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Tips for a Successful Online Language Exchange

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Find a Virtual Practice Partner and Have a Foreign Language Conversation

As the Covid-19 crisis tightens its grip on the world, many Pimsleur learners are turning to the Internet to practice their language skills.

But the prospect of your first language exchange can be a little daunting if you’ve never done it before.

So, to help, we’ve created this guide of how to make your first language exchange a success.

In an online language exchange, you’ll be splitting your time between the two languages you want to practice. You’ll help your virtual practice partner with your native language, and they’ll help you with theirs.

If you don’t yet have a virtual conversation partner, you can find one with our language exchange resources guide: Virtual Conversations – Taking Your Language Practice Online.

Practical Things to Consider Before the Exchange

These tips are focused on getting any technical hurdles out of the way in advance. This way, you can spend all your allotted time practicing your language – it’s the reason you’re meeting, after all!

  • Agree to meet at a time that works for both you and your partner. Be mindful of the time difference.
  • Decide which online chat facility you’ll use to communicate (for example Zoom, Skype or another). Add each other as contacts before the session.
  • Check your Internet connection. Will it be able to cope with video chat?
  • Decide with your partner in advance the amount of time you want to spend on each language. Around 30 minutes on each language is an ideal length of time for intermediate level and upwards.
  • Make sure you join the session somewhere you won’t be interrupted. Remove anything that might distract you.

Preparing for the Conversation

  • Before your first session, think about what you want from the exchange. For instance, do you want to focus on the present tense? The past tense? Talking about the environment?
  • If there is a specific topic or grammar you’d like to practice on, tell your partner. If possible, tell them in advance, so they can do any preparation they need.
  • Try not to rehearse too much ahead of the session. The point of language exchange is to practice the art of conversation: responding spontaneously to another person’s thoughts and comments. Reciting a memorized speech won’t help you improve conversation skills.
  • If you’d like to practice something before the call, you could revise how to conjugate verbs or look through a list of vocabulary.

Once the Call Starts

After you have introduced yourselves and decided which language you will practice first, there are a few things to consider:

  • Decide how you want to give and receive feedback. People have different preferences, but the two main options are:
    • Correcting in real-time, with the native speaker interjecting to provide feedback
    • The native speaker takes notes and provides feedback on common errors at a natural pause in the conversation
  • Relax and have fun! Language exchange can be intimidating, but your partner is on a similar journey to you, and probably equally as nervous.
  • Keep an eye on the time and stick to the agreed time limit for each language.
  • Try to keep the conversation flowing. Listen to what your partner says and ask them questions about it. Try not to interrupt them, so take notes if you’ll forget what to ask!
  • Resist the urge to slip into English (unless you’re on English practice, of course). To help you avoid this, you could prepare a few phrases in your target language for when you get stuck. For example, you could learn the French for “can you explain what that means please?”
  • Accept that you will make mistakes and that you won’t always understand everything the first time. This can feel uncomfortable and embarrassing, but every language learner experiences this, and you’re more likely to remember structures if you’ve been corrected on them.
  • Keep a notepad to hand! You’ll doubtless learn lots of vocabulary during the conversation, but if you don’t revisit it after the session, it won’t become lodged in your long-term memory.
  • Repeating a conversation is not a problem! If your partner’s given you new vocabulary or pointed out a grammar gap you have, it’s no problem at all to repeat the conversation so you can practice what you’ve just learned.

Suggested Language Exchange Conversation Topics

Although it’s great when the conversation flows naturally, sometimes you need a little help.

Keep a list of questions on hand in case the conversation stalls. Here are a few to get the ball rolling:

  • Ask your partner about life in their country. One of the most exciting parts about a language exchange conversation is that it’s an opportunity to make a new friend and learn about other cultures.
  • Ask about slang and informal expressions in your partner’s country.
  • Ask about their plans for the weekend, and what they did last weekend.
  • Discuss what the biggest things on your mind are right now.
  • What’s the most positive news you’ve received lately?
  • What’s your greatest achievement today/this week/this month?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • What’s your favorite thing about your hometown?
  • How do you make your favorite meal?
  • How did you celebrate your last birthday?
  • What have you learned this week/month/year?

We’ve focused on positive questions because a positive mindset is an important tool for coping with lockdown. Many people are struggling with social distancing and isolation, and thinking of positive news, stories and memories will provide a mood lift under these unprecedented circumstances.

If you and your partner have active imaginations, why not ‘truly’ escape lockdown and invent a completely made-up world? This could provide hours of fun!

An Important Note

The positive mindset mentioned above will be important during your practice, even after the lockdown is over.

When you’re talking about how your day or week has been, which is a common topic during language exchange, it’s easy to get dragged into real-life situations that have bugged you.

Sure, it’s fine to talk about your likes and dislikes, but try not to be too negative during the discussion. So avoid ranting about your work colleagues, or a neighbor who annoys you!

Even if you’re doing it with perfect grammar, remember that your partner is a volunteer who also wants a relaxing call!

At the End of the Call

If you enjoyed the session, turn a ‘moment’ into momentum and schedule your next session before you end the call. It’s more likely to become a regular fixture if you plan it in right away.

Take a moment to think about what did and didn’t work for you during the session. Is there anything you can change for the next one? Of course, get your partner’s agreement on any ideas you have.

If you and your partner want to sharpen your writing skills, why not send each other emails in between sessions?

Keep Your Conversation Skills Sharp

Now’s a perfect time to sharpen your conversation skills. Try a free week of Pimsleur language lessons, if you decide to continue, it’s only $19.95/month.

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