Language exchange – the best way to learn a language?

Tandem in Germany. Intercambio in Spain. Along with plenty of other names, I’m sure in plenty of other languages. The venerable language exchange is an excellent way to brush up on your German/English, giving a lot of conversation practice as well as being a lot of fun. Speaking (pun intended) from experience, I’ve learnt a lot of Spanish and German this way. Best of all, it’s free and a great way to meet people especially when you’re new in town.

However, much like a UKIP party conference, David Cameron’s enthusiastic unionist support or urinating into a force 10 gale, recommending a language exchange to your students can feel like shooting yourself in the foot. Bear in mind though that a language exchange only focuses on conversation and that there are many skills which are better taught by a teacher in the classroom. A language exchange therefore, can compliment regular classes nicely.

Group or individual?

Plenty of pubs/bars as well as websites like Meetup and Couchsurfing run their own language exchange nights and try to attract a range of language speakers. Whilst this can be a great way to practice with lots of different people and be more fun, these nights usually lack a 50/50 split of the target languages. This means that you will often spend a lot of time speaking only English or only German and as you’ll be jumping from person to person, it can be difficult to assert yourself and speak your target language.

I prefer the individual language exchange where you meet only one person. Although you miss out on the ‘pub night’ atmosphere you get with a group, you get more useful practice with a one-to-one. You can also focus more on the language that you want to talk about and if you set a regular date for your intercambio, you can develop your vocabulary well.

Setting the rules

The most important thing in any language exchange is to set the speaking rules – when to speak one language and when to speak the other. With some partners you may experience some form of telepathic bond and switch languages freely. With most however, you will want to set a strict rule like speaking 45 minutes in German, 45 in English or something similar.

As anyone who has got into a heated argument about the merits of their respective football clubs outside a kebab shop at 4 in the morning knows, alcohol loosens the tongue. Far from getting you in trouble, this is great in a language exchange and can help the conversation flow. It’s best then to meet in a bar/pub, but of course you can arrange to meet your partner anywhere like a café, park or museum.

Where to find one

The best website for finding a tandem is Conversation Exchange. The website features a very easy to use interface and a social-media style profile system, and is free to use. Also available is My Language Exchange, although I haven’t used this one.

As mentioned, Meetup and Couchsurfing both have excellent and fun weekly language exchange events.

Many language schools also run their own events, or have a noticeboard where you can leave your details.

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1 Response

  1. BerLingo says:

    I promise to stop commenting all over your excellent blog, but I will simply concur with your statement that Conversation Exchange is, in my humble opinion, the best way to practise your target language in the most natural fashion. With CouchSurfing events I often found I continually repeated the same phatic exchanges, and never got into any deep conversations about topics where I was actually lacking vocabulary – but meeting somebody one-on-one really allows that. I have met some of my best foreign friends this way 🙂

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