How to have a successful language exchange

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(image from Flickr user Ron Mader)

In my last post, I wrote about how to find a language partner.  Hopefully that went well, you've contacted some people on the Mixxer and have agreed on days and times to meet on Skype.  What now?

  1. Confirm the day and time with your partner.  Don't forget about time zones.  Everyone is busy, and it can be easy to forget or get time changes confused.  This is especially true in the fall and spring when different countries change their clocks at different times.  I've gotten times mixed up myself on more than one occasion.
  2. Prepare some conversational questions in advance.  If you're a beginner, this is an absolute must.  Otherwise you're going to find it difficult to maintain a conversation in the target language for 30 minutes.  If you're an intermediate or advanced learner, you may want to focus the questions on a topic or grammar point that you've recently learned.
  3. Once you make the Skype call, start by setting expectations with your partner so there's no misunderstanding.  How long are you going to speak?  I recommend you spend half of the time exclusively in each language.  It's not as helpful to switch back and forth between each language, and the less advanced speaker tends to get less practice this way.  Also ask you partner if they like to be corrected and how often.  You certainly don't want to correct them each sentence.  Let them talk.  Don't interrupt them.  If they asked for corrections, give them at most one or two examples once they're done speaking.
  4. Keep it positive.  Be encouraging, and remember that humor doesn't always translate well.  Save the sarcasm for later. 
  5. If you feel like you're running out of things to say, here are some topics to get your started or keep you going:
  • Languages - They're here, too, right?  Why are they studying the language?  For how long?  How do they practice?
  • Travel - If they're learning a language, odds are pretty good they have either traveled or would like to.  Where have they been? Where would they like to go?  
  • Hometown - What is their town or city like?  Do people visit their country or city?  What is there to do or see?  What's the closest big city?
  • Family - Do they have a big family or a small family?  What are they like? Where do their family members live?  Ask them to describe each.
  • Free time - What do they do for fun?  Hobbies, sports, arts, or music?
  • Favorite anything - This is a favorite for beginners, ask about their favorite anything.  Food? Music? Country? Book?

Most important of all is how you end the conversation.  Once you've found a good partner, it's important not to lose them.  Be sure to thank them for their time and help with their native language.  Be encouraging about their language skills as well.  Now is also the best time to agree on a next meeting.  

Good luck with your language exchanges.  If you have suggestions for others, leave them in the comments below.