Filtering Potential Language Friends
To keep the odds of finding a language friend that’s a good fit for you in your favor, it’s a fantastic idea to filter potential partners. As with everything, if you speak a sought-after language, you are much likelier to find somebody with whom you click well fairly quickly, but even if your language is not in high demand, you are still going to benefit from applying some kind of filter, even though you might have to put up with some not so ideal things, such as a partner who doesn’t speak a bridge language well, or that is not very knowledgeable about their language, you’ll potentially save yourself from abusive people who are only looking to practice their target language at the expense of other people’s time.
The ideal traits in a good language partner are:
- Willingness to help: they should, not only, have the desire of learning their target language, but also the desire to help you learn yours. Most people willing to help will use the word “exchange” somewhere in their profile: “want to do exchanges with…”, “would love to have an exchange partner”, “let’s do a language exchange!” etc. If they don’t use the word “exchange”, they will make reference to the underlying concept of an exchange: “let’s help each other!”, “I will teach you x if you teach me y”.
- Ability to speak a bridge language: this is not entirely dependent on your language friend’s part, as long as both of you speak a language that you can go back to if you are not able to understand each other, you’re going to learn. Picture an exchange between a Chinese speaker who doesn’t speak any English, and an English speaker who doesn’t speak any Chinese, and neither of them speak another language than their native one, that’s going to be a complete waste of time for both of them because they can’t communicate.
- Seriousness and commitment: you want to find people who are serious and committed about learning, but who are also serious and committed in helping you learn. One of the easiest ways to know if somebody is serious is by paying attention to how detailed they are in their profiles about how they want their exchanges to be. Most serious people will describe how often they want to meet among other things.
- Stick around factor: this is a consequence of how serious and committed a person is. I put it separately because it’s the one consequence of being serious that could severely hinder your exchange. A person who is not serious about their learning, may stick around and help your learning for a long time, but somebody who is, not only, not serious about their learning, but will not stick around for long is, downright, a waste of time.
- Educational background (optional): If you’re learning a language which is largely spoken in the developing world, you may want to stick with people who have or are going to university or have some formal education. As an example, take the Spanish language, which is spoken in many developing countries, some of those countries being very poor and having a vastly under-educated population, these people cannot help you learn Spanish fluently, as they themselves speak a different form of the language (both grammar and vocabulary wise) than the standard one.
Being the case that most people don’t specify their level of education, the best way to know if a prospective language friend is poorly educated or not, is asking a native teacher or friend to read their profile and having them point out all mistakes so you can determine whether you’ll get in touch with this person or not, unfortunately, this won’t always be possible as most people write their profiles entirely in English, you should, then, pay attention to whether they start their sentences with a capital letter, end their paragraphs with a full stop, etc. It might sound very meticulous and time consuming, but trust me, you need to become an astute observer because the least you want is to learn a variation (technically a dialect) of your target language without knowing. In any case, this should be the last filtering criterion you should apply.In the case of languages that are solely spoken in the developed world, like Japanese, German, Danish, etc., the probability of finding a native that will teach you incorrect usage is somewhat unlikely, given the level of education the average person gets in developed countries. None the less, I still recommend you to look out for spelling and punctuation mistakes.
As a rule of thumb, the more meticulous a person is about their profile, the better a language friend they’ll make.
I’ve taken screenshots of several different profiles, we’ll go through each one of them and determine why they might be a good language friend or not.
The following people I would not message no matter what, under each profile I will detail the exact reasons why I would not message them:
This person wants somebody to teach her/him, but, in six lines of text, she/he doesn’t mention anything about helping that person back. As I’ve previously said, you want the odds to be in your favor, by messaging a person who isn’t explicit about helping you back, you would be doing the exact opposite, and while it’s not a fact this person will not help you at all, this is what’s likelier to happen.
The French part says: “I also speak French, but I’ve forgotten everything I learned! Could you help me? Thanks!”
I don’t think I could.
Same as both previous profiles, nothing is mentioned about helping the other person back.
Same as all previous profiles. What really stands out to me is how this persons emphasizes how hard it is for her/him to find a native speaker, and how that being the case, she/he is still not empathic enough to offer help!
People who don’t fill out their profile are most definitely going to be a waste of time.
In their profile, this person lists English as one of his/her (many) native languages.
This is why I told you to play it safe and only look for real natives.
I recommend to study an hour a day every day to progressively move forward in learning a language.
Most people who complain about not having any free time are just not organized, however, no matter how organized one is with one’s time, how are you going to find 5 hours a day to study 5 different languages every day? That’s pushing it a bit. In other words, this person is not serious about his language studies, that’s ok, but it’s a waste of time for those looking for serious language partners.
Two is the maximum number of languages a serious language learner will be studying at the same time, three is already suspicious but even then it could depend on the person. More than three is a clear sign that that person will not make a good language friend.
I’m not sure what she/he meant by “teach”, but I wouldn’t bother to find out.
Even if your language is not a popular one (i.e not a lot of people want to learn it), you shouldn’t waste your time contacting people like those above. There exists the chance that people with profiles like those above may actually be really good language friends, but applying the same filtering criteria (which is none) repeatedly will inevitably lead to wasting your time more often than not which will, in turn, make you frustrated.
The following people have an acceptable profile, they all check out the most important determining factor which is the willingness to help back, but they don’t check out other things, in general, they’re too vague about the exchange, or don’t have a good command of English. I would message them if I were having trouble finding other people with whom to exchange, however if I already had some language friends, I’d be pickier and wouldn’t message them:
This person is very aware that an exchange goes both ways. However, her/his English appears to be somewhat basic. If I were learning Chinese, and my fluency at it were the same level as this person’s English, I would not message them because there would be no bridge language; this isn’t to say that the exchange would be totally useless, but I would look for somebody else with a better command of English. Keep in mind, however, that you can’t be so picky when your language is not very popular.
On the other hand, if your Chinese is very advanced, Chinese will be used as the bridge language and thus you’ll have even more time to practice.
On top of their English not being the best, they could have done a better job of being more specific on how they want their exchange to be, how often they can meet, etc., however, they seem very enthusiastic, “I can teach you Mandarin until we learn all over”, which is a very good thing.
This person offers help which is the first thing we need to check off in a possible language friend, she/he is, however, too casual about it for my liking, she/he doesn’t say anything about how they can help, how often they want to meet, etc. Also, I can’t get over the fact they didn’t write English and Spanish with a capital e and s respectively, and that she/he also forgot to end his introduction with a full stop. To me, this is unacceptable as it shows an unnecessary and unjustified lack of meticulousness in only two lines of text.
Have a look at the following profiles, they all offer help, but share some or the exact same problems as with the ones above:
Not so bad English, but very bad orthography, not meticulous at all.
Not specific about how often and by what means they want the exchange to happen.
Too many languages, as a matter of fact, this person themselves point out how they’re “focusing more on Chinese and Arabic”.
Same as the previous profile, they don’t specify how often or where they want to meet.
On the plus side, this person is very meticulous with her/his profile, notice how all I’s and proper names are capitalized, their commas are correctly placed, etc. this person is probably well educated.
The following are very good profiles I wouldn’t hesitate in contacting:
Translation: I’m an English language native speaker. I’m retired and live in the northeastern part of the United States. I’d like to meet with a native Spanish speaker on a regular basis for short periods of time over Skype, with each exchange being in English and Spanish. I need somebody to help me pin point my mistakes in the language and help me practice.
What I like so much about this profile is how straight-forward it is, you have a pretty good idea of how the exchange is going to be like with this person. However, I think she/he, despite verbalizing the exchange would also be in English, could have done a better job of describing how they can help; after describing what they need help with, they could have simply added “and I’ll do the same for you”. That would have made this profile nearly perfect, but it’s pretty good overall.
Same as the previous profile. Very straight-forward, but lacking more detail about how often she/he wants to meet, and how she/he can help.
Unlike both previous profiles, this person specifies how she/he can help. However, she/he doesn’t specify anything else (available times, what they need help with, etc.)
As you can see, no profile is perfect. Some profiles will lack something but compensate that with something else. The most important thing is that you get an idea of how good or bad a language friend a random person might make by analyzing their profiles and deducing what’s not explicitly written.
Filtering Potential Language Friends When You Speak a Sought-after Language
In the case of people who speak a sought after language and whose inboxes are teeming with messages from potential language friends, the filtering process is basically the same. However, in this case, you are going to have a better reference as to your potential language friends’ educational background because they will have written a personalized message for you. In these messages you need to look out for the same things we discussed previously: spelling, punctuation, overall syntax, etc. Of course, do not limit yourself to their messages, also visit their profiles, read their notebook entries, etc.
Ideally your potential language friend will message you using your target language or a mix between your native language and your target one, for example: “konnichiwa, my name is …”
I’ve found that most people who solely communicate using your native language (their target language) are the hardest to handle, as they are always trying to practice their target language at the expense of you practicing yours, this is not always the case but it’s surprisingly common.
One thing you need to be wary of is people asking you to correct them right off the bat or asking you to do anything that is generally regarded as time consuming, for example, I’ve had several people ask me to correct their mistakes but they don’t do the same for me. If somebody immediately asks you to do something as explaining their mistakes via a written message (which is extremely time consuming) without you having suggested something of the like, then that relationship is probably not going to work. Take the following situation as an example, I messaged a person on italki asking them why they were interested in learning Spanish, I wrote that message in English, they replied in Spanish which I’m completely fine with but at the bottom of their reply they specified “please, point out anything that does not sound natural or is incorrect”, I don’t have a problem correcting people’s mistakes, that’s the spirit of language exchange after all, but in this case I wasn’t getting anything in return because they weren’t going to correct my Japanese because I hadn’t messaged them in Japanese, the person knew that and they still asked me to correct them, in other words, they asked to do something which is unpractical, time consuming and from which I wouldn’t have gotten anything in return. I did reply to their message, but I didn’t point out any mistakes, I asked them to add me in skype and told them that I could help if we did an exchange over skype. They never replied. What happened was that they wanted something that I wasn’t willing to provide, so they filtered me out, as a consequence, they proved that their definition of “exchange” didn’t involve giving back, so their filtering me out saved me a lot of time down the road. This is why it’s so important to define your boundaries.
If you are OK doing things that will yield no return for you, then by all means do them, but if you are not OK, then you need to stick to your boundaries. If you do things for somebody who doesn’t do anything for you, then that’s going to be the way the relationship is going to develop, at best it’s going to be the same forever, however, it’s probably only going to get worse. When I started looking for Japanese exchange friends for the first time I ran into MyLanguageExchange.com and met some very nice people there (unfortunately, Skype wasn’t very popular back then and the email account I used to get in touch with them was hacked, as a consequence I no longer talk to them) but there was this one girl who was very eager to have someone help her with her Spanish… without giving back. We exchanged several emails (uggh, I can’t believe I used to do language exchange over email, I remember and cringe). At first, everything seemed fine, I was using very simple Japanese so I wasn’t surprised when she didn’t send any corrections in with her replies, but as I started using more complex Japanese and she didn’t correct anything, I started getting a bit suspicious. I purposely used an incorrect verb conjugation in a message, when I opened her reply, there was no correction. I then told her to please correct my mistakes because I needed to know what kind of mistakes I was making, in her next message she corrected one mistake I’d done, after that, she stopped correcting anything at all again, that’s when I just stopped replying. What happened was that she was looking for somebody to help her in her target language without giving back, I unknowingly agreed to this. Our unilateral “exchange” developed on the basis of me giving value to her, nothing changed when I asked her to help me in the same way I was helping her, as I said, this kind of abusive relationships are never going to get better.