From the editor: Though teachers are our main audience, we realize many people use our materials to learn languages independently. For our readers who are dedicated independent language learners, guest blogger Chi Fang shares his experience learning with a native speaker language partner, and gives advice on how to find a language partner of your own.
When I decided to learn Spanish, I got started in seconds by downloading Duolingo on my phone, and found plenty of free grammar exercises and audio courses online. I learned the basic grammar rules and memorized several hundred words of vocabulary. But I still didn’t know how to SPEAK Spanish.
Most people want to learn a language so that they can speak it, but the majority of language courses and apps can’t prepare us for the real thing. This is something that I struggled with. All the concepts I studied seemed to go out the window when I was faced with a real-life situation where I had to listen to what someone was saying, think of a response and form sentences, all in a matter of seconds.
I realized that the only way to get better at this was by having more conversations, which meant finding someone to practice with for one or two hours per week. I found someone online, and since then I’ve learned a lot about choosing the right language partner.
Your language partner should be a native speaker of the language that you are trying to learn. He/she will help you practice their language and in exchange, you will help them improve their English. For example, my Guatemalan partner and I used to have one hour Skype conversations, where we would speak in Spanish for 30 minutes, and then switch to English for 30 minutes.
Please note that your partner is not a professional teacher. They can correct your mistakes, but they may not be able to explain the theory behind what you did wrong. Most native speakers don’t know the exact grammar rules of their own language, they just know what sounds “right.”
There are several free online language exchanges that will connect you to language partners from around the world. You can browse through their profiles and send them a message to set up a video call. Here are some things to think about when selecting a language partner:
- Priorities: How serious is the person about improving their language skills?
- Commitment: Are they willing to set aside time every week? Does their schedule line up with yours?
- Proficiency: Is their English level close to your proficiency in their language? Otherwise, it can be intimidating to speak with someone who is more advanced.
- Patience: Is your partner willing to help you as much as you are willing to help them?
You and your partner should set the rules from the very beginning:
- How long should the session be?
- Will you strictly speak in your target language or is it okay to revert to English once in a while?
- How often do you want to be corrected?
- Which topics would you like to talk about? Which topics are off-limits?
For example, I told my partner that I wanted them to mercilessly correct me for every mistake I make. However, this approach isn’t for everyone.
It is also important to maintain a 50/50 balance between languages to ensure that you are both benefiting equally from the exchange. Don’t be afraid to use a timer to enforce this balance.
Lastly, you need to manage your own expectations. Not all conversations will go smoothly, and finding the right language partner for you will involve some degree of trial and error. But when you do find that perfect person, it can make a world of difference in your language learning journey.
Chi Fang is an entrepreneur and blogger. He speaks English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Polish, and he frequently travels the world to study languages and culture. Chi is the founder of the online language learning company Verbalicity, and is currently based in Canada.