Today I want to talk about a tremendously pleasant activity with a huge potential for language acquisition: language exchanges.
As you probably know, languages exchanges allow us to talk with people from different countries so both sides benefit from the experience and acquire each other’s languages.
Whether we’re talking about live or online exchanges, the process usually works as follows: both participants take turns and they decide to use each language for a while so they both benefit from it. If I want to learn German and I’m talking to a German person, we’ll speak German for half an hour and Spanish for another half an hour, for instance.
I believe it’s an excellent idea, but I’d like to add an extra possibility that I’m sure you can’t find in language exchanges very often, and that makes the activity’s potential even greater.
What I’m suggesting is that instead of taking turns in both languages as I talked about before, both participants use their native languages throughout the whole language exchange.
I’m pretty sure that your traditional, grammar prone mind is telling you right now that it doesn’t make any sense and that none of them is really improving since there’s no practice or output.
However, we already know that the absolute key to the whole process is getting comprehensible input. We also know that we improve when we get comprehensible input, and that our output is nothing but a consequence of it.
Thus, with this little change that I’m talking about, both participants will be getting comprehensible input throughout the whole conversation. Obviously, both participants need to be able to understand each other’s languages to some extent, but that was already the case when taking turns. As in any other type of conversation, it is essential that both participants modify their speech a little bit if necessary for the message to be comprehensible for the other person.
You can easily determine whether the message is comprehensible or not for the other person depending on whether his/her response is appropriate and follows the direction the conversation is heading to or not. It’s as simple as that.
This little change also has other additional benefits. First of all, none of the participants will be forced to speak in their target languages, which they might not be ready for and represents one of the main causes for stress and frustration in a language student.
Moreover, when you know you’re going to use your mother tongue, you’re not worried about thinking what you’re going to say next because you know it’s going to come out spontaneously and naturally so, “surprisingly enough”, you’re going to be more focused on what the other person is saying and you’re going to be able to understand a larger share of the language. Does this idea of having to think about everything you want to say in a foreign language when the other person is speaking ring a bell?
Once again, we already know that comprehensible input is the key to the whole process, so we can stay calm because this activity is helping us out tremendously. And we’ll see that we can understand more and more of the language as time goes by.
With that being said, I believe that the “taking turns” approach is also a fantastic idea and have nothing against it. I just wanted to present an extra possibility that can be very useful and pleasant whenever we decide to make use of it.
I personally do language exchanges very often and I use both approaches. I’ve realized that at times you’re truly looking forward to speaking in your target language because you want to see what your progress is and because your ultimate goal is to be able to communicate in that language, so like I said I believe that taking turns is also an excellent idea.
In any case, what I do find essential is for both participants NOT to correct each other’s mistakes. I’ve already talked several times about the fact that not only does conscious error correction not achieve the goal it was meant to (to help us consciously understand where the mistake was and what its correct form is, so we can get it right the next time around), but it also has several negative side effects such as being afraid of speaking and many others.
Let’s get now to the benefits of language exchanges:
1. It’s a very similar (if not identical) activity to a real life conversation
Depending on the participants’ level, they may have to modify their speech a little bit for the message to be comprehensible but, in any case, we’re talking about an activity in which both participants will get to know each other, will talk about their countries and cultures, about their common interests…, and that’s why this activity is so similar to a real life conversation and thus a very interesting and effective resource for language acquisition.
This is a great advantage because the activity meets both requirements for language acquisition to come about: it is comprehensible and interesting.
2. It’s a very pleasant and interesting activity and, thus, effective
Like I said, this is a very pleasant activity, and that can certainly make the difference for the language acquisition process to be successful. When you’re having fun and enjoying the activity, you’ll even get to a point in which you’ll forget you’re trying to learn another language because you’re focused on the message and communication, and that’s tremendously powerful for our knowledge to keep improving. We already know, by the way, that the language acquisition process is actually subconscious.
The participants are talking about topics they’re interested in, they’re getting to know new information about other cultures and countries first hand, they’re learning new things they would’ve never even thought about in the first place…, and the list goes on and on.
3. The stress factor is very limited in language exchanges
When we carry out interesting and pleasant activities, the stress is usually way lower than in other situations like traditional grammar classes in which we’re forced to produce output when we’re not ready for it, for instance.
The absence of stress is very important for language acquisition to come about, and I believe a language exchange is a very appropriate activity in that sense for the multiple reasons I mentioned before.
And we can always use that little change I talked about if we feel that we’re not ready to start speaking yet, so stress becomes a non-factor. This is the main reason why I wanted to present that little change in this article but, as I said, it’s perfectly ok to take turns and it’s really up to the participants to decide which approach they want to take.
4. Other benefits not connected to language acquisition
Besides our main goal, which is language acquisition, this activity has an enormous potential when it comes to getting to know people from different countries, finding out new things about other countries and their cultures, opening up our minds, becoming better human beings…
The goal of this Natural Languages project is to help people truly acquire their target languages while enjoying the process so they can use them in real life, but I believe it’s important to also talk about this idea of getting to know people from different countries and cultures, because both goals are closely connected. At the end of the day, one of the main goals of language acquisition is being able to travel to other countries and communicate with people from the other side of the world.
To wrap things up, I also want to say that this is a resource that I personally use very often, and that’s why I highly recommend you give it a try because of its efficiency and tremendously pleasant nature.
Like I’ve said, regardless of what our approach is, we’ll get to improve our knowledge extensively while we enjoy each and every moment.
I believe there’s only two things we should always keep in mind when getting involved in a language exchange. The first is to NEVER correct each other’s mistakes, and the second is to modify our speech if necessary for the message to be comprehensible for the other person. If we take these two things into account, the activity is going to be satisfactory regardless of the approach.
I use these websites for online language exchanges, but you can also use some of them for live exchanges. In Italki’s case, it also allows language teachers and students to get in contact. I’m pretty sure you can also find bars and other groups or websites that organize live exchanges in your area.
As always, thanks so much for reading this article and I truly hope it helped you discover a very interesting activity you can use to keep improving or, for those who already knew about it, to think about a new approach that could make this activity even more appropriate and effective. I’ll be happy to answer your comments down below.