Having language learning partners has been super beneficial to my learning experience, but getting into a rhythm took a little trial and error. I was excited to make new friends, but I also want to maximize the benefit of having language practice partners.
I use Tandem (check out my review, HelloTalk or Tandem: What’s better for language learning partners?) to find native Japanese speakers who want to learn English. YMMV depending on your native language, what language you’re learning, and what your goals are.
These are the general ways that I have been getting the most out of my conversation practice with my language partners.
Nurture your language partner relationships
Rather than having to find new people each week and having the same introductory conversation with each one, I set out to establish a small group of people I talk to regularly. My goal has been to get to know each other as people and become actual friends rather than just “that person I chat with to practice my Japanese.” Using this approach has worked really well for me because developing a relationship with my language learning partners has:
- Made me more comfortable when they correct my Japanese.
- Eased my worries about correcting their English.
- Provided more opportunities for learning.
- Helped me overcome some shyness with speaking practice.
In my Tandem profile, I specifically say I’m looking for long-term partners to learn and grow with, and that’s helped attract people who are looking for the same thing.
Use the translate function sparingly
Most language learning apps want you to pay to use the translate function more than a few times per day. If you don’t want to pay, that’s a good motivator not to use the translate function, but I have another reason: I learn better when I have to put in more work.
Even if I have to look up words, it’s still exciting when I can piece together the meaning myself. When I’m speaking with my partners, I only use the translator to confirm that my translation is correct or if I can’t figure out what they’re saying. The latter sometimes happens if they use slang or shorthand, in which case, the translator sometimes can’t figure it out either, so I sometimes still have to ask them what they mean.
Invest time in your conversations
I noticed that if I’m in a hurry or replying real quick to a message, I’m more likely to reply in English or use the translate feature. That’s fine once in a while, but the point of a practice partner is to practice your target language.
So I set aside certain times of day that I’ll respond to messages so I can use these conversations as a supplement to study time. For example, every time I want to say something in English, I ask myself if the sentence is simple enough that I could say it in Japanese instead — even if I have to look up some words, do I know how to structure it and conjugate the words correctly? If the answer is yes, I will say it in Japanese instead. If what I want to say is too complex, I will say it in English, but it’s important to pause for a moment to get that practice in first. If I know how to say something in Japanese, I’ll say what I can and add English to finish the thought, then ask my partner the best way to express that.
Keep a running list of words or phrases
When talking about our everyday lives with people, we tend to use the same words and phrases. “How was your day” or “What are you doing this weekend” are common things to talk about with friends.
I’ve kept a Google Doc of common phrases, how to pronounce them, and what context they’re used in. Then I study the words and phrases to help with my vocabulary and phrase bank. I refer back to the document when I’m talking to someone and don’t exactly remember how to say something.
This is a great way to learn phrases that you might not learn from a textbook and learn vocabulary words in context. Check out Why I’m Glad I Didn’t Wait to Find Language Learning Partners to see how I keep track of the phrases I learn with my practice partners.
All of my partners have been super excited that I’m learning Japanese. They encourage me and offer to answer any questions I have about the Japanese culture or language.
At first, I was afraid to ask questions because I didn’t want to be a bother, but as an English practice partner, I’ve also been asked to help with phrases to use at the bank or emails to send to a child’s teacher — and I was truly happy to help. Most of my partners speak English fairly well, so I feel like I’m benefiting more from the arrangement than they are, so whenever they request anything of me, I am genuinely excited.
I don’t want to take advantage of them, so I always try to find an answer on my own first. I do ask occasional questions if I’m studying and the book isn’t clear with an explanation, though. Also, if I have a question about what to say in a certain situation, I will sometimes ask multiple partners what they would say; just like with English, people may say different things in the same circumstance, so it’s very interesting to me to learn different ways to say or ask something. For example, one partner may offer a more formal phrase while another partner may be more casual.
Be realistic with how many partners you can handle
No matter what your situation is, be realistic about how many partners you can maintain a relationship with. I want to make the most of having practice partners, and I want to be a good partner too. That means the exercise of finding and maintaining practice partners is an investment.
Especially when I was a new Tandem member, my profile was highlighted, so I would often receive messages from other members who’d seen me in the list. If I explored the new members myself, they can see that I’ve looked at their profile, and they might message me to say hi.
I sometimes end up with more than 10 people messaging me on any given day, including current and new partners. I am always grateful for potential new friends, but at the same time, it can get overwhelming. I want to give each partner quality time and attention that will benefit both of us and nurture the relationship; I’ve found I can only maintain this level with a few people.
Depending on your schedule, lifestyle, and partner style, you may want more or less partners. I’ve been super fortunate to find a few partners I really like, so I have to be honest when new people message me and let them know I can’t handle any additional partners.
Connect in different ways
I have been pretty shy speaking Japanese because my vocabulary is limited. I can only introduce myself and say a handful of other phrases. That’s one of the reasons I like texting so much — with text, I have plenty of time to translate their message. Audio messages are great for low-stakes listening comprehension; you can replay it as much as you want. I’ve also asked for clarification in text if I didn’t understand.
Depending on your level, voice or video calls would be great too! I only do these types of calls with partners I’ve known for a while. Since I’m a beginning, we end up speaking English most of the time, but eventually, I would like to do half of the time in English and half the time in Japanese.
Having language learning partners is awesome! I’ve learned so much just from the few short months I’ve had partners, and speaking with them keeps me motivated.
Every time I text with them, I think about how to say a sentence in Japanese first, and that has been really beneficial to solidify my knowledge. Plus, when I say something in Japanese, they will correct me if necessary, so it’s doubly beneficial.
Out of all the tools I have tried for learning Japanese, finding language learning partners in Tandem has been the most rewarding.
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