How to find and keep a conversation partner
Learning to speak is probably the hardest part of learning a foreign language; not only can the pressure of having to function in a conversation be stressful enough, but it can be hard to find someone to speak with in general, especially for less common languages. I mean, you could use Verbling or italki and pay a native for their time, but sometimes that’s just out of the budget. This is why conversation partners exist.
Instead of spending an arm and a leg to practice speaking your foreign language, you can get in your speaking practice for the price of free.99. Find a conversation partner! A conversation partner is basically your friend in language learning – they’ll speak your foreign language natively (or at least fluently), and they’ll be learning your language. You take turns practising each other’s language in a real-life setting, without worrying about your bank account.
So how does one go about finding a conversation partner? And once you find a conversation partner, how do you keep them? We’ll talk about some resources you can use to find language partners who suit your needs and how to be a great conversation partner, so you can (potentially) be set for life!
Finding an in-person conversation partner
The first step is, obviously, finding a conversation partner. There are a ton of free resources, and the ones that you use depend completely on your own individual situation; if you’re learning in your home country, abroad, whether you want to go out somewhere or stay home, your speaking level, etc. etc.
Throughout the following paragraphs, I highly suggest keeping an eye out for group language exchanges, too. It’s a bit of a different animal, but it can be a great place to meet people who are interesting in one-on-one language exchanges with you. Plus, it’s always fun to hang out with a bunch of people who share your interests, ’cause we all know how difficult it can be to find other language learners.
Learning the local language while abroad
For example, if you’re living abroad and are learning the local language, it’ll obviously be much easier to find language partners. At the very least, you could just walk into a bar and strike up conversation with a local – most people love sharing their language with foreigners; not only that, but native English speakers are fortunate that literally everybody in the world wants to learn our language. Simple!
If that’s not your style, you can find meetups organized by other language learners. This is usually specific to larger cities, though, so if you’re in a smaller town, you’re probably stuck waltzing into a public place and just putting yourself out there. With bigger cities come more opportunities!
Depending on your network while abroad, you can find language partners a few ways. If you’re living with a local host, you’ve got a conversation partner right there in your house with you; if you have the internet, a quick Google search can be your best friend. If you’re working abroad through some sort of placement agency, they probably also have a few resources for you.
Finally, there are websites that provide a platform for language learners just like you trying to find a local to practice with. For example, Conversation Exchange is a good site to find locals interesting in language exchanges all over the world. Plus, if you can’t find a conversation partner in your area, they have a search for pen pals (great for writing practice!) and online chats.
Conversation Exchange and My Language Exchange are both platforms where you can find language exchanges to be had in person (as well as online/through snail mail). Other platforms you can consider checking out include:
Lastly, Meetup may or may not have a group or two for you. In the end, if all else fails, check Facebook. They have Facebook groups for everything these days!
Online language exchange programs
If you don’t need to meet with a conversation partner in person, this whole search gets a whole lot easier. A lot of language learners can’t go abroad to learn their languages, and depend entirely on the internet to learn English. So, fortunately for you, there’s a huge population of foreigners online who are looking to practice with you!
Italki is probably one of the most popular resources for this, since it is the most popular resource for paid conversations. So if you’re already using italki, or have done so in the past, just click to another tab and you’re good to go. If you’re not sold, though, there are about half a billion platforms for this. No, seriously.
And, thanks to the fact that these resources are online, you can do more than just speak using most (if not all) of them. There are plenty of opportunities for texting, recording, listening, translating on the spot…the 21st century is an amazing time to live, especially considering most (again, if not all) of them also have apps!
So, rapid fire info dump of online platforms where you can find conversation partners to converse with online:
Now, whichever platform you use starts primarily with what you’re looking for: Skype, text, video chat, phone call…you’ve got your options, so start making some decisions. Just remember: you can’t practice your speaking over text!
What to look for in a conversation partner
The kind of person you decide to interact with can make a huge difference when it comes to the success of any language exchange. Chemistry is important, but even more important is that you’re able to flow between languages somewhat well (more on that later). That being said, you need to be very intentional with who you decide to spend your speaking time with.
A message to women
First things first: ladies, you need to be more aware than men, unfortunately. And I’m not at all referencing any threat of danger with meeting up with a male (especially since you should be meeting in a public place, like a restaurant or cafe). I’m talking more about men using language exchange platforms as a hookup site. It happens, a lot. Like, even without uploading a picture so men can see what you look like, all you need to do is be a female who speaks English, and your inbox will be full of random men who want to meet up with you.
To account for this, I personally do not attempt language exchanges with men. How you respond to this happening is completely up to you; hell, if you like the attention and want to meet up with these men, more power to you! I just want all you ladies to be aware that it’s going to happen, and how I respond to it. I’ve had many many successful language exchanges with women, so I’ve never felt like I was missing out!
Finding a good conversation partner
Now, with that aside, there are a couple things to keep in mind when deciding on a conversation partner. The most important thing is that you’re at about the same level of fluency in each of your foreign languages.
This is incredibly important for a couple reasons. First, if your partner is fluent in English but you’re only at the beginner stages of fluency, you’re likely going to feel real guilty about taking so much time to get your words out of your mouth. When you’re at similar levels, it’s much easier to feel comfortable taking your time.
Second, when you’re at similar levels of fluency, you’ll gain the most from your conversations. The topics you’ll be able to discuss, for example, are completely different depending on your level of fluency; it’ll be hard for you to learn a whole lot from a conversation where you’re an advanced speaker but your conversation partner can only talk about green frogs or how often they read or swim.
Then, at the end of the day, it’s just not fun to try to have a conversation with someone who isn’t at your level of fluency. If they’re not advanced enough it’s boring; if they’re too advanced, you just can’t keep up. It’s like a little kid trying to sit at the grown-up table at Thanksgiving: the kid has no idea what’s going on, and the grown-ups just want to have conversations like adults.
Which brings me to my second point: while it’s not completely necessary, I do suggest finding a conversation partner that’s around your age. Age is just a number, I know, but it can be more difficult to enjoy a conversation with someone that isn’t your age in general, so bringing in a language barrier is only going to make things worse.
Language exchange topics
Even for the most social of us, it can really be hard to think of something to talk about in another language, especially when speaking practice in the formal school setting is always prompted by a topic you have to discuss. Thinking of language exchange topics can be difficult and/or awkward; if you think you might have a hard time, you might want to go into the exchange with a few topics in mind.
Consider the similarities and differences between you and your conversation partner. You’d be amazed at what you two have in common, especially with globalization. For example, watching The Big Bang Theory is a super popular way for foreigners to learn English, so if you’re a fan of the show, this could inspire some great conversation exchange topics. It’s the same idea with Game of Thrones, Family Guy, The Simpsons, or any number of trendy, super popular American shows that you better believe are also popular abroad.
As for differences, remember that you come from different cultures! Some of the best language exchange conversation topics are about how different your lives are. You can talk about different holidays, ask them about their favorite English word, or, if your conversation partner has done a lot of different language exchanges in their past, you can ask them what they think are the weirdest parts of American culture. Or, at the very least, do a little research on their culture, find a few interesting tidbits, and ask them about them.
Or, if those language exchange conversation topics are too complex for you, go back to basics. Beginner language learners can talk about how many brothers or sisters they have, their favorite animal, their pets, the job they want or have, or any number of topics that involve basic, beginner vocabulary. It doesn’t have to be complicated, especially if you’ve just met.
Language exchange tips
Once you’ve found yourself a decent language exchange partner and can have decent enough conversations, there are ways to make and break both your conversations and the relationship you’re (hopefully) making itself. Most of the rules of language exchanges are the same as any kind of friendship: being courteous and understanding, listening to your partner, etc. etc.
My number one suggestion is to set the expectation from the get-go. I’ve had plenty of experiences with conversation partners: good, neutral, and awful. Be very very clear that you’re participating in this language exchange for the purpose of practicing your language, as well; don’t let your conversation partner decide that you’re going to spend an entire afternoon just speaking in English!
Make sure that you both get an even split of speaking practice. Yes, some days our brains just don’t work and a lot of speaking isn’t going to happen. Don’t feel bad about those days. You’re allowed to give your brain a break and let your conversation partner take the stage. However, don’t use that as an excuse to never practice the other language. Learning to speak in another language is really hard, but you gotta do it or else it’ll never be easy!
The way you go about this is between you and your partner: do you want to talk in English for half an hour, then switch to their language? Do you want to go back and forth as you please, and have more of a free-flowing, bilingual conversation? It’s completely up to you. Language exchanges are just purposeful hangouts, so there are no real “rules” to this. Whatever works for the both of you works!
Keeping your conversation partner
It can be hard to keep consistent hangouts with someone, even with other people who speak your language. Sometimes it’s just not in the cards for a certain relationship; follow the rule of “if they want to spend time with you, they’ll make the time”. A language exchange friendship is just like any other friendship.
That being said, keep open communication with your language partner. Feel free to ask them if they’re happy with the balance of English and the other language. Ask if they need you to speak slower, or if they want to meet in a quieter place. Honestly, just showing your conversation partner that you care that they feel comfortable (especially in cultures where it’s not as acceptable to speak up about these things) can make a huge difference. Keeping your conversation partner is just like keeping another friend.