One of the biggest challenges of learning a foreign language is making sure that we get enough speaking practice. Even if you take part in a traditional course, the amount of time that you can practise speaking is limited. Ideally, you’d practise speaking outside the classroom, just like you should do with all the other skills. Easier said than done, you may think, unless you are in the country where your target language is spoken. I guess you’ll be glad to hear that the opportunities to practise are closer than you thought!
The idea of language exchange is not entirely new, but it’s been certainly gaining in popularity recently with more and more people learning languages online. It started in big cities, full of expats from different places in the world offering their services in exchange for learning the local language. At the beginning people would meet face to face to chat in the languages they exchanged. The concept has quickly moved onto the internet where currently you can find a number of platforms to pair up with someone who speaks the language you want to get better at. The good thing is that the services are free of charge, though you are expected to offer a language in exchange. It might be your native language, or another language you are fluent in or learning – it’s not so much about speaking with native speakers, rather getting the opportunity to chat – practise in the most natural way possible.
Some people are sceptical about practising with someone who is not a native speaker of the language or a qualified teacher. Well, remember that it’s not meant to be a lesson, so – no, your partner probably won’t correct your mistakes even if they are higher level than you, but nor will native speakers who you meet in everyday situations. If you chat to someone in a pub and make a mistake, they will most likely ignore the error because what matters to them is understanding what you say. If you’re learning English, the majority of the conversations you’re likely to have in the future are going to be with non-native speakers anyway. I’d say that unless you are preparing for an exam (in which case you should be learning with a qualified teacher who’ll make sure that you develop accuracy as well as fluency when you speak), just relax and enjoy meeting new people who have lots of interesting things to talk about in a foreign language.
Unlike a language course where you sign up for the whole academic year, language exchange websites offer lots of flexibility. You can decide when and where you want to chat, you can also talk to many different people, there’s no need to settle for just one partner, unless that’s what you wish to do.
Here are a few of the most popular language exchange websites:
You don’t have to register or set up an account, simply put in a few bits of information about yourself – your native tongue, the language you want to practise, and your country, in the search box to see a list of potential language exchange partners. If you want, you can specify your age range or use the advanced search option where you can choose further settings such as whether you want to learn in a “class”, be someone’s pen-pal via email, have a live voice or text chat, or do the language exchange in person (like the traditional one I described above).
The website also provides guidelines on how language exchange can work (if you feel really unsure what to do etc.), there are also some lesson plans designed by experts, available to use in the exchange.
A website very similar to the one above, though there is a minimum age requirement (18 years old), plus you need to register (for free) and log in at least once in 90 days, otherwise they’ll delete your account. There are some free resources available such as tutorial videos, survival phrases, jokes (English, Spanish, and Italian), video lessons (Spanish), pronunciation videos (American English & Italian), listening (French), conversation topics, and others.
You insert the criteria for your language exchange partner into the search box – you specify the language that they speak and the one they want to practise (it may be the same), you can decide what level you want your partners to be, as well as the country they’re in and the time zone. You can opt for a face to face exchange, correspondence, or online chat.
You can find your language practice partner, or “tandem” to talk to online or meet face to face. You simply specify what language you want to learn and where, and you’ll see a list of potential language exchange partners. In order to communicate with them you need to set up an account (for free) – choose the language(s) you want to practise, your level (beginner, intermediate, or advanced), your native language plus any other languages that you are fluent in and type in some topics you like discussing, describe your ideal conversation partner, and say what your language goals are. Then you add a photo of yourself (it’s always nice to see the person we’re going to talk to, isn’t it?) and put in a few personal details like your name, email address, birthdate, and gender (your last name and email address are not visible to other users).
The cool thing about Tandem is that you can also download it onto your phone and use the app on the go.
Speaky is a language speaking community where you can talk with people on the chat or via voice or video call through your browser, or you can download the app onto your phone. You need to register in order to use the services, but it’s free and straightforward – you can set up an account using Facebook or email. Then you set up a profile where you say which language you want to practise, choose your level (beginner, elementary, intermediate, advanced, expert), your native language, and briefly describe yourself in 140 characters.
Then you can choose a speaking partner for the language you want to practise, from users the currently available online.
These are just a few examples that I’ve used myself and have been pretty happy with. If you feel a bit unsure about the whole idea, you can boost your confidence a bit by preparing in advance. As most of the exchange platforms ask you what topics you want discuss with the partner, you can brush up on the useful vocabulary before you start talking to someone.
Remember that it’s not just teachers and native speakers you can learn from. Even if your partner is at the same level as you, he or she may know some words or expression that you don’t. You’ve got nothing to lose by trying, but you can gain a lot – more language practice, no stress about the teacher hearing your mistakes, and a chance to make new friends in different countries.
Of course, stay safe on-line and don’t share all your personal details with your new friends!
Have I convinced you now? Hope so. Let me know which website or app you’ve used and what your experience was like.