How To Make the Most of Your Language Exchange Partnerships

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In this post blogger and teacher Lingo Geek draws on his personal experience to offer four tips for using language exchange apps and developing learning partnerships with native speakers.

Having a language exchange partner is an ideal way to develop your Mandarin speaking skills, practicing new vocabulary and grammatical structures that you’ve learnt. A successful exchange partnership (which can sometimes even blossom into friendship) may also open the door to learning about Chinese food, music, history, art, fashion and, perhaps most importantly, cultural differences.

I’ve used a variety of websites and apps over the last few months – including Hello Talk, Tandem and Conversation Exchange. I’ve found them all very useful, however I’m often told by other learners that they struggle to find suitable language exchange partners with whom to talk to. Below are my four tips explaining the approaches that have worked best for me.

1. Realistic Expectations

Our expectations of the role an exchange partner should play in our learning can often be the decisive factor between a short-term or long-term partnership. I’ve always been clear that my exchange partners play a different role in my learning to my tutor. I know I can’t rely on my them to provide formal instruction or correct as many errors as my tutor does.

Instead I expect a language exchange partner to complement the content that I learn in formal lessons. In fact, I regularly use my Italki lessons to produce role-play material that I can use during my calls with my exchange partners. It’s a great opportunity to practise intonation, pronunciation, and conversation on everyday topics in a relaxed environment while gaining valuable feedback from a native speaker.

2. Finding the Appropriate Level

When I first joined Hello Talk I was immediately bombarded with messages from native Mandarin speakers of all different levels. I quickly learned that for a longer-term exchange partner I needed to find someone who had similar interests to me, had a higher level of English than my Chinese (more on that below) and liked to talk as much as I did! This took a lot of time and I spoke to a lot of people (a few scammers too) before finding a suitable match.

Most importantly, I found the best strategy was to break the ice with my exchange partner over text and voice calls, which could eventually lead to video calls on Zoom. I still have voice calls now and then because some partners prefer this. However, I don’t advocate building a long-term exchange just based on exclusively on voice calls. Not being able to see the other person’s reaction means I worry about filling awkward silences. Moreover, on video calls my language partner’s expressions often let me know when they haven’t quite understood me but feel too polite to say so directly.

3. Being Proactive

As your exchange partner may not have any previous teaching experience – or even any experience as a long-term language partner – you must be prepared to take the lead in establishing the terms of the exchange. This might mean splitting the calls between your different target languages, asking for honest feedback and encouraging them to be strict or suggesting topics for conversation.

Native Mandarin speakers will often give us false hope by wrongly complimenting our spoken Chinese in an effort to encourage us. So seeking honest feedback is critical. To maximise my learning, I always ask my partners to be brutal in their feedback from the very first call. Taking this approach also gives your exchange partner the confidence to share what they want to work on and will help cement a long-term language-learning partnership.

4. Interesting Conversation Topics.

It’s important to agree from the start how much of the call will be spent in their target language and how much in yours. For example, I have an exchange partner whose level of English is vastly superior to that of my Mandarin. She uses English for work all the time and will often ask me to check an email she has drafted in the first half of our call. For the remaining half, we either read through a conversation in Mandarin that I have prepared, or she listens to me as I practice individual tone pairs and provides feedback.

I often message my exchange partners in between our calls to arrange what we will talk about when we next meet. This gives us both time to prepare ideas. One strategy I learnt recently was to try to speak the lines of a role play conversation from memory to help reinforce my knowledge of the tones of individual characters as well as grammatical structures.

You can also use topic cards (write individual topics on cards or bits of paper) where you pick one at random – for example TV – and one of you must speak for a set period on that topic. Picture-based discussions are also a good option. I find the list of topics on http://www.eslconversationquestions.com very useful when I run out of material.

*For a full guide on recommended apps for learning Mandarin please visit this link

*Join the I’m Learning Mandarin Facebook Community on this link

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