Sunday, January 29, 2012

Using & Abusing a Language Exchange Partner

You already know about using a Chinese teacher as an essential part of your self-study program, and you know my thoughts on choosing a teacher, but one topic that I still want to discuss is that of using a language exchange partner.

For me, having such a partner is not an alternative to having a teacher - it is in addition to having a teacher. They play different roles for me.

I know that there are many people who have cost constraints (or limited choices where they live), and paying for a private teacher isn't an option. Fortunately there are alternatives - and this is where language exchange comes in.


As a beginner student you could always just grab a coffee with a Chinese friend or colleague, and ask them the questions you have. This was easy for me when I started because I knew several Chinese people working in the same office as me, and I could walk up to their desk, ask a really dumb question and walk off. They were really pleased with my interest in their language, and were generous with their time. My questions - and the desire to practise speaking - grew, and over time I graduated from desk-questions to a quick coffee together.

Even though these people were very generous with their time when I started this way, I became self-conscious after a while about how much of their time I used, so I decided to "move on". Note that they never expressed a concern to me about this, it was just my own concern for their time.


I didn't want to dominate social time with my Chinese friends with too many questions, and language exchange seemed to make a lot of sense. I could connect with someone (face-to-face, email, Skype, etc.) and in return for their time to help me with my Chinese, I would offer the same time to them to help them with whatever they wanted.
  • My first language exchange partner was an email relationship only - she lives in Fuzhou. I would email her questions, or write some text (originally only in pinyin!) and she would answer my questions, or correct my written work. Then she would send me some of her own written compositions, and I would feedback on that. (In those early days I avoided the telephone - I was too shy as a real beginner.)
  • Over time we became good friends, and I even spent a weekend in Fuzhou hanging out with her, speaking a mix of English & Mandarin. I was one of three white people I saw that whole weekend, so you can imagine I was quite in demand when she took me to "English Corner" the one evening :-) - they loved speaking with a "real Westerner". She and I are still in touch today.
  • My first face-to-face Exchange partner was with a Taiwanese woman in London - I wanted to practise Mandarin, and she needed help with her Finance degree. We met when I responded to an online post of hers.
  • We too are still friends, and have met for coffee in London, Hong Kong & Taiwan.
I was much more comfortable with Language Exchange than I was with the interrogation of my Chinese friends. The give-and-take was balanced, and it's a great way to meet new interesting people!

Things to look our for!

Having had a number of language exchange partners over the years, these are some of the things I would recommend you keep an eye on ...
  • Try to keep the time split fair, so there no sense of guilt or resentment on either side. If you only have an hour, then state up front that it will be half-half, and stick with that. There is always next time. 
  • Their English is probably better than your Chinese - so try avoid your coffee meeting turning into an English social event. If it's too 'social' then you'll find yourself resorting to English, and you'll probably be the one to lose out. 
  • Introduce some variety to keep both your interests up - something to read, topics to discuss, questions about the material you studied since the last time.
  • From my perspective, although I continue to share with language exchange partners, time constraints means if I have a spare hour I would rather pay for that hour to be focused on my Mandarin learning, rather than losing half of that to speaking English. 
  • You can do it one-to-one as I've described above, but you also always have the option of meeting in large practice groups - details of these groups appear below too.
  • If you're not happy with your partner, find another. Remember that language learning is meant to be fun!
An exchange for language exchange?

Here are some of the sites I have previously bookmarked - either because I used them or because I once thought I might. Try them, and see which gives the best results. For obvious reasons, they're biased a bit towards UK and HK.
  • Bilingual Chat: This is an online community of foreign-language learners, for meeting and exchanging.
  • Language Exchanges:  As it says on their site, "The Mixxer - a free educational website for language exchanges via Skype"
  • Livemocha: This is a full language learning website, but members of the community are usually quite open to exchanging one-to-one on Skype too
  • Language Chain: This London-only group actually pairs up language-learners, pre-vetting them, and changing partners regularly for you to keep the variety going. 
  • Gumtree: This site is more than just for buying & selling things. Choose your country & city, then take a look in the Community section under "Skills & Language swap"
  • Global Citizen: Although they teach a variety of language courses in HK, they sometimes arrange language exchange evenings over a few drinks. And if you really want to try a new way of meeting people, check out their 'unique virtual worlds' where you exist as an avatar in a cyber world, and meet people that way
  • Meetup: Search for 'Mandarin' and your city, and you could find a group near you. And if you can't find one, there's nothing stopping you setting up one of your own! (I've found great groups in both London & HK)
  • Chopsticks: A language & culture exchange group in London for the more advanced Mandarin speaker, including lectures every now and then
  • HK Language & Cultural Exchange Group: This group is for general language sharing - meet in a group, or meet others one-to-one

If you know of other places for meeting language exchange partners, or have some advice to others, please write something below. And if you have any horror stories to tell about bad experiences you've had, leave a comment below ...


  1. Thanks for this post Greg. I've just returned from China over the new year and realised how much difference even a small amount of practice can make.

    I tried to contact the language Chain as there are some similarities with their set-up to the way I would create a language-exchange service. Unfortunately their contact address returns bounced email.

  2. Well done Bill - I read your blogpost about your conversational success while there, good one.

    Odd that the email address is dead, because the site seems to be running. Perhaps they just no longer support it. I wonder how busy they got at their peak, and if not at all - was it a lack of promotion, or a lack of demand?

  3. Thanks Greg. This post is great and presents useful advice that I'll be following when I start with face-to-face two-way language exchange in the near future.

    Pretty confused about how much Mandarin one can actually speak in Singapore after my trip (language skills aside) so realise too as Bill said that frequent practice is important and I know that it too is what I need and I look forward to that. Thx again for the comprehensive post.

  4. Hi Peckish. I like that you said "near future" - rather than just "future" - sounds like you mean it! :-)

  5. Great article and presents wonderful advises about learning mandarin via Skype, I would like to share my previous experience which is related to this article, I was willing to learn proper Mandarin online and for my good luck when searching for that I found this website I took a few lessons by Skype with a native speaker, and I was fully satisfied with the quality presented