Effective Language Exchange

Though generally an introvert, I enjoy meeting people from a wide spectrum of society and understand that relationship is an intricate part of life on earth. During my time at ECNU I had friends who had language partners but it mostly ended up being more of a one way relationship, which caused me to become skeptical of such arrangements. However I now believe that effective language exchange partnerships are possible, if both parties are serious about it and start off with common goals in mind. In today’s post I will present an overall picture of what I do from finding language partners to meeting up with them.

  1. Finding People
    How you go about this will largely depend on the place that you are in. In this day and age a number of online communities have sprung up catering to this need. Examples include Lang-8 and Livemocha. I helped a friend on Lang-8 translate her resume, which gave me the opportunity to come in contact with business vocabulary that will be useful when I look for work in China next time. Livemocha looks like it has quite a vibrant community as well, which I just joined last night, and will be able to share my results in the future. While I have met up with over 50 internet friends over many years in real life, I cannot over stress the importance of exercising caution if you meet up with someone you know over the internet.

    Many universities and colleges tend to have their own internet forums as well which allow students to post ads.

    Lastly, there are always real world methods such as posting ads in specified places, asking around your friends, etc.

  2. Finding the Right People
    This is where you, as a learner, need to exercise your own discretion to decide who you want to learn from. While I know basic Vietnamese, you probably wouldn’t want to learn it from me. As a partnership, you will want to ensure that you have a sufficient level of proficiency to help your partner as well. It also seems to me that language standards have dropped in places that I have been to. I believe this can be attributed to the increased use of typing over writing, among other factors. This is important to note once you get past the intermediate level.

    Another point to note is to find someone who is equally committed. However with the nature of the internet, there is no straightforward way to find someone who is committed. My suggestion is to just give it a shot, make contact, and you will soon find out how committed that person is.

    Common interests are also very helpful to fueling the friendship and conversations though it is not compulsory.

    Even if you’re too serious about improving your language, thinking through these steps will help you gain a clearer picture of where you are headed. As an upper-intermediate learner of Chinese, these are points that I look for in a language partner, and am not recommending that you use the same criteria.

    • Native mainland Chinese. Though I do love Taiwanese people and their music, my long term goal is to go to China and therefore I do not wish to expend brain juice on using traditional Chinese.
    • Someone who is serious about his own use of language and considers himself a proficient user of Chinese. As I understand, there is a rising number of people in my generation who do not pay attention to the words the use when typing in pinyin, resulting in text that is still understandable. However that is bad for me as a language student, especially if it is material that is new to me. That person should likewise be serious about learning English.
    • Lastly, I am looking for someone with a heart. This is not a business partnership. I have interest in technology (particularly IT), personal growth, finance, music, photography, belief systems, community work, and all things China. If someone has interests that exceed this scope, I am happy to read up on something that I’m not familiar with so that we can use it as material for discussion.
  3. Meeting Up
    While meeting up is not compulsory, I feel that I learn much better when I am with my language partner. I will repeat myself: exercise caution when meeting someone for the first time. Meet in a crowded place, don’t carry too much cash with you, and be vigilant.

    I usually try to bring some material along, whether it be some books, magazines or articles of interest. In fact it could just be some mentally prepared discussion topics, with a list of associated vocabulary. The reason I strongly suggest this is because I have seen too many people repeating the same conversations of weather talk or staring at one another. It also provides a structure which enables the exchange to be more effective and meaningful.

    The other thing I bring is a notepad to jot down new words, phrases, and other interesting (or boring but important) bits of Chinese that I learn. This also aids in later revision and becomes material that your language partner can test you on again at the next session if need be.

    Lastly, bring an expectant attitude with you and come prepared to help your language partner. Remember, perfecting your craft is just one part of life. Enjoy the meeting and learn as much as you can. It is very likely that your language partner will have much more to share with you than just his/her language. If you are able to meet me, I will be happy to topics about cutting edge technology that I read on scientific blogs, simple things I do to make life easier, how the internet works, or even my views on a whole range of topics.

While I started writing this post for my own memory, I hope that you will find it helpful in your quest to learn a foreign language effectively. If you feel that this article has helped you or if you feel that there are other things to take note of, please feel free to post in the comments or to contact me!

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