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Tandem tips

6 Classic Language Exchange Dilemmas… and How to Avoid Them

With the arrival of video calls through your mobile, language exchange has been made easier than ever before. You can find someone interesting on the other side of the world and be talking to them in minutes - all without leaving your couch. It's a miracle! However, language exchange can seem a bit daunting at first. It’s more than just a simple conversation - both participants have language goals they want to achieve and want the exchange to work as successfully as possible.

Here at Tandem, we are always looking for ways to make language exchanges easier for our members, and an important part of this is to look at all some of the main dilemmas language learners often face with conversation exchange. Luckily, a lot of these dilemmas can be really easily solved. In today’s post, we discuss some of the most common language exchange problems and what can be done about them. And we can guarantee with these tips you’ll be exchanging like a pro in no time at all!

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1. “We use one language too much”

It is always tempting to slip into your native language, or start speaking a language you both know well. But language exchange is meant to be equal between two people and two languages - not a free language lesson for one person! Luckily, there’s an easy way to solve this problem. Discuss how long you’re going to speak for an divide the time equally between you, so you both have a chance to practice. You can either do several short bursts of each language, or a longer period (say 20 mins) on each language. If you are open about what you want to achieve, you will both work to make sure no language dominates more than the other.

2. “My partner interrupts me all the time to correct my mistakes”

It is fantastic to have a native speaker on hand to correct your mistakes. But even though you want to improve your language skills, it can sometimes be overwhelming when every single thing you say is picked apart. Avoid over-correcting by discussing what you want to focus on with your partner at the beginning of the exchange. For example, a particular grammar rule, or vocabulary around a certain topic. Then your partner will know to only correct these mistakes and not interrupt the flow of the conversation. Another helpful tip can be to both have a pen and paper at the ready to write down mistakes rather than talking about them there and then. Talking through ways language could be improved is a good way to finish.

3. “The conversation dried up!”

A common complaint we hear is that people get very excited for their first video call, but then freeze up when they come face to face with their partner. There are usually two reasons for this. One is a total lack of preparation with no topic ideas discussed together beforehand. The other is too much preparation - coming with a fixed idea of exactly what you want to talk about or a massive chunk of memorised text can leave you stumped when the conversation swerves in an unexpected direction. Avoid both of these by taking a collaborative approach to preparation with your partner. Work together to think of some interesting topics and make sure you do a bit of research - but ensure you stay flexible. The best thing about language exchange is that it replicates a real-life conversation in your target language, so make sure you embrace that and come prepared for at least a bit of spontaneity.

4. “My partner couldn’t hear/see me properly”

With video calls, location is everything. When you are doing language exchanges through your smartphone, in theory, you could do a language exchange anywhere! However, while it might seem a good idea at the time to set up shop in the kitchen while your mom cooks dinner, in reality, a lot of distraction and noise in the background will make it a lot harder for your partner to hear you. You need to ensure you are in a relatively quiet, comfortable environment before starting your video call. For best video quality, use a light-colored background and make sure you don’t have bright lights right behind you. For good audio quality, limit background noise so that your voice can be clearly heard by your partner. It goes without saying that you need to make sure you have a decent internet connection as well!

5. “I don’t know how much progress I made”

When you have a conversation exchange, it’s not like sitting an exam. You don’t get a clear result at the end and it can be hard to track progress. This can be a bit demoralising for learners who are used to having a lot of structure. One helpful tip here is to keep a notebook reserved for language exchange. In it, you can keep your topic ideas and any new vocabulary and grammar that you learn during your video chats. Your language notebook will be a helpful reminder of how much new language you are encountering every time you speak to your partner - and will also be a great reference point when you are revising what you learnt.

6. “We had one great call… and then never spoke again”

Keeping your motivation up for language learning is an ongoing challenge, and even if you have the most awesome partner ever, it can still sometimes be hard to find the time to catch up again. The best way to avoid this is to be proactive and decide the time of your next exchange there and then! Get into the habit of discussing next steps at the end of the call so you are both involved and feel committed to helping the other achieve their goals.

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