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Tips for a Successful Language Exchange

Tips for a Successful Language Exchange

This post is contributed by HelloTalk member Geoff (ID: Geofftalkstoyou666666). He is an avid language enthusiast who enjoys lifting weights and fueling workouts with all kinds of delicious foods. He lives in Shenzhen, China and loves seeing new places and meeting new people from all over the world.


Starting a language exchange can be one of the best ways to meet native speakers of the language you are studying, as well as being a great way to make friends in the city you live in! Here are some ideas to ensure that your language exchange is successful for everyone involved.

Finding people

In the modern world social media is probably the fastest and easiest way to get the word out about a language meetup, but don’t discount the value of face to face contact as well. Friends, family and coworkers can all be invaluable in finding those that want to take part.  A social media group open to anyone who has come to an event can help keep people interested and connected to everyone else in the group.

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Choosing a Location

The best locations are usually relatively quiet restaurants or coffee shops in a centrally located area. Most people can find some drink they like at a coffeeshop, and everyone needs to eat!

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Bars often make people that don’t drink uncomfortable, and can sometimes be loud. Most libraries have restrictions on the amount of noise you can make which can make exchanging languages difficult. A group members home is too private. Outdoor activities like hiking can make conversation secondary, limiting the amount of time everyone can learn.

Choosing a Time

Most people work during the day so in the evenings or on the weekends are the only feasible times to hold any language exchange event. Usually between 2 and 3 hours is ideal—under two hours and it is difficult to get to know many people, but more than 3 hours conversation can stagnate. If you are the organizer of the event, be punctual but let others know that they can arrive a bit later if they want to-often newcomers will be too shy to be the first one there.

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Topics of Conversation

At least at first, just letting everyone get to know each other naturally is the best thing to do. Having structured introductions, conversations or games can be a nice change of pace, but it’s best to save those activities for when conversations stall or everyone seems to be at a loss for words. This can happen when learning a second language.  A list of simple games and topics of conversation can be really useful if you don’t know what to talk about.

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Partners vs. Teachers

Remember that a conversation partner isn’t your teacher. It isn’t appropriate to ask them to provide study materials, textbooks, vocab lists or explain complicated grammar rules.

Embracing Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes when learning a new language—if you say something wrong and people laugh, they are never laughing at you, they are laughing at the situation. Always encourage others and let them know that learning a language is hard and will take time.

Split Time Equally

Many language learners might only want to speak their mother language at first. You don’t have to say everything in both languages, but try to encourage everyone to speak a bit of both their target and mother tongues. Ideally everyone will split time equally between their mother tongue and the language they are learning.

Expect the Unexpected

When my friend Sam first suggested that we start a language exchange activity, I was a bit hesitant. I had always studied Chinese on my own using flashcards, watching the news, looking up words in Google Translate or other equally nerdy studying methods. The few conversations I’d had were usually very brief and one on one. But my Chinese had plateaued, so I decided to give it a shot.

The first time we tried to hold a meeting, it didn’t go exactly as planned. Not for lack of effort, or advertising or preparation. We marked the date of the first meeting more than a week in advance. We had used HelloTalk to get more than 8 people interested in coming. We discussed possible topics of conversation. We chose a central, well known location in Shenzhen, the city we live in.

Then something happened completely out of our control—a typhoon.

Photo: SCMP Pictures
Photo: SCMP Pictures

The night of the language exchange, mother nature certainly conspired against us. Winds gusted up to 70km/hr accompanied by pouring rain. The entire hallway outside my apartment flooded. Several trees nearby got the leaves ripped entirely off of them. The city issued a typhoon warning and cautioned people only to venture outside if completely necessary. Understandably, most of the people who had signed up for the language exchange canceled. Sam and I were unsure of whether to cancel the entire event when a couple people said they were already at the venue and were wondering if we were coming. So we decided that even if it was a small group, we’d go for it!

Including my friend Sam and I, it was only 5 of us total that first, rainy night, but the next week it was 7, then 10, and it’s grown over the past few weeks up to 25 people taking part.  It hasn’t always been easy. Occasionally  newcomers get lost and we have to communicate over the phone and guide them where to go—not always easy in a second language! Sometimes conversations naturally stall and everyone is at a loss for words. Often no one knows how to translate a particular saying from Chinese to English or vice versa, and we are all left scratching our heads and checking our phone dictionaries for the best translations.

But being able to use the language naturally with native speakers face to face is incomparable to the methods I used to study Chinese before. Flashcards, test prep books, watching the news, listening to the radio, writing essays, practicing characters all have their place, and I still do all of them. All were highly effective for building my basic listening skills and vocabulary, but at some point it’s necessary to get out onto the battlefield and use the language the way it was intended to be used—with native speakers.