Although many language classes focus on writing, reading comprehension, and memorization of grammar structures, one of the most important things a person can do to better their understanding of a language and reach native fluency is to improve their speaking and conversational skills. When surrounded by students who are at the same speaking level as yourself, it can be difficult to engage in conversations that challenge you and broaden your knowledge of your chosen language of study. And while professors and GSIs are helpful, they only have so much time for casual conversation. As a freshman at U of M and a student of Chinese, I was interested in improving my spoken Mandarin and becoming more comfortable carrying on conversations in the language. To do so, I signed up for the Language Exchange Club, a group that paired U of M language students with individuals who were looking to learn English. I was unsure what to expect at first – I was paired with a complete stranger, and part of me expected the partnership to fizzle out after a few meetings. Our first encounter was definitely awkward; after introducing ourselves (she was named Winnie and was in Ann Arbor for the year from Taipei, Taiwan, accompanying her husband, who was a MBA student at Ross, and I was a freshman learning Chinese) we were unsure what to talk about.
Eventually the meetings became less awkward though, and as meeting up with Winnie became part of my weekly routine, I realized how much I was learning from her. At first, I had been shy about talking in front of her, but this shyness subsided as the weeks went by. Every week we met at a coffee shop downtown and discussed a topic of our choosing, which had been designated the previous week. One hour in English and one hour in Chinese, alternating, and at the end we would choose our next topic and then walk to the bus stop together, chatting the whole way. Becoming friends with Winnie was extremely helpful for my language learning – speaking Chinese for an hour straight was not something I did in my language classes, and it felt great to use Chinese to talk about my personal life instead of the more academic topics we tackled in class.
But knowing Winnie had so many other benefits, too – I learned a lot about Taiwanese culture and what life in Taiwan is like, which is not something we talk about in class as most of our lessons focus on Mainland Chinese culture. I realized that friendships can easily be forged across various borders – I absolutely consider Winnie my friend, even though she is nearly ten years my senior, speaks a different language, and now lives halfway around the world. I was so excited to share the things I love about Michigan with someone who had not experienced them yet, and she was just as excited to tell me about Taiwan, which I had never visited. She invited me over for dinner and I was able to use the Chinese I knew (especially that which I had picked up from her) to talk to her husband about his hobbies, his school life, and even to discuss the news. Rather than the academic and stilted speech that can come as the result of too much time studying books and not enough real-world practice, I found that I was able to converse casually and comfortably.
Having a language partner allowed me to take my learning outside of the classroom and into my own hands, and it made me more confident when speaking Chinese. The most rewarding part, however, was seeing the same effect for Winnie – while it was sometimes hard to gauge how much progress I was making, I could clearly see the difference in her English abilities as she became more confident, more outgoing, and more talkative with each of our meetings. Knowing I had a part in her journey to English mastery, and that she has helped me with Chinese in a that way my teachers (through no fault of their own) could not do is something I am extremely grateful for.
— Maggie M.
Maggie is a current UofM undergrad in the Residential College studying English. To find out more about the Language Exchange Club at Michigan, click here, or find information about the LRC’s own conversation partner program here!