Language exchange is all about getting speaking practice with interesting people and helping each other learn. The trick is to find a partner that a) you have something in common with and b) matches your language goals. Tandem partners don’t have to be native speakers of the language you want to learn, but they often are. The Tandem app gives you the option to choose whether you would like to speak only with native speakers of the language you are learning, or also with people who can speak the language fluently but are not native speakers. That’s why we ask you to list both your “native” and “spoken” languages when you join Tandem.
It’s an important distinction. The true meaning of “native speaker” is often debated, but it’s generally accepted to mean someone who learnt the language as a small child in a natural setting, usually through hearing their parents speak. That means a child growing up in a bilingual or even multilingual household could have several “native” languages.
Non-native speakers learn the language as older children or adults. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they speak the language any less accurately than a native speaker. It is often said that the best way to learn is with a native speaker, and there’s no denying that chatting with native speakers has great advantages. But so does speaking with fluent speakers who aren’t native!
Knowing your language goals can help you decide on what kind of partner to look for. It’s important to understand the different benefits of native speakers vs those who have learnt the language later in life. Here are a few of the most important goals that will be best achieved with the help of native speakers:
Native speakers of a language have a rich vocabulary of idioms and slang, and can show you the best time to use certain words and phrases depending on the context.
Want to learn the perfect ‘Hochdeutsch’ accent, or find out the difference in pronunciation of tricky English heteronyms? Then speaking with a native speaker is the best way to do that. By listening to a native speaking Tandem partner during a video language exchange, you can become familiar with their pronunciation. They can even send you some audio recordings of them speaking so that you can practice by yourself! Make sure to offer to help them with their pronunciation too, if they want it.
The internet is full of useful information about culture and life in foreign countries, but the best way to get an insight into someone else’s culture is to ask them about it yourself. You and your Tandem partner can exchange photos of your everyday foods, clothes and activities in your respective countries and cultures, and discuss the differences and similarities in both of your languages. That’s way more fun than just reading about the culture of a country on the web, right?
Native speakers are a very reliable authority on their own language - they have been immersed in this language since birth! Though remember that your partner will speak the language as they learnt it as a child. This means that they will speak the version of the language that is “correct” wherever they grew up, which might be slightly different from the “correct” version you might read in a grammar textbook. So you might have to resign yourself to learning Parisian style French if you’re talking to a born-and-raised Parisian.
If these goals correspond with your language needs, then it’s likely that you’ll want to practice with a native speaker to get perfect. However, particularly for beginner or intermediate learners, there are other goals that non-native speakers can help you achieve. Here are a few of them:
While it’s great to speak with people who are fluent in the language you are learning, it may be a bit daunting unless you are also of a very high level. When you speak with a non-native speaker, there is so much less pressure. You are in a safe environment where you can both make mistakes and learn together.
Most native speakers of a language have never stopped to think why you have to use the simple present and not the present progressive in that sentence because it just seems obvious to them. They have used it naturally their whole lives and have never had to explain it before. Meanwhile, non-native speakers who are very advanced in a foreign language have had to study the grammar from scratch, just like you. They are the best people to answer your ‘But why…?’ questions in a clear and simple way.
Advanced non-native speakers have stumbled across the common problems or tricky bits in the language already, so they are usually sympathetic to problems you may be having. They may even be able to give you some handy tips on how to overcome these problems, or share with you the methods they used to get around them. And best of all - they are living proof that these problems can be overcome!
So, can you learn a language as quickly with someone who does not have the language as a mother tongue, even if they’re really good? The honest answer is: yes, you can. But it depends on what you’re looking for in your speaking partner. All in all, the most important thing really is to just get speaking, whatever way you can! It doesn’t really matter who with — just speaking with your Tandem Partner little and often is a sure-fire way to improve!