Note: This is a part of a new series on Smart Polyglot called “You Asked”. You ask your questions and I try answering them as efficiently as possible in a blog post! Enjoy and feel free to ask me your questions on Twitter or Instagram!
First of all, thank you for your question, Kayla!
Language exchange has always been a difficult topic for me for the exact same reason you mentioned: I was constantly giving more than I was receiving, which made the whole experience a little frustrating.
But things have changed for me! I’ve recently gotten a new language exchange partner (not through language apps, but I still met her online and we do online exchange) and I finally understood why things hadn’t been working for me before.
So here’s some advice based on my experience!
Before we start, here’s a disclaimer: this article is written for people who want regular, consistent language exchange with a partner who “gets” them and helps them see progress. If you’re learning languages casually, don’t really care about results for the time being and/or enjoy meeting people online without aiming for language exchange, go for it! Most advice in this article will probably not apply to you.
1. Get clear about what you really want in a language exchange partner.
Before you start saying hi, crafting a great conversation and getting involved only to be disappointed by the lack of interest or connection, create a list of what you want in an exchange partner (the bare minimum). It can include age, gender, interests, proficiency level, regularity of interaction, etc. Mine looks like this:
My partner must be definitely…
- A native or native-level speaker (because I already have non-native friends that practice with me regularly).
- Interested in things I love (reading, travel, culture, movies, languages, etc).
- Available to meet at least once a week, online or offline.
My partner is preferably…
- Someone who shows a clear commitment to languages, not dating.
- Around my age (somewhat younger or older is fine, especially if our personalities really click!).
- Living in Berlin (haven’t had much luck with this one, but I’m still trying!).
These definitions will probably look different to you, and that’s okay. It’s a starting point to avoid overwhelm. This list will also come in handy outside of language exchange apps, if you ever want to find an exchange partner somewhere else.
2. Don’t spread yourself too thin (go for quality connections over many connections).
When I first started using language exchange platforms, I would add (and start conversations with) a bunch of people I thought were interesting. Then, once all of them started replying, I felt crazy overwhelmed! And not only that, but I also understood it was impossible to develop a consistent practice with ten people at the same time.
My opinion? As soon as you realize you’ve got two or three good connections in there, nurture them.
3. Accept that sometimes you’ll have to be aggressive with your boundaries.
If you’re anything like me, you hate causing conflict or being a part of it. Unfortunately, some people will happily take advantage of that by abusing our friendliness. Eventually, I had to stop being attached to the idea of the “sweet girl” who is kind towards everyone and start protecting myself, regardless of what others might think.
If you’re sick of people hitting on you, abusing your space and insisting on contacting you against your wishes, write a clear note on your profile stating that you’re NOT looking for any of that. Make it bold. Make it all caps, if you have to. Be open about the fact that you’ll block or report the people who ignore your message (and follow through with that threat!). This step didn’t fully stop men from contacting me with crazy intentions, but it sure reduced the number drastically.
4. Let your learning intentions be known before meeting anyone.
What do you really want to achieve with your language exchange? Is it speaking practice only? Preparing for an exam? Getting ready to move abroad? Making sure you apply correct grammar while you speak, even if it slows you down a little? Getting down with the slang? Perfecting a certain dialect?
If you write these on your profile or clarify them immediately, you’ll avoid creating a connection with incompatible partners who will get bored in the long term. Find someone who’s willing to help you with your specific goals! Which leads me to…
5. Be upfront about your problems and why you’d like to avoid them.
Let’s say you have a history of finding awesome people you’d love to meet regularly for language exchange, but they end up ghosting you. Or maybe you keep meeting people online, when you’d prefer to make friends in your city. Talk about these concerns openly with your new connections: let them know what you’re looking for (or better yet, not looking for).
Don’t feel sorry for having some kind of selective process in place. These platforms have a specific purpose, and while you don’t have to be rude or cold to others, you have the right to maintain only the connections you believe can help you achieve the goal these platforms were designed for!
6. Book a first meeting where you talk about who you are, your goals, your interests and more (it’s okay if you do this part in English).
So you’ve been chatting with a potential partner and think this could be a great relationship. Next step: language practice! Or is it?
I recommend you book a first video call with your partner before committing to regular language practice. Not only will this allow you to feel how you get along when speaking (instead of writing), it will also give you the opportunity to break the ice. You can get to know their motivations behind this exchange, how regularly they want to meet, and what kind of interests you share. If this meeting happens in English, that’s okay. You’re building a sort of rapport before you commit to weeks and weeks of practice.
From that session onwards, it’s time to get real! But first…
7. Set up a defined schedule with a specific language exchange policy.
I’ve recently found my perfect language exchange partner and realized instantly why we were going to work well together. We spontaneously came up with a solid language exchange plan the very first time we spoke:
- We will speak once a week (Wednesdays at 17h30). If we see it’s working really well and have plenty of free time, we can raise it to twice a week, but that’s not mandatory.
- Each session will be 2 hours. One hour for language A, one hour for language B. That switch happens automatically after the alarm rings, even if we keep talking about the same topic uninterruptedly.
- We will be defining a conversation topic for each week, alternating between who gets to choose. (Side note: if you get along really well with your language exchange partner, you might find that you’ll start talking and ignore the topic altogether! But it’s always a good idea to have a backup topic to avoid awkward silences).
- We take notes of the other person’s mistakes as we go, but we don’t interrupt them all the time.
My opinion is that you should have something this clear if you’re serious about regular language exchange (if you just want to do it casually, that’s okay, too!). Telling myself that “I’ll just do it when I have time” or “I’ll just do it when I feel like it” didn’t work for me.
8. Take notes during each interaction for feedback purposes and inspire your partner to do the same.
Something I do with my current language exchange partner is taking notes during our sessions to provide feedback later. Whenever I notice she is making a particular mistake regularly, I note it down on a piece of paper without drawing too much attention to it, so that I don’t break the flow of the conversation.
At the end of each meeting, I send her an email with all of the information I collected and some short explanations. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but it takes me literally 5 minutes to do it.
And you know what? My language exchange partner loved the idea so much, she’s now doing the same for me! It’s great to have a written record of the mistakes I used to make. I can easily compare the mistakes I was doing weeks ago with my current speaking skills.
People often compare language exchange platforms to dating apps, and that’s no accident! There are many principles behind these tools that match.
Your experience is likely to be more pleasant if you know what you want from the get-go, focus on quality over quantity, and are clear about your intentions. Also, don’t be afraid to get rid of douchebags and keep the people who actually care about your progress, even if that means you only get to keep one partner for now.
Remember to craft a specific plan with your partner that keeps you both accountable, and make sure to dedicate specific time slots to each of your languages to keep one language from dominating the conversation.
Thank you for your question, and I wish you much success!