Making the most out of your exchange
Most people on language exchange sites are eager language learners and really want to help you learn, however, you are likelier to run into a first time learner, i.e. somebody who is learning a different language from their native one for the first time, therefore their experience explaining their own language is probably going to be limited to saying what is wrong and what is right, not explaining the why’s.
In terms of structured instruction or verbalizing grammar rules, you should go to your language exchanges expecting to be corrected about the more general grammar points, and not so much about finer points in your target language’s grammar. For example, the average English speaker will be able to correct a foreigner’s accent and provide explanations for grammar points such as irregular verbs, or how to conjugate a verb in the plural. However, they probably won’t be able to explain the subjunctive mood and they shouldn’t be expected to.
Having said this, it is not unlikely to find people who are very grammar-proficient “self-made linguists”. This is by no means the general rule, but if you filter profiles like I taught you previously specifically looking for somebody like this, you will find them as long as your own language is not too obscure, otherwise, being too picky won’t pay off.
This takes us to two important points:
- The quality of your exchange in terms of how much you learn will almost entirely depend on your partner’s knowledge of their own language: as long as you’ve planned your session beforehand (point #2), you check all the boxes on not being creepy and as long as you both speak a “bridge” language fairly well.
- You need to plan your exchanges beforehand: planning what you are going to do during your meeting is being responsible for the direction your learning takes. Since your language friends are not going to provide you any kind of structure for your learning, you need to do this yourself, by doing this you will also take the pressure of coming up with something to do during your exchanges off of your language friends’ shoulders. Let your language friend know what you plan on doing during your exchange: if you only want a conversation exchange it’s ok to not say anything before meeting, however, if you want to read an article or a passage in a book, you really need to let them know before meeting, you don’t want your language friends to get anxious during the exchange because the article you need help with uses obscure vocabulary or a poetic construction.
If your schedule allows it, try having more than one language friend:
- If you only exchange with one person, in the case that that person cannot meet any more for any reason, you’ll be back to square one, and you are going to have to start looking for language friends all over again, it’s best to try to get a rotation of 4 people to talk to, if one fizzles out, you still have 3 more and your learning won’t stop when you try to fill the gap.
- Another reason for having more than one person to exchange with is getting used to different accents and speech patterns which, in the long run, will prove incredibly helpful.
If you are a beginner I recommend not trying to practice conversing in your target language. As I pointed out in my Ultimate Guide to Learning Vocabulary “a conversation takes place at a fast pace, you can’t stop at every second to look up words you don’t understand or to ask the other person to explain what they said, this means that speakers tend to talk at a level where the conversation is fluid; what this translates to in real life is that the conversation will either be too much of a challenge (your partner speaks too fast, or an at advanced level) or too much of a cakewalk (the conversation is not a big enough challenge for your current level)” instead, I prefer to use some sort of immersion material and have my language friends work with me to try and translate said material into English.
Personal questions should be preceded by your own answer to that question, for example, if you want to ask “what do you do for fun?” instead of simply throwing the question at your partner, introduce the question with your own answer to it: “the other day I went to a ski resort called Valle Nevado with a friend to do some sightseeing and some skiing, what do you do for fun?”
This will make the conversation flow much more naturally than it would if you were just asking random questions to each other…
…which is completely normal for people to do when they are nervous, which is also a completely normal thing to feel when you are meeting a new person even if it’s over the internet. Of course, anxiety is not a pleasurable feeling even by itself, but when you add up the fact that you (probably) can’t use your target language very well, it only gets worse.
The best and simplest way to beat anxiety and nervousness is by simply making your brain busy with something else.
If you’ve ever worked out at least a little bit, you know that after every work out session, your brain is basically paused, this is because your heart is intensely working to get blood flowing to every muscle in your body while your brain gets in “alert” mode as it’s trying to be supplied with enough oxygen to keep functioning properly, in other words, your brain doesn’t care you have a language exchange session coming up, therefore, very little to no anxiety.
On top of “stopping” anxiety, your brain will also have released a number of “relaxation” and “feel good” hormones during and after your workouts, being endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin the most well-known, however, the most important is a protein called BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor). Although further research is needed, preliminary studies show a correlation between the quantity of BDNF secreted and the growth in brain connections (greater synapse <-> healthier neurons), whereas low amounts of BDNF could potentially lead to hippocampus atrophy, something associated with people suffering from chronic depression.* Furthermore, serotonin and BDNF work in conjunction to alleviate feelings of anxiety-derived stress.**
Of course, nobody is going to sign up for and run a marathon 10 minutes before a language exchange session, and nobody needs to.
While running is certainly a very good way to stimulate both your heart and brain, it’s not the only way. A no-rest 5-minute bodyweight-workout session is enough to “reset” your brain, and prevent feelings of anxiety from hindering your language exchange.
While there are no specific exercises that work better than others for reducing anxiety, there certainly are some that are easier to perform at home and that are not gym-dependent, what I suggest is:
• Push-ups – to failure
• Tricep Dips – to failure
• Jumping Jacks – 1 minute
• No-weight squats – to failure
“To failure” means there’s no number of arbitrary repetitions, you do the exercise until your muscles fail to do another repetition.
If you have arthritis or anything that prevents you from doing any or all of these exercises properly, try different variations, for example, for push-ups don’t perform the exercise in a full prone position, put the weight of your lower body on your knees (instead of the toes as in a regular push-up), this is called a “knee push-up”. Do this if you have actual health reasons for being unable to perform the exercises as they were intended to be performed. If you don’t feel somewhat light-headed after the workout, then you are not doing the exercises to failure or not using proper form, in either case, you’re not going to reap the anti-anxiety benefits.
Remember that you do not have to do this if you don’t want to, but it’s the one thing that most closely resembles a magic pill for preventing anxiety and it comes with a myriad of short term as well as long term benefits. And it’s only five minutes!
While it’s technically possible and 100% legal all over the world (except in Morocco as I recently found out) to have voice calls instead of video calls (which are also illegal in Morocco, believe it or not) this is something I would suggest you not do, as it creates an emotional gap between you and your partner. Not being able to see the other person makes it pretty much feel like one is talking to the computer screen.
Most of the above advice for this part of the guide can be summarized as “best practices for not ruining your language exchange”, but in terms of actually making the most out of a language exchange (which is of course dependent on not ruining the exchange in the first place) what’s most important is how well you ingrain the knowledge your language friend hands over to you. So, when your exchange is over you shouldn’t start looking forward to the next one as much as you should try and seize the information your language friend gave you during the one that just ended.
As a matter of fact, when the exchange is over, your learning is just starting.
Only after your exchange will you want to take notes, but unless you type at the speed of a court reporter, you’re better off recording the session using your cellphone to be able to review the exchange in its entirety. Your language friend will have probably given you plenty of golden nuggets throughout the session that there’s no way you’ll be able to remember, let alone use them to learn, therefore, unless you don’t want to squeeze every drop of information given to you by your partner (why would you ever), use an audio recording app on your phone to record the session with.
To do this, I always ask my language friends if they allow me to record the audio of the session so I can review it later. I put emphasis on the fact that I will not be video recording, which is as unnecessary as it is creepy. Do never video record.
Now, I always ask for my partner’s green light because that’s just how I am, but I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with simply recording without letting your partner know, because what you are basically doing is simply moving away from taking notes to a more efficient way of storing the information.
As you can see, the reviewing and the subsequent learning processes englobe a longer period of time than what it takes you to review your notes after the exchange is over as it actually begins at the same time the exchange itself does.
During the exchange, you shouldn’t waste time taking random notes because that’s what you are recording the exchange for, you should only write down your “aha moments”, for example, if your language friend is explaining something to you and that reminded you of something different but related, write it down, at worst, nothing will come out of it, but it may very well be the missing piece of the puzzle your brain needs to finally make sense out of something you’ve been struggling to understand. Maybe you heard the same syntax your partner used during your conversation previously in a movie, write that down so you can go back to your audio recording and said movie back and forth to associate both together and make sense of them. Trust me, these “aha moments” are a stroke of genius that will fade away as quickly as they hit you, so write them down.
After the exchange is over, if you planned your session well and your language friend was insightful, you will have a lot to review, which is a fantastic thing as the more you have for review the more you learn.
The way I review my exchanges and ingrain that knowledge starts by using that information myself and then putting it in my own words in a Microsoft Word document, for example, if you’re taught how to construct a sentence using the German word for “can” (as in being able to), the best way to internalize that knowledge is by coming up with sentences using that construction: “I cannot speak German” (true for me), “I can sing well” (not true for me), then if you want to say “I could take a vacation but I like my job” but don’t know how to say “could” there you have something to ask your language friend during your next exchange, write that down. Next, I will write down the “rules” regarding that which I’m reviewing using my own words, this is extremely important, you don’t want to copy and paste somebody else’s explanation, you can use somebody else’s explanation to further understand the concept you are studying but most of your review document should consist of your own explanations, to put it in other words, your review document should be a record of your language journey in your own words, the way you understand the language to work, so you can later go back to it and say “oh, yes, I remember I thought X when I wrote down Y, it all makes sense now”.
Don’t worry about using fancy linguistic jargon, if that’s not how you understand a language, it will actually be counterproductive. For example, if you don’t know what a dependent clause is, don’t write down “there are different kinds of dependent clauses, such as adverb clauses and adjective clauses” this won’t make sense to you when you go back to review your notes later on, and it probably won’t make sense as you are writing it either, instead write something like “some sentences can’t stand alone and need something else to complete their intended meaning, some of these sentences start with adverbs or adjectives”. Even though this is not grammatically correct (an actual sentence can always stand alone), if this is how you understand the language, it’s all fine, don’t worry, as you get more acquainted with your target language and grammar rules in general, you can “fix” these things, don’t try to make it perfect right away.
I will make sure to go through my review notes with my language friends later so they are filtered through the eyes and knowledge of a native.
Finally, if necessary, I will create Anki cards with specific examples or grammar notes to review regularly. Don’t make Anki cards just for the sake of it, make good use of your time, and while you can always delete them later, nobody is going to give you back the time you wasted on useless Anki cards (both on reviewing and creating them).
The entire review process looks like this:
- Record the session.
- Write down your “aha moments”.
- Open up a Microsoft Word document and with the help of the recording, write down what you learned during the exchange while creating sentences using words or syntax you were introduced to during the exchange.
- Have a native review those notes.
All right, that’s it! This is the final entry into my Ultimate Guide to Finding Language Exchange Partners (slash Friends).
Believe it or not, this guide was meant to be published as one long article, but for (very) obvious reasons I ended up dividing it into smaller articles.
I believe this guide has all the information you could possibly ever need to find a language friend to have language exchanges with and make the most out of them. Enjoy your learning!