Language Exchanges: The good, the bad and the ugly

I've been meaning to write my thoughts about language exchanges for a while as it is a concept which has really grown in popularity.

All around me people seem to be talking about language exchange, whether its in the form of Whatsapp, Skype, Hellotalk, or any other app or software designed for it. In other words, language exchanges seem to be all the rage at the moment.

But are they as good as they seem?

That's what this post will discuss. I'll try and compare the various options of language exchanges and talk about what I think are the weaknesses and benefits to using this form of method in your foreign language learning endeavours.

Let's start with a definition of language exchange: A language exchange is a partnership between 2 or more language learners where you help somebody with your native or high-level language in exchange for being helped with somebody else's.

So for me I'm Danish and learning Russian so I would try and find somebody from Russia who wanted to learn Danish. They do exist!

There are multiple benefits to a partnership like this.

Firstly it's free, so if you are on a tight budget or simply unable to locate any money for language learning, this is a good choice.

Secondly it gives you direct feedback from a real speaker and it also allows you to learn and improve a more spoken form of the language, that you would not get from textbooks.

Thirdly you might also make new friendships from all over the world.

Sounds good right?

While the general concept and idea of a language exchange is very good, it has significant drawbacks that might want to make you reconsider whether it's right for you.

One-on-one language exchanges

The give and take problem.

The first problem of language exchanges is that it's a strange partnership where each party wants exactly the opposite.

For instance if I'm starting a language exchange with a Russian person, my desire and aim would be to practice my Russian.

But the other person is in it to practice and learn Danish.

So immediately there is a conflict of interest. If not organised early on, this leads to disappointments and breakups as the exchange becomes unbalanced. In other words; Too much taking, not enough giving.

This is particularly challenging because it's a clash of cultures as well.

We Danes aren't exactly famous for being friendly to visitors, nor are we particularly hospitable but I've heard the opposite from many sources around the world.

So in a hypothetical scenario I might be more inclined to take and somebody from a more hospitable country might consider it a great honour or privilege to be able to accommodate this.

This can lead to awkward situations, that ultimately might break up the exchange.

The obvious counter-argument to this problem is to firmly plan what language is practised when and where.

But this only works for very organised language exchanges, e.g. Meeting up on Skype every week or similar arrangements.

If your exchange is simply a loose connection with messages spread out randomly, it's next to impossible to organise properly when what language should be used.

I'd still advise that you set up ground rules on the first meeting, so both parties know what to expect.

This can help avoid some awkwardness down the line.

I'd also advise to make the exchange as structured as possible, as random messages throughout the week is not particularly helpful.

Taking one hour every week splitting it evenly between your two languages is a great way to do it.

Best app for one-on-one language exchanges: HelloTalk

Ever since I heard about HelloTalk from Benny Lewis a few weeks ago I've been trying it out on my own.

It's a great piece of software that basically has everything you need to do proper one-on-one language exchanges.

Best of all it's free! You can upgrade your account to get some extra benefits, but for the vast majority of learners the basic profile is more than adequate.

It really lacks no features. You have the option to search for partners with the same languages as you. You can even search for the nearest people and thus find somebody around you to take for a coffee.

On the language side it offers tools for transliteration, translation, voice-recognition and pretty much all the bells and whistles you can expect for a language exchange platform.

It's easy to use and even allows you to get corrections directly in the messaging window. This is very powerful!

But don't take my word for it – check out this video on what the app can do for your language exchanges:

As far as free apps go, this is one of the most well-made. It also has over 1 million people using it with over 100 languages represented.

I even found matches for my language pairs in Denmark! This is most unusual, as there is usually very limited activity here.

Get HelloTalk via the Appstore on your iPhone or the Google Play Store for Android.

Alternative: InterPals.net

If you prefer language exchanges on the computer instead of on the phone, Interpals might be a viable alternative.

Interpals is an international pen-pal website, where people from all over the world can meet people.

It's not strictly built for language learning although I have found it quite easy to find people to practice with.

You do end up with the same problems as previously mentioned, but in addition you might also struggle to ask for help or continue to use your low level of their language, as people are not tutors.

Most people are happy to help, but like any other place, don't be mad if they don't. After all it's a pen-pal website, not a find-a-free-tutor website.

Group language exchanges

Another new popular initiative is to make language groups using something like Whatsapp to organise it.

On paper it doesn't seem like a bad idea. You just give your phone number and you are added to a group that speaks the language you are learning.

But there are some serious problems to discuss here.

Firstly the elephant in the room is you are parting with your real-world phone number.

Suddenly you're not an avatar, username or Facebook profile – this is your real number.

Of course most groups are harmless, but by providing the phone number directly, group members risk being contacted off-group by potentially malicious individuals and endanger themselves.

With learners getting younger and younger there's a real threat we might see malicious adults try and take advantage of them. It's a scary world out there.

Doom and gloom aside there's also the question of efficiency, I suppose there is some value to connecting with fellow learners and chat in a group but two weaknesses immediately come to mind.

1. The blind leading the blind. Whilst I do strongly believe learners can benefit from each other, by immersing in an environment without expert supervision you risk picking up some habits that are downright wrong.

You also can't verify anything directly in-group and will have to rely on Google searches, dictionaries and other resources to actually answer your questions correctly.

2. Crowded. There might be many learners in a group and so it might be difficult to get “speaking time” and further to this point the conversation might be sporadic over the week and it will likely be fuelled by few individuals.

I'd love to hear from people who've successfully used groups like this to boost their learning, if you have a Whatsapp story be sure to let me know in the comments below!

How much are your free language exchanges costing you?

I've seen a lot of people obsess about not paying anything for their language learning.

In my opinion this is a great starting point, but ultimately I'm much more of a fan of paying for quality and convenience.

There's only so many hours in the week I can actually do language exchanges or practice the language, so in my mind it doesn't make sense to skimp on this expense and risk spending time on the weaknesses mentioned above.

Your time is your most valuable asset.

Of course this doesn't mean you should always look for the most time-efficient way (as that can get boring) but what I'd like to offer you is a perspective on paid tutoring.

Let's say I go onto iTalki and find a tutor for my Russian studies.

This tutor might cost me $10 an hour. I think ideally I'd like at least one hour per week, so that's a $40 monthly expense.

For some countries this might be a substantial investment. For others, including Denmark where I live, it's quite affordable.

On top of this, the session are only for you, meaning you don't need to worry if you are taking too much time to yourself or how the other party is speaking your language.

In other words it's 100% focused and tailored learning.

During my year of learning Russian, getting an iTalki tutor to focus exactly on my needs was the biggest boost to my progress I have done all year.

But what if that just not possible?

How to get paid tutoring for free

I'll offer this as a suggestion: Become a tutor on iTalki in your own language and use the funds to purchase your own tutoring sessions with.

Now you might say, but why not just do a 50/50 free language exchange then?

There are a few reasons for this.

1. Better structure: By having the sessions be officially booked and confirmed with the iTalki dashboard, the sessions are firmly set in stone. So no, ahh I'm not feeling like it right now or other excuses. It's also very obvious who's the teacher and who's the learner at what stage.

2. Higher quality: Even though there would be a zero net gain or even a slight loss on each session, you'll still “pay” for the lesson and somebody will receive money for the session. This makes the learner more interested in getting value for money and the teacher more motivated to provide a better service.

3. Personal branding: By building up your reputation on a website like iTalki you are branding yourself in the tutoring industry. If you keep going and are doing well you could ultimately make it your job. There are many full-time tutors on iTalki who teach from all over the world.

4. Trusty middleman: Most learners are trustworthy, but who is to say they keep up their end of the bargain? By having iTalki as the middleman you can complain when booked sessions don't take place and be refunded accordingly.

There you have it. My take on a few of the language exchange options out there. Have you tried language exchanges?

(cover image still from: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, 1966. All rights to the image is courtesy of the copyright holders.)

Further Reading:

Find Language Partners – Language Exchange A really in-depth article on how to find your language exchange partners.

  • Great post – I might have to give Hellotalk a try! I can totally relate to your thoughts on the value of your time. I’ve got a (more than) full time job with a really variable schedule, so finding people who can even meet via skype when I’m free to talk is a huge challenge. I use italki – any thoughts on how to find a responsive, flexible tutor?

    • Chris Broholm

      Hi Adam, thanks for stopping by! For picking a tutor I’d do the following:

      1. Ask my network – could be Facebook group, language learning friends, whatever if they have any recommendations.

      2. Search iTalki and try to find people who have lots of positive reviews and many lessons under their belt. The more lessons people have the more reliable they are.

      3. Take advantage of the trial lessons, as a new iTalki member you have the option to buy 30 minute trial lessons for cheap, use these trial lessons to try out different tutors.

      4. Write a message that explains your current level as well as your goals for getting a tutor and send them to all prospective tutors, this immediately cuts off a lot of tutors who don’t reply. You can even be cheeky and ask how they would be of value to your current mission.

      5. Trial and error. Deserves a second mention, but it’s so important to just try different tutors and find someone you click with.

      Good luck out there!

  • Oh, another good article! Your blog is so helpful for language learners 🙂 Thank you!

    And if there’s anyone using HelloTalk, just write “M3L” and send it to HelloTalk Team. They’ll send you a free membership 😛

  • One thing I really like about language exchanges as opposed to tutoring for money is that they often lead to real friendships. Back when I was in college, I actually ended up moving in with my Japanese conversation partner and it was a wonderful experience.

    In the beginning we communicated by any means possible, but as we both improved we started alternating days. E.g. if he couldn’t manage to express something in English on our English day, he’d tell me the next day in Japanese and visa-versa.

    We also ended up meeting each others friends who weren’t so focused on language learning which was obviously great for both of us. It’s *possible* to form that kind of relationship with someone you’re exchanging money with, but it’s sure not as likely.

    • Hey!

      Definitely agree with you on there. I think you can definitely make new friends through this kind of language exchanges, perhaps I could add that in a future revision. My focus in the article was mostly in how to progress in learning the quickest, which is obviously not the only way to go.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Patrick

    Thanks for the post Kris.

    I’ve tried out a bunch of different language exchange program (both online and offline) to help me brush up on my French, Spanish, and German. My personal experience is that once I have a high enough level in a language to start talking, then a casual and conversational language exchange is really my first choice. I don’t feel self conscious about making mistakes like I would with a tutor, and I also feel like I can spend a little more time practicing because I am not paying for lessons.

    And like Toshuo said, there is also always the chance to make new friends and build some lifelong connections with the people that you talk to. All in all a great way to learn a language if you are motivated and on a budget!