I was having lunch in Providencia, Santiago, in a little restaurant that was recommended to me as a “picada” (a largely unknown food place that is regarded by its unexpected high quality as a hidden gem) when two foreigners came in and sat at the table next to mine.
Deeply focused on enjoying the crunchy crust of my empanada de pino, I couldn’t help but notice the two foreigners, who I now had identified as gringos, were discussing what to order. Having lived in Chile most of my life, I felt it was my national duty to chime in and help them choose one of the many delicious traditional Chilean dishes.
As I mulled on what traditional dishes I could recommend them, I started to feel my abdominal muscles tiring out, my throat tightening, and suddenly my enthusiasm for helping my impromptu foreign friends was now being overcome with a feeling of helplessness that prevented me from uttering any sort of coherent sound.
I had spent so much time and put so much effort studying English, but I wasn’t able to hold a simple conversation without feeling like I had a cannon ball tied around my tongue, I stood there, incapable of even opening my mouth.
As any language learner, I like to put my skills in practice and look forward to situations that allow me to do so, so when I was presented with a perfect opportunity to try my English in a real life setting but failed to fulfill it, I pondered on how I would’ve preferred not being presented with such an opportunity in the first place and thus not having to endure the resulting emotional toll.
But I was wrong.
Obviously, the problem wasn’t the opportunity itself but rather preparing myself for it by solely relying on what I learned from textbooks and completely disregarding the inherent unpredictability of languages, something that books can’t prepare you for.
The stiff approach to language learning that textbooks offer is the first step in learning any one language, just like we must learn to walk before we can run, following a structured approach (like that of textbooks) to the basic constituting aspects of a language will set the groundwork that will eventually allow you to build on top of previously acquired knowledge, however, once that foundation has been strengthened and you’ve reached a point where acquiring any more theoretical knowledge is largely useless, you move on into interactive immersion which will allow you to develop new skills that combined with your previous knowledge will put you on the path to conversational level and, eventually, fluency.
There are different ways to go about interactive immersion, but the most practical and probably the most convenient way is to practice your target language with a native speaker over the internet, for this you can pay an online tutor or find a language exchange partner to practice with. The latter is what this series of articles is all about.
Before diving right into the nitty-gritty, step by step on how to find a language exchange partner and make the most out of your language exchanges, I know you’re dying to know what my American friends ended up ordering, so I’ll give my based-on-actual-events story a decently put together ending (M. Night Shyamalan, I’m looking right at you) for your enjoyment.
As my frustration kept building up and I started feeling severely anxious, I evaluated the difficulty of faking my own death, coming up with a new identity and moving to Alaska, but before I could do any of that, I heard how both gringos had come to an agreement and were ready to order cazuela.
“Oh my god, please don’t”.
They ate half of their cazuela, but they devoured that lettuce salad, they then left the picada unamused as I was thinking to myself “I should’ve warned them about cazuela”
Why looking for language exchange partners is a waste of time
Humans are social creatures by nature, unless conditioned by some sort of brain disorder, we are wired to crave acceptance and make deep connections with those who we consider worthy. In other words, we like having friends.
I think most people can relate to the feeling of not wanting to study or do homework as a kid in high school or as an adult in university. Even after we graduate and find a job, all we want to do after a hard day’s work is get home, throw ourselves on the couch and watch TV till it’s bedtime. The last thing we want is to have work waiting for us at home. Most of us consciously decide to put off working on our goals because “today I’m too tired” backed up by the “I’ll do it tomorrow” empty promise.
Of course, yielding to conformism and modern distractions is not the ideal path to walk if you want to become an accomplished person. Unfortunately, this is the way most people are, nothing can be done about it.
So when you connect with a complete stranger over the internet you don’t want them to dread talking to you, in other words, you don’t want them to feel that having a language exchange with you is like doing homework.
This is why, among other reasons, it’s so common to hear horror stories about how language exchange doesn’t work or that it’s a waste of time, because these people approach the whole thing from a perspective of work and after working from 9 to 5, doing any more work is something most people are not looking forward to (though there are some who really enjoy dull study).
Don’t get me wrong, however, most people on language exchange websites do want to have language exchanges, they just don’t want them to feel like work and they want to have them with people they actually like, as I said earlier, people they consider worthy of their time and attention: potential friends. Couple this with the fact that one of our base desires as people is socializing (not studying) and it’s suddenly pretty obvious why language exchange isn’t effective for the majority of people.
What I want you to ingrain from this is a new mindset, a new way of seeing language exchange not just as an emotionless exchange of information, but rather as an opportunity to make intercultural friendships while at the same time expanding your knowledge and experience in your target language.
If you’re not one for making friends or if you just don’t care about any of this, that’s totally fine as long as you’re willing to accept lower odds of finding someone who’s looking for the exact same thing as you, it’s less likely but not at all impossible, or just hire a teacher.
“15% of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and 85% is due to skills in ‘human-engineering”
Results from a study by the Carnegie Institute of Technology as quoted in How to Win Friends and Influence People.
How to form long-lasting relationships with your language exchange friends
Hopefully, I did a good job of showing you the reasons why you should adopt the mindset of looking for language exchange friends as opposed to looking for language exchange partners.
I know, sometimes it’s not easy to make new friends or to even socialize with new people without coming off a little bit creepy. Worry not, I’ll give you a very simple blueprint you can use to meet potential language exchange friends very soon. But before we talk about what to say, let’s talk about something that, in my opinion, is even more important: what not to say or do.
- Be quick to help, be very slow to criticize: as I already pointed out, humans are emotional creatures, we crave acceptance and validation. When we are criticized our pride and our sense of worth are wounded, and in the context of language learning, our intelligence is insulted, and when this happens, we harbor resentment. It’s obvious why these are things we don’t want our language exchange friends to feel.
Instead of criticizing, a much better approach is to put ourselves in our friends’ shoes. Try to understand why it might be hard for them to understand something that to us is evident and obvious. For example, Spanish articles are gender dependent, English articles are not, so instead of treating our English speaking friend like a retard for not using Spanish articles correctly or throwing passive-aggressive remarks at them, it’s best for them and us to realize that languages are learned through constant exposure to them and that our friend has not had enough quality exposure to the Spanish language to use Spanish articles correctly. This is great news for us because we are presented with a fantastic opportunity to help, which will, in turn, create a feeling of appreciation from our friend towards us.
Example: “Well, Spanish articles are really easy, I don’t know why you can’t grasp them” – a condemning attitude that is neither useful to you (your friend will get sick of you) nor to your friends (they will not learn and become insecure and frustrated). “Most feminine nouns end in “a” and masculine nouns end in “o”, although there are going to be exceptions like “la foto” and “el día”, but it’s almost always going to follow that rule, so use “la” with feminine nouns and “el” with masculine nouns, like “la casa” and “el martillo”. Don’t worry, if you run into an exception and use an article incorrectly, I’ll correct you right away!” – much better, you are offering support and tangible value.
- Do not be gushy: So you found a language exchange friend without even getting to that part of the guide yet, you should start your own language blog! Wait, no, don’t.
You want to talk to your new buddy every day, buy plane tickets to go meet them in person and send your grandma a letter telling her of the great news, hold that thought for a second, count to ten and let me explain why being overly eager towards your language exchange friends is potentially a very dangerous, self-sabotaging behavior.
First, realize that your eagerness arouses from novelty (so cool! I’m talking to a person on the other side of the world!), maybe heightened by a perceived sense of scarcity (thinking that finding a language exchange partner is almost impossible so now that you did, you want to keep them at all costs). Despite the actual reason, your eagerness does not come from a sincere feeling of empathy towards them, simply because you don’t know each other.
This is common of people who are obsessed with other cultures, take otakus as an example. Otakus are people who are obsessed with Japanese culture, especially anything related to anime. They have anime costume contests (called cosplaying) and in extreme cases they have relationships (actual relationships) with pillows (actual pillows) called “dakimakuras”.Now, let’s see this from the point of view of the person on the other end, i.e. your language friend. These behaviors scream one thing out loud: creepiness. But let’s take a moment to analyze this on a deeper level.When people are valued based on what’s inherent to them (their lineage, for example) and not on what they’ve accomplished with pure effort, they are being objectified, not only is this a sickening feeling almost nobody wants to be subjected to, it also greatly damages your social value as you’re giving the person such a level of importance that relegates you to worshiper status. To make things worse, any discerning person will be able to tell that your praise is smarmy and insincere.
A study published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology documented how women were likelier to show romantic interest in a partner already in a relationship, in other words, these women’s interest spiked when they were told that the subject displayed pre-selection.
A somewhat known sales trick based on the same psychological tenet is used in retail to up-sale expensive items, where the seller introduces the customer to the most expensive and, generally, highest quality item, however, before telling of the item’s price tag, the seller makes sure to boast all of the item’s most important defining traits with the sole purpose of making the customer see the item as exclusive. When the customer is finally told the item’s price, their immediate reaction is to move on to similar but less expensive items. This is when the seller indirectly (or sometimes directly) points out how the less expensive items are made of poorer materials, in mass production, or have fewer advantages (more expensive item is water proof, less expensive item is not). Many times, the customer’s only desire was for the item to serve a very basic function (“I know, honey, you told me to just buy a cheap pan, but look, this one is coated with magic unicorn dust at only 10 times the price!”) but they now view cheaper items as generic, nonexclusive, inferior versions of the most expensive item.
In the customer’s mind: “not everyone has it, it’s exclusive, so I want it”.
If exclusive, pre-selected (endorsed by super stars, etc.) items are regarded as “better” then the opposite corollary can be deduced as a natural consequence, that is, that less exclusive, generic items are “worse”.
Now, if this were only thought of about things and not people, interpersonal relations would be so much easier, but as proven with the above-mentioned study, it’s not.
When you act overly eager, gushy, or socially unconstrained not only are you coming off as creepy but you’re also lowering your social value, you become a “made in China” product. People take you, your attention, and your willingness to help for granted.
Instead of forcibly trying to imbue your language friends with affection towards you, provide value and be a sincerely thoughtful, considerate, friendly and socially normal person:
- Put yourself in a positive mood: before interacting with other people, it’s a good idea to cheer ourselves up so we can pass our good mood on to others around us which will, in turn, make them comfortable and more likely to want to interact with us again.
Being in a positive mood is not being euphoric. You want that feeling you get when you finally go on vacation after a stressful period, where you enjoy yourself and have nothing to worry about.
Since most of us can’t go to Copacabana every time we’re about to have a language exchange meeting, we want something that will evoke memories of good times, what works for me is music. Listening to those 90s tunes I grew up with as a kid when I barely had anything to worry about does the trick for me, but for you it could be anything: reading a particular book, eating that special dish, looking at pictures of you and your family, smelling the scent of the roses in your garden, anything that works for you is great.
- Remember your friends’ names: as noted by Dale Carnegie, a person’s name is to that person “the sweetest sound in any language” and when you fail to remember it, you offend that person deeply. People with hard to pronounce names are used to other people mispronouncing and misspelling their names, so this makes it ten times more remarkable when someone takes the effort to address them by their “real” name, especially when that someone happens to be their language exchange friend who lives on the other side of the planet, a very nice touch indeed.
To remember a person’s name I ask the person to tell me their name and if it’s hard to pronounce I ask them immediately to please repeat it for me, then I’ll use it several times throughout the conversation. If it’s very difficult to pronounce for me, I’ll grab a piece of paper and write down the way it sounds to me, for example: Romane – oh-guhohmaan.
- Listen: Ugh, is there anything more annoying than a person who constantly interrupts you while you’re talking and tries to monopolize the conversation? Well, yeah, having to clean the dishes, but you get the point.
Interrupting people while they’re talking is one of the fastest ways to make anybody dislike you. If you are talking to your language exchange friends over Skype, simply open notepad and type into it whatever you want to say, this way you’ll make your friend feel they’re having your attention and your respect. If they ask what you’re typing, just say “I’m typing down some stuff I want to address later on, this is convenient because I don’t forget about what I want to say, and I don’t have to interrupt you while you’re talking either”.
Not only will monopolizing conversations make anybody look like the kind of people who have no friends and who will take any opportunity to start an endless cycle of never shutting the hell up, it’s also very harmful for your partner’s learning. When you are exchanging your native language, you should never speak more than 40% of the time. Obviously nobody is going to be there measuring exact percentages, but if you see yourself speaking more than your partner when it’s them who should be doing more of the talking (when they are practicing your native language) then you’re doing it wrong.
- Praise: During your language exchanges you’re bound to correct and be corrected, and even though these corrections will, hopefully, be done with the best intentions in mind, once they start adding up, it’ll be hard not to feel a bit frustrated. Since mistakes are inherent to the process of learning and efficient language exchange will aim at correcting those mistakes, corrections can’t be avoided. But the mental toll they take can be substantially lessen by simply praising your language exchange friends on their efforts. Be honest and don’t give unauthentic praise, if your friend has bad pronunciation don’t say to them “wow, your pronunciation is sooo good!” just say something along the lines of “you’ve improved your grammar/accent/etc. since last time we talked, congrats!” This will make a world of difference to your language friends as they’ve probably never had many people praise them on their efforts (maybe nobody has ever praised them at all!) and you and I know how much effort learning another language demands.
Pro tip: A great way to break the ice and get through the awkwardness of the first meeting is by praising your partner on whatever caught your attention, it could be their use of grammar, their pronunciation, etc. as long as it’s honest and socially appropriate (please no compliments on their good looks, it might be creepy and have the opposite effect altogether), anything will do.
From your praise you can easily start a conversation:
You: I’m really impressed by your accent, it’s really good.
Friend: Thank you!
You: Did you learn it by yourself or have you ever been to the US?
Friend: I actually….
- Be empathic: We’ve talked about this before but the importance of empathy can’t be stressed enough.
Two super simple ways to show empathy are:
Letting the other person vent their emotions and frustrations. If your language friend is not learning as quickly as they’d like to or is stuck on a certain concept or rule, let them talk away about what is troubling them. Remember people are more likely to be interested in you if you are interested in them. Take advantage of this and write down what troubles your partner so you can come up with ideas on how to help them.
Don’t be awesome: surely you’ve been there when somebody starts boasting about their successes “I got a $2000 raise and just bought the biggest house in the neighborhood” add to that an “I’m so cool” grin and you’ll start wishing you’d signed up for that astral projection crash course to get the hell out of there. You don’t want your language friend to feel like this, you want them to feel awesome.
Finally, whenever you’re confronted with an argument about anything, never take it to the next level, respectfully expose your arguments and always agree to disagree.
- Miscellaneous things that will make about anybody look creepy:
- Asking about the relationship status of your partner. This may be OK to ask if you two have been talking for a while and the topic just organically came up.
- Making remarks about your partner’s beauty. Just don’t.
- Taking about sex. This idea is worse than many of those terrible ideas pitched on “Shark Tank” (HoodiePillow anyone?).
I asked a number of people about their language exchange experiences and all girls said that guys sooner or later (rather sooner) talk about some sort of physical intimacy or downright sex, and this is why many of them prefer female language friends.
- Pushing your personality too much. If you’re sarcastic and your partner doesn’t reciprocate, don’t overdo it.