Your first language exchange on Tandem can be quite daunting, so we asked the Tandem Fundazioa, the team that came up with this method of language practice, for their top tips on how to make the most out of your conversation. Tandem® is a way of learning a language by exchanging with somebody who wants to learn your language. It is especially good for:

  • Learning new words
  • Improving your understanding
  • Learning to express yourself easily with few words
  • Finding out about other cultures

So, here’s how to get started on your Tandem adventure!

1. How should I prepare for a language exchange?

To begin with, it can be helpful to make notes about the next meeting to prepare. Think about:

  • The subject that you want to talk about
  • The materials you need (pictures, comics, articles, songs, short films etc.)
2. What topics work well for language exchange?

The Tandem language exchange app is great for helping you find people that share interests with you but here are a few other topic ideas:

  • Your work or university, where you live or have lived in the past, your spare time, parties, habits, plans for the future
  • Common interests (sport, fashion, music, films, hobbies, pets)
  • Things you have done (your last holiday, first trip without parents, first love, the best or worst day of your life) or dreams about the future (where you want to be in ten years time, what a biographer would write about you, who you might have been in a parallel life)
  • Topical subjects that are particularly relevant to your country (climate change, politics, youth unemployment), though some of these may be best saved for when you know your partner a little better
3. How does it work?

With a Tandem language exchange, you are alternately a ‘learner’ and a ‘learning assistant’. The best way to do it is by dividing your conversation into two parts. In one, your partner learns and practises your language; in the other, you learn and practise theirs.

4. How long should it be?

Speak (or message) for a certain length of time, e.g. only fifteen minutes, in one language, then the same amount of time in the other language. Try to use only the target language when you are speaking. For example, if your partner does not understand a word immediately, explain it to them using your own language rather than translating. If you translate, you end up using the language you can both speak better. So one learns more, and the other less – which isn’t the aim of a Tandem!

5. How should I speak during a language exchange to make sure my partner understands me?

Not all words are in the textbooks. Getting to know the most up-to-date slang is one of the best benefits of Tandem exchanges! It is important to avoid using long, involved sentences that might confuse your partner, but avoid baby talk at all costs. Your partner will want to speak like a normal person, so speak like one!

6. Is translating a good idea?

Unless you particularly want to practice translation skills, it is not very effective to jump from language to language.

Instead of translating words, try to describe them to your partner, using:

  • Synonyms: stroll = walk
  • Opposites: bitterly <-> sweetly
  • Examples of the same category: tangerine-> orange, lemon
  • Derivations: fly -> flight
  • Associations: sea and holidays
  • Word connections: tooth(-)pick
  • Comparisons or references to the person: ‘You have jet-black hair.’
7. How much correcting should I do?
  • DON’T stop all the time to correct
  • DON’T correct absolutely everything
  • DO decide on what is most important at the start of the conversation
  • DO note down mistakes while talking to your partner
  • DO use the word/phrase your partner got wrong naturally in a sentence. This will give them a good model to learn from!
  • DO discuss mistakes towards the end of the conversation
  • DO send corrections after a video chat via messaging so your partner has it to review

This is important especially for intermediate learners and below, because by correcting absolutely everything you could seriously undermine their confidence. For advanced learners, it is good to focus on phrases that could be more natural and any bad habits they might have got into over time!

8.  How can I remember new vocabularly?
  • Write them down and look at them a couple of times a day
  • Say them aloud – singing, shouting or whispering them can help!
  • Highlight any similarities to words in your own language
  • Learn a word together with its opposite
  • Express them visually (make a flower in the ‘o’ of ‘the flower’)
  • Form sentences with them or do a role play in which they appear
  • Put in references to other words  (vacation – sea –  jellyfish)
  • Order and collect them in groups or lists
9. What’s the best way to make the most of the community?

With Tandem language exchange, you get an insider’s view on what life is like in another country. You also find out how other people perceive your country and culture! While this is an amazing experience, it can also be challenging at times. Be patient, friendly and open. You may be surprised by what you hear – this is the point of cultural exchange.

Jürgen Wolff, according to ’13 Tandem-Tipps’, Ed. by alpha&beta, © TANDEM® Fundazioa, Donostia / San Sebastián, 2012