I’m one of those people who manage to turn everything, including language learning, into an excuse for social isolation. I often get so absorbed in my intensive language learning practice that it looks like I fell off the face of the earth. Given such antisocial behavior, no wonder that my chances to practice speaking in my target language dwindle from just minimal to zero.
Why? Well, because finding a language learning partner is probably the most frustrating aspect of language learning, at least for a wallflower like me. So I don’t even try.
And yet, it’s time to face the truth: people change it all.
And since I finally realized the importance of social ties, in this post, I’ll try to sketch what I mean by “language learning partner”, why I think they are so crucial and what can help you to find one. Allons-y.
Why you need a language exchange partner?
It’s always a good idea to start with the Why.
For some learners, like Benny Lewis, the author of Fluent in Three Months, this question does not even arise. They just go ahead, chat with people and inevitably find themselves surrounded by an army of native speakers happy to lend a hand in their language learning endeavors. I would speculate that such people are lucky to have an extraverted character bundled with the natural drive for interaction and the high Willingness To Communicate. My WTC is typically nil and I need to have a really good reason to engage in a conversation in the first place. I found that many self-diagnosed introvert language learners are haunted by the same problem.
Yes, one can avoid talking to people ad infinitum and reach a fairly good proficiency level (which I did twice: once with French and once with Spanish). Yet, there are at least four reasons to overcome this snail syndrome and put all your energy into finding a person who would become your language learning partner/mentor/friend (call it whatever; I’ll return to this point in a moment).
Opportunity to speak
This should be self-evident.
If you don’t have anyone to speak with, then your foreign language speaking practice will be highly limited. More precisely, it will be necessarily confined to Pimsleur language courses (which are great to start with) and a… “vocalized self-talk”, should we say?
In this scenario, you’re not just talking to yourself but you do it aloud and in French (Spanish/Italian/Russian… you got the point). The obvious advantage of this approach is that you do indeed exercise in speaking while remaining more or less self-reliant. The disadvantages… well, I’ve done quite a bit of that last month and I have to warn you that at some point the line between normal and abnormal becomes somewhat blurry.
Spending too much time talking to yourself in what you think is French is dangerous for another reason. Apart from passing for a schizophrenic, you run a risk of creating your own little pidgin.
Our thought process is pre-verbal. So, by default, you perfectly know what you mean and what you want to say before you actually put it into words and vocalize it. But the fact that you said something and understood yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that a native speaker would understand you equally well.
Seeing a confused “¿¿¿???” in the eyes of your Spanish-speaking friend, however, has an immediate repairing effect. Faced with such feedback, you get an overwhelming urge to fix up anything you might have screwed up: from your word choice to sentence construction, to pronunciation. And as you train to repair these inevitable conversation breakdowns, you become more aware of your weaknesses and mistakes – which, in turn, motivates you to be a bit more focused in your language practice.
Quite often, having or not having a language learning partner translates into using or not using the language in question at all.
Studying languages is a nice hobby. But if it doesn’t bring you closer to your other goals, there’s a high chance that life will take over and you will abandon all your language learning plans within a month. Simply put, finding even an hour a day for your French may seem like a high price to pay if you have one hundred burning projects, all of which are “urgent and important”.
I truly believed, for example, that I would manage to maintain my Spanish and French during the academic term while taking six courses and working part-time. It did not happen. On most days, I failed to find even 30 minutes for reading a French book or listening to Spanish podcasts. But if I used these languages, it happened solely in social situations.
Conclusion: if there were no people in my life with whom I could chat in Spanish or French, I would forget to speak both within four months.
Finally, realizing that someone enjoys talking to you in your target language gives you an instant shot of motivation.
At this point, you see that this language finally serves its purpose. It connects you with people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. This realization pushes you to work on your language skills (and especially speaking skills!) even harder to deepen this connection and make the conversations more enjoyable. It makes an interesting shift in your attitude towards the language in question. You start prioritizing language learning over many other things, even in situations like the one described above.
To sum up, having a language exchange partner creates a positive feedback loop that renders your language learning practice more efficient. No excuse not to do it.
What type of relationship to look for?
Finding a language learning partner is a necessity.
It’s true. This realization, however, pushed some people to take a very technical approach to this problem: in their eyes, a native speaker becomes a means to an end (the end here being, clearly, fluency). And sadly (although hardly surprising), it is not so uncommon to come across exciting online exposés explaining how to find and use language learning partners.
Use. That’s the word.
I find this idea very perverted. It would certainly work well for people who readily engage in purely instrumental networking, but it never worked for me. The reason is simple: a language should be a means to an end, not a person.
If you fail to develop a genuine interest in your “language learning partner”, it will not lead anywhere. If you fail to get addicted to conversations with this person, you won’t seek them. Finally, if there is no admiration, no respect, no passion for this person on your side, you won’t learn much from them.
That’s why it’s such an arduous task to find a language learning partner and subsequently develop a strong relationship with them. Because the relationship you seek to develop is not so different from friendship, mentorship or love. It’s based on the same values. The only problem is that it is almost impossible to establish a deep emotional and intellectual connection with someone whose language you don’t speak very well.
But it can be done.
Dynamics: you and your language learning partner
Let’s note, that at first your contribution to the conversation will be minimal, due to the lack of language proficiency. Some people are fine with that and some are not.
You want to find someone who can lead the conversation and derive your reaction from your blinking, nodding and humming – before you’re ready to express these thoughts with words.
And once this finally happens, this person should have enough patience to listen to you without interrupting as you’re slowly building your sentences and correcting every second word of yours. Moreover, in no circumstances should they switch back to English, even if you failed to find a word and used an English one. Finally, you want your language learning partner to correct you, but not too much, so that they don’t discourage you.
It’s a difficult role to play.
And because of that, this person must have their own motivation to continue with such, often one-sided, communication. What is the nature of this motivation? Well, you never know. They may be interested in you as a student, as an apprentice, as a partner or simply as someone deeply interested in them out of weirdest reasons. But it should be enough for them to accept you being around them all the time.
Speaking of time, you want to see your language learning partner often enough – preferably on a regular basis – to have a chance to develop this relationship.
Now, where in the world can this exist?
Let’s find out.
Where should you look for a language learning partner?
You might have figured out that you can’t just go and find such a person.
And you’re right. Given my rigid criteria, finding the ideal language partner a low-probability event. All you can do here is to expose yourself to as many opportunities to meet someone like that as possible.
You have multiple options.
Tandem, Italki, and HelloTalk
There are multiple online platforms that are designed to help you find people with whom you could practice speaking in your target language. You have a couple of options here:
- find a language teacher
- find a tutor (that’s a bit different)
- find a language exchange partner
In the first two cases, you pay for your language practice, but make it more efficient and streamlined. Financial commitment also makes you more serious about your plans and often more organized. In the last case, your practice risks to be more sporadic and (very likely) short-lived. So there’s a trade off here.
I suggest you do an experiment: invest in a language tutor for a month and commit to daily, hour-long lessons/conversations. As with everything, you get results when you put enough effort into what you’re doing. Practicing speaking for 30h will get you very far, and you will notice it.
After a month, you will be able to assess your improvement and make an informed decision as to whether you should continue with paid speaking practice or perhaps switch to more low-cost options.
Meet-ups and language exchange groups
If you live in a (relatively) big city, you have an option to meet with fellow-polyglots in person. Language meet-ups and your local Polyglot club can be a great place to find native speakers of virtually any language. And they will be more than happy to chat with you in this language, since that’s the whole point of language exchange groups.
I did it for a while but ultimately drifted away from such activities. Why? Because some individuals find that language exchange groups are “the perfect place for guys to pick up girls”. So sometimes you get to speak in French or Spanish and sometimes you can’t get rid of a particularly tenacious monolingual folk. So, 50/50.
Foreign language film festivals can be an interesting place to connect with people speaking your TL. I once went to CinéFranco – for totally different reasons – and found myself surrounded by a crowd of francophones (what a surprise…). What’s better, organizers were actually looking to engage in a conversation, which can be really facilitating for people like me.
Unfortunately, film festivals come and go. It’s unlikely that you see the same person again. And even if you both liked your chat and exchanged each other’s contacts, it’s still improbable that you would actually make time to meet afterward. But once again, it’s worth trying.
Students interested in learning a foreign language and not using this option have no idea what they are missing.
Reaching the B2 proficiency level takes literally three months for languages like French and Spanish and up to six months for languages like Mandarin and Arabic. Taking a term abroad won’t cost you more than at your home university. Americans and Canadians should just go as “free-movers” and save themselves some money, because tuition elsewhere in the world is actually cheaper than in North America.
There you meet a bunch of new people, make new connections, broaden your knowledge, get some international experience… And you return as a fluent speaker of another language. There is absolutely no reason one should take language classes instead of going abroad. Full stop.
Certifications and courses abroad
If you are adventurous enough, go abroad, show up in a local paragliding school and get yourself certified – in your target language.
The word of warning: before you attempt anything like that, please assess your proficiency level properly (at least your comprehension skills). I actually recommend you take a language proficiency test at the B2 level, prior to such undertakings. In any case, you need to make sure that you understand every single word of your instructor. Otherwise, it is a perverted form of suicide.
I tested this idea in Spain (with scuba diving courses) and it worked wonders. However, I don’t have to tell you that extreme sports are not the only option you have. If you want to take classes of bachata in Dominicana, please go ahead. You want to learn ukulele – you’re free to do so.
There are four obvious advantages to taking classes or courses abroad, in another language:
a) it creates immediate master-apprentice dynamics;
b) you’re forced to use the language to learn another skill;
c) your instructor becomes your language learner partner by default, since he/she has to use this language in communication with you;
d) you two have regular meetings.
Often, you manage to connect with your instructor on a more personal level and keep in touch even after the course is over.
As you see, there are many ways to increase the number of native French/Spanish/German/… speakers around you. None of these methods guarantees that you meet the perfect language learning partner. But not looking for one is the surest way to never find one. And it’s more than worth it.
Image credits: Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash