you start talking to each other, it’s usually the one who has the biggest vocabulary or has the most confidence in speaking their target language that sets the common communication language (or the language that you use to talk, most of the time). Of course, you will want to practice your target language and your language exchange partner will want to practice his/her target language. This can lead to a conflict of interests, like a tug of war. Usually the language that you use to communicate between yourselves will be set in the first few sessions, after which it will be a bit more difficult to change the dynamics of your exchange, unless you address the issue directly and talk about it.

So, let’s say that you are learning Hindi, and you meet someone online and start talking. After a while you will have used up much of your vocabulary in the language you are practising and you might fall back on your native language, so that the conversation will have a better flow. Do this, and you will be doing yourself a disservice in the end. Once you start getting more comfortable and get back to your native language, you are on a slippery slope and it will take more energy to get back to the language you want to practice again. It is better to struggle a bit, and taste the sweet taste of victory when you find that you can express yourself in your target language. If you don’t try, you might get stuck talking in your native language with this person for as long as you know him/her.

Solution

There are many ways to deal with this issue, but the best thing you can do is to be prepared for a language exchange and have a clear idea of how it can be the most beneficial for you and what things you need specific help with. Make sure that you know for yourself what it is that you need from the language exchange. Maybe you need to practice some grammar points or want to make sure with a native speaker that you’re using the grammar correctly; this could be a much more fun way to go through grammar exercises. Or maybe you need to practice reading out loud and want to make sure that you are pronouncing things correctly and have the correct speed and intonation for the language. If you really want to work on your pronunciation I would recommend that you record yourself as well when you read out loud, that way you would also be able to tell from listening to yourself where you need to improve. Communicate your needs and expectations to your language exchange partner in the beginning of getting to know each other, and he/she will be able to help you out a lot more as well.

A language exchange can be a great thing and it should be both fun and beneficial for the both of you. Take turns talking in your native language and the language you want to learn, and use a timer, if you want. Make sure that you speak equally much in both languages and make sure that you know what your language exchange partner expects from you as well. That way the exchange will be beneficial for both of you, and you wouldn’t need to feel like it’s unnatural to switch between languages, talk about grammar exercises or just read texts out loud to each other. Just set the guidelines when you get started and you will benefit a lot more from language exchanges. Also, make sure that you update your goals regularly, so that you don’t start feeling too comfortable talking about only one thing, but push your limits as well. You will become more productive and will help your language exchange partner a lot more too!

I would also like to add that if you are feeling adventurous or feel very confident, the best kind of language exchange partner is not a language exchange partner at all, but a friend who doesn’t share any common language with you, except for the language you are learning. That way, you force yourself to stay with the language and you will most definitely get the best kind of practice there is. It is more challenging and especially in the beginning it can be quite tiresome, but it will leave you feeling amazing. (I still remember the first time I talked with a guy from Vietnam who didn’t know any English at all. We were talking about shopping and buying shoes or something like that, something that I’m not interested in at all, but it still made me feel really good about myself, being able to express myself in Vietnamese for the first time.) Just do what you feel you are capable of, and have fun!

Summary

To sum it all up

  • Look for a language partner you feel comfortable talking to. There are many websites available to look for people to talk to.
  • Make sure you know what it is that you need to improve on in the language.
  • Agree on how you will divide your time between your languages and stick to it.
  • Stick to the language you are learning even though it’s difficult at times and slows the conversation down, you will thank yourself later for doing it.
  • Use a timer to divide your time if it makes you more comfortable.
  • Change to more difficult topics when you start getting comfortable at the level you are right now, to push yourself to learn.
  • The best language exchange partner is someone who isn’t interested in learning from you, but talking to you naturally (in his/her own language).
  • Have fun and enjoy your progress! Savour the moments of breakthrough!

Written by Josef Wigren

About the author: Josef Wigren is a 23 year old guy from Sweden who speaks six languages and apart from having a passion for languages and all forms of learning also has a deep love for science and technology of all kinds.

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