WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?:
The words on every mercenary’s lips. No longer just for career hitmen in bad movies, those picking up a new language can learn from this ideology as well. Diving into a completely foreign language requires resources, time, the right contacts and energy. Students will always benefit by utilizing the resources most beneficial to them, and in this field, finding a language partner can be a priceless resource.
If you’re new to this world: A language partner is someone who is learning your native language and is fluent in your target language [the one you’re trying to learn]. Together you perform conversation exchanges, which are essentially bartering individual assistance in one language for assistance in another. This takes advantage of both your skill sets. They can take the form of formal lessons, casual tea meetings, or somewhere in between. Culture discussions are also often incorporated into the experience. Potential language partners can be found through your university, sites online (conversationexchange.com seems to be one of the most reputable), flyers in your town, local clubs, and more.
Here are some fun tricks to find and maintain language partners with a strong foundation for growth, mutual benefit & friendship:
1) Do your research first. What type of structure does your potential partner want? For example, some partners may choose to practice language A exclusively for 30 minutes, and then switch to language B also exclusively for the next 30 minutes; others at a beginner level may prefer to have each person speak in their target language the entire meeting. How many times do you want to meet, and for how long each session?
- Do you want more formal lessons or conversation practice?
- What are your partner’s specific language goals—do you feel you can help with that, and vice versa?
- Does your partner live nearby, or are they willing to do an online session like over Skype?
- Does this person seem genuine, helpful, kind and serious about making progress together [as opposed to only focused on their own growth, or too much of a procrastinator]?
Some of this stuff can only be determined better after a first meeting, but these are just some questions to get you thinking about your own needs and if you have found a partner that is a good fit.
2) Informal sessions can be a great way to get to know your partner as a friend; enjoy hanging out at a restaurant or other local haunt. Some may fear that meeting in a less formal setting may disrupt the dynamics—for example, if you agree to practice 30 minutes Chinese and 30 minutes English, it can get tricky to precisely stick to the timetable when dealing with real-life interruptions [ordering from the menu, figuring out the tip, etc].
However, it’s important to practice foreign language in these settings, so that you’re prepared to face the challenges once you don’t have the crutch of a translator to help get you through. My personal development philosophy is that it’s better to be over-prepared and relieved upon an outcome, than under-prepared and in a state of shock. Case in point: do you buy more toilet paper than you think you’ll need, or less and hope you can make do?
3) Keep it fair. A way to figure out how to equally distribute the language-practice time during informal sessions such as at restaurants is to play a rapid fire game. Try Language Switch: Choose a very short amount of time, such as 10 minutes, and switch the language you’re speaking every time this amount passes.
The trick is that you have to maintain the same topic before and after a particular language switch. If you were in the middle of a sentence about the colonial war days in English and it’s time to switch to Swahili, you still have to continue the sentence in the new language. Good luck.
(Bonus points for confusing the waiters.)
4) Keep accountable to both yourself and your language partner. Canceling sessions occasionally is fine, though it starts to slip when you go three or more sessions without actually meeting. Make a promise, albeit an unofficial one, to yourself and your partner to devote this partnership to growth. Even if you are studying language for fun and don’t have a rushed timeline, it’s beneficial for progress to carve a regular time in your schedule and your mind, so that you can get the most out of your experiences together.
5) Take notes. Are you going to remember what your partner said to you over the loud noise of a crowded bar about the Croatian word for “crowbar”? I don’t think I’d even remember that in a quiet diner: I mean, who studies foreign words for crowbar? If you’re reading this blog, I suspect you might be the kind of person that just enjoys language learning for the sake of it, and eventually you might get around to some of the weirder words such as toolbox lingo. Who knows?
6) Play people-watching games! Pick a person in the distance, and have your friend pick someone that that person is talking or interacting with. Roleplay a humorous version of what you imagine their conversation might be, in your target languages simultaneously.
Hey, people-watching is not a spectator sport. These people move fast once they realize you’re watching them, which makes it perfect for speaking a foreign language and thinking on your feet.
7) Food-eating contest. Clarity will be a challenge when you speak a foreign language. Going off of the principle that it’s better to over-train, why not have an eating contest with your favorite foods while maintaining conversation practice? If you can talk about your new job or the details of a house rebuilding while scarfing massive piles of lasagna, you’ll be certain to impress at the business presentation where all you’re expected to choke down is water. If an eating contest is too much food for you, going out to a buffet, downing some extra-thick smoothies or cooking lunch together are also great options.
Overall, a language partnership can have many rocks in its progress, and these tricks and games certainly aren’t all-inclusive, or one-size-fits-all. I encourage you to explore what works for your potential language partners, and what your needs are as an individual seeking growth. Maybe it’ll be extreme sports or cleaning house that bond your foreign vocabularies together, rather than any of these things that I’ve listed here. Whatever you do & wherever you go, the spirit of mutual discovery and spontaneity is something that can be vastly beneficial in your global communications–even if you only perform trades because you’re up to no good.
— Alaska Lam