My Japanese language skills are still very basic since I only recently got serious about learning.
I already knew hiragana and katakana, but my vocabulary is limited and I only know how to construct basic sentences. I knew I eventually wanted to find a language learning partner to practice with, but I assumed I would wait until I was a little more advanced in my skills so I could hold an actual conversation and feel more confident.
I gave HelloTalk a try, but I ended up in Tandem instead. (Read my comparison, HelloTalk or Tandem: What’s better for language learning partners?).
If you’re trying to decide if you should wait until you’re more advanced to find a language learning partner, here are the benefits and drawbacks I experienced with practice partners earlier in my learning journey.
Benefits of early practice partners
Finding partners early in a learning journey has many benefits, which I found outweigh the drawbacks.
Partners keep me engaged
Memorizing new words and understanding new grammar can be intense, but having language partners keeps me super motivated to learn and use Japanese in a different way.
In school, I’m asked to translate an English sentence into Japanese or vice versa, but when I want to express my own thoughts in Japanese, it’s a totally different experience. It’s made learning new vocabulary more fun and interesting.
Practicing what I learn with a partner keeps me super motivated to learn because using what I learn in conversations with my partners is super satisfying. More and more often, practice partners send me messages and I have to look up fewer words to understand what they mean. I’ve even had partners send me audio messages that I fully understood — if you’re learning a new language, you know how incredible that feels!
I learn what they don’t teach in school
When learning Japanese, I’ve found that college classes tend to focus more on formal style of writing and speaking. Yes, it’s important to be respectful, but for the most part, this isn’t what fluency sounds like in real life.
By speaking with my language learning partners, I’m learning phrases for everyday life and slang that I probably wouldn’t have/won’t learned in school. For example, shortly after I started on Tandem, I got sick and stopped responding to people for a few days. When I returned, I apologized for my absence and explained that I had been sick; I learned a lot of new phrases to use when asking about someone’s health, such as the phrases in the table below.
|早く体調が良くなりますように！||はやくたいちょうがよくなりますように！||I hope you feel better soon!|
|どうかお大事に。||どうかおだいじに。||Take care of yourself.|
|体調 はいかがですか？||たいちょうはいかがですか？||How are you feeling (lit. How is your body?)|
I also learned a fun slang word this week: グダグダ, which means exhausted or tired but can sometimes be used to mean lazy 😂
These are important phrases that I can use when checking in on my practice partners, and I may not have learned them without my new friends.
Partners help with nuances of the language
All of my practice partners are super excited that I’m learning Japanese and are more than willing to correct my messages and support me as I learn. I have asked for clarification on several occasions, and everyone I’ve asked has been super helpful with the nuances of vocabulary, especially when the dictionary defines them the same or similar.
For example, I asked about the differences between 話す（はな）and 喋る（しゃべ） or between 行く （い） and 来る（く） when my textbook wasn’t clear. It’s helpful to be able to ask someone these quick questions instead of asking the teacher every time, especially if it isn’t directly related to the material we’re currently covering.
Drawbacks of early practice partners
At first I thought starting early didn’t have any drawbacks, but I realized that it does have some, at least for me.
Conversation and what’s “proper” may be different
Especially if you’re in a college class, pay extra attention when you’re doing homework or taking a test. The Japanese I learn in Tandem with my practice partners is different from the Japanese I learn in school. Just like you wouldn’t recommend anyone take an English language test based on what they see in a Reddit thread, you’ll definitely want to make notes on what’s ok for your practice partners versus your teacher.
For example, in conversation, 私は is usually omitted, but in class, my teacher for level 1 Japanese wanted me to include this in the beginning of the sentence. Plus, if your target language has a politeness level like Japanese and Spanish, make sure you use the polite form with your teacher. I got used to using the casual form and was gently reminded to use ございます etc.
Communicating requires more effort
Since I’m still a beginner and my vocabulary is limited, I have to look up a lot of words in the dictionary before I can understand a message. Then I need to look up even more words before I can respond. But I’ve found that even after just a month, it’s getting easier because I’m starting to recognize the kanji that people tend to use in everyday conversation. But it still takes time and dedication.
Most people speak in shorter sentences, so it’s easier, but if someone sends me a long block of Japanese text, I often use the translate tool because looking up words is cumbersome, and if the sentence is more complicated, it’s harder to understand even with definitions.
Finding the right partner(s) might take time
This is more a drawback of finding a language partner in general, not finding a partner early, but some people use language partner apps as dating apps. I haven’t received any overt propositions, but I’ve received several messages from men who asked me for my phone number or if they could message me in a different app. That didn’t make sense to me since the whole point of Tandem is to message people.
I always propose that we continue in Tandem, and they stopped messaging immediately. According to this article about keeping yourself safe on Tandem, asking to switch to a different app is a common scammer tactic.
After I received messages from two men in quick succession, I decided to mention that I am married in my profile; that seems to have eliminated the unwanted messages.
Other than that, for the most part, my partners have been wonderful, caring people. They are interesting and fun to speak with, and finding them has definitely been worth the effort.
Chatting with partners doesn’t replace studying
While I’ve been having so much fun chatting with my partners and discovered a lot of benefits, it can’t replace studying. I still need to sit down with my textbooks and flashcards to study grammar and new vocabulary. The language learning partner’s role isn’t to teach the language; we’re there to help each other practice our respective languages.
That means time spent practicing with partners is in addition to regular studying. At first, I got wrapped up in chatting with people and had a hard time balancing studying and language practice. Over time, I’ve gotten into a much better rhythm.
Because I’m so motivated to communicate in Japanese with my learning partners, I can sometimes get impatient and just want to get to the finish line. This was pretty frustrating at first, but I’m managing this much better than I was before, and now I’m able to enjoy the process.
Meeting new people is hard enough in real life, let alone making new friends randomly through an app. It takes time and effort, but it’s been so worth it for me! Using a language learning partner app was a lot more low stakes than finding a Meetup, too. At this point, I have been too shy about my limited skills to attend a practice group session, so this is a perfect balance.
An added bonus is that I have someone to talk to late at night when I can’t sleep or if I randomly wake up super early in the morning 😴
I highly recommend trying out Tandem if you’re interested in finding a language partner and you’re serious about learning. My language partners have transformed my learning experience!