Less than 3 months ago I decided that a huge goal for 2021 was to drastically improve my Mandarin Chinese. Since leaving school in 2009 I have taken many breaks from learning Chinese, but I do always come back to it. From now on, I don’t want anymore breaks. I want to improve my Chinese to such a level that I never ‘lose’ it again.
So far, this is the hardest I’ve worked on a foreign language outside of school or university.
One thing I have definitely done differently this year is that I’ve found myself a language partner. Previously, I had been too busy, too shy or too lazy – or a combination of all three!
You may have read about my Chinese immersion weekend, click here if you haven’t!, but this opportunity really pushed me to schedule in a phone call with a new language partner. Without that weekend, I don’t think I would have forced myself to do it and we’ve already had 3 phone calls!
Luckily my partner is amazing. She’s very patient and thoughtful and we have so much to talk about. We have also created a little routine which keeps me motivated throughout the week.
So now you have my little story, here are five reasons why you, or your students, children, friends – whoever! – need a language exchange partner.
Let’s kick this off with an obvious point. By having a language exchange partner you should gain a new friend! If you have more than one partner or speak to multiple people each week you increase your chances of making friends, learning about different cultures and sharing experiences with other people.
We’re very lucky to have so many apps and online groups that open up plenty of opportunities to meet and connect with other people. It’s worth exploring them to find one that suits you and your needs!
2. Learn everyday vocabulary.
From my own experience, I have found that so much of my updated and everyday language has come from language exchange partners or native speakers online, and not from the classroom.
If you’re using a textbook from 1997 or 2005, the language is going to be outdated and the topics may not be as relevant anymore. This will dramatically impact the way you communicate with others (I know this from experience). So whilst it might be tricky to start speaking to a native speaker, it really is an excellent way to improve your language.
3. Gain confidence and find a speaking ‘safe zone’.
This is something that you may or may not be able to achieve through language lessons (either in school or online) but should definitely be easier with a language partner. Usually, people look for a language exchange to help them improve their speaking and listening skills and most people are prepared to be patient, supportive and helpful.
They shouldn’t, and probably won’t, laugh at you or embarrass you and hopefully as you become friends you will feel more confident in your target language.
4. Improve your cultural knowledge.
At any level, but especially for beginners, it can be really useful to have someone give you an insight into the language and also to learn about the history, culture and customs linked to that language.
If you’re learning Spanish or Arabic, Chinese or French, or any other language that is spoken in more than one country you can learn about so many differences! Learn about the different countries, how they use the language and find out about any dialects, historical changes and so on. For me, you cannot learn a language without learning about the history and culture associated with it.
5. It’s free, requires little or no preparation and should be stress-free!
Most language exchanges are free. There are apps, social media groups and even, before COVID, real meetings in pubs or libraries that you can join!
Some language partners might prefer you to pick a topic in advance, but usually you just start up a conversation about your day / hobbies / work and so on. With my language partner, we pick a topic the week before our phone call so we have something to think about beforehand – and this is really helpful for me!
It should be stress free. It should be like picking up the phone and calling a friend! Hopefully, you won’t worry about making mistakes (as much) and you won’t feel pressured like you might in a classroom. It really should be a win-win situation for you and your language partner.
Personally, I’m so glad I have found a language partner because I have felt a real boost in my speaking speed and confidence over the last month and I know I have learnt a heap of new words that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
This confidence has then transferred into my Chinese classroom lessons and encouraged me to share my ideas more often. I have really felt the benefits and I think you will too!
So, whether you’re learning or teaching a language, I’d strongly recommend finding a language partner for yourself or your students.
Some of my favourite apps are Instagram (there’s a huge language community there), HelloTalk and Tandem.
However, as with all things social media,- there are negative sides to it and you do need to be careful. Be smart. Don’t talk to people you don’t feel comfortable with. Don’t give out really personal information (address, phone number etc) and don’t feel pressured into doing things you don’t want to. As always, be aware of your online presence and be sensible!
If you have a language partner, or have done at any point, what benefits did you gain from them? Would you recommend this approach to language learning?