Ciyi Li 李慈一

Interview with a language exchange partner

Tell us about yourself

Hello. My name is Ciyi Li. I am in my mid – 20s. I was born in Nanjing, where I still live. My family also live this city. Nanjing is an incredibly beautiful city, and it has a 5000-year-old history. It used to be the capital of China under the Ming Dynasty (the ruling dynasty from 1368 to 1644). There are lots of old walls and canals around the city. I love my city because I had a sweet and warm childhood in it.

I have been working as a teacher of autistic children since I graduated from university three years ago. I like teaching, I feel that I am good at it. The job is demanding because it takes a lot of patience. There is a sense of achievement when the children learn something. They learn very differently from other children. I have to constantly repeat the same thing – a behaviour that they need to learn, or a content of a subject such as maths.

My main hobby at the moment is making clay figures. It’s called – 泥人, ní rén in Chinese. It’s an ancient tradition of making clay figures representing people. But nowadays the figures represent family members or friends, like taking a photo – but made of clay – and giving these figures as a gift to them. The process is very relaxing, especially when I touch the clay, it gives me the feeling of being in contact with nature. I can use different colours of clay to create different figures and effects. I would like to become a master of this art form.

My plans are to go to the United Kingdom to do a master’s degree in 2021. I had intended to go there in 2020 but with the Covid pandemic I postponed it. This will be an opportunity to improve my professional education as well my English. I am excited about going there!

Ciyi Li explains in English what makes for a great language exchange

Tell us something about your English

I have been learning English since 3rd grade at primary school, so since I was 10 years old, that’s almost 16 years. We used have to 6 hours a week of English at primary and high school. At university, where I studied Public Health Management at Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, I had roughly the same hours per week for 3 years. We had English speaking classes for two years there. Since then, there has never been much opportunity to speak to English native speakers.

I had big ambitions for my English, but they were destroyed by the examinations system. I have always studied English through learning grammar, reading and listening but the school system didn’t make the process stimulating or interesting, it is very scholastic. So, I lost a lot of interest.

My spoken English has become more fluent, mainly a result of speaking with my English language exchange partner, but I need to learn and find more vocabulary to improve my fluency. 

Why did you begin a language exchange?

I looked for a language exchange partner because I thought it would be fun. It’s an opportunity to commuicate with an English speaker, and especially share ideas. If two people share similar ideas, it is more interesting and fun in the learning process. This has inspired me to express more and to learn from my partner.

I found my current partner with an app called Tandem, a language exchange app. However, it’s difficult to find serious language exchange partners.  Even if you find a person, most people talk about superficial things . But if you want to learn higher level English you need talk about more serious things, which a lot of people find difficult. So, in reality, you have to build relationship, and maybe become friends even, to talk about different things, at various levels of complexity. Therefore, you can see why it is difficult to find a good language exchange partner.

What has been your experience of the language exchange?

My general experience has been interesting. We started it at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020. I have gained a friendship from the process, not just learning English. I never expected this. During the COVID 19 pandemic in China I quit my job and was also preparing for examinations to enter a course in England. I felt lonely and, at times, anxious. I was nervous. So, the language exchange become a way to socialise and also connect to the outside world. 

My language exchange partner he is very patient – listening to my ideas and continually correcting my errors. This is particularly important to improve. He also gives me lots of good learning advice. For example, that I should listen to BBC World Service podcasts. Also, he shares his experience of learning other languages. He told me to continue and keep at it and I will master the language. I used to think the process was hard and that you needed a lot of intelligence. But not now.

My language partner created a very safe environment for me to learn English – especially with my spoken English. At first, I kept judging my own spoken English, but then after a few sessions I began to be more comfortable because he supported and encouraged me. He pushed me to speak. He made me believe in myself – that I could improve and get better. He constantly gives me feedback. So for example, he tries to understand my idea even though the English isn’t clear or perfect – and he then would help me to express it better.

We also talk about bigger ideas like what’s going in society. Previously, we talked about why. generally, people feel more isolated in society – that it is not just about social media but also about the way society has changed. He also explained why he felt that people have more in common than they have differences. This inspired me because despite the differences between cultures and people we all share the same aspirations in life. We are all human and we all suffer – therefore we have  to support and encourage each other.

So you can see, we compare experiences between our lives in the UK and in China. Even though I cannot travel the world during this pandemic nevertheless my world can be expanded by talking and sharing ideas.

I never taught Chinese to a foreign person before, so it was something very new to me. It was like teaching a big kid, but he was more curious and happier to learn Chinese!

My language partner helped a lot because he was willing to put in the effort into learning and explore different ways to learn Chinese. He makes the same mistakes constantly, mainly because he didn’t have references and was getting accustomed to the Chinese system. We focussed on correcting these mistakes. He is good at imitating mouth movements for the pronunciation. He needs to review more what we have done. I am patient and repeat the same thing often and give him feedback. I also give him a lot of encouragement. He learns fast!

Ciyi Li tell us in Chinese what makes for a great language exchange experience

How would you improve the language exchange experience?

You must cherish your language exchange partner if they are good. I therefore take my time in the sessions seriously. I try to prepare and organise myself well for the session. I appreciate that I am getting exposure to natural English. We don’t need to find many language partners – our time is limited so we need to find the right person. My partner always says: learn more study less!

To really improve my English, I think I need to find time to read more books in English.

And for my language partner to improve he needs to constantly review what we have already done.

My final advice is: find a good person and keep doing your sessions with them.

There is a famous saying in Chinese


jiān chí jìu shì shèng lì

Perseverance is victory

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Thanks for reading my article

Please leave a comment below

2 thoughts on “Ciyi Li 李慈一

  1. Barbara

    Great article! It is very interesting to know the experience of both sides in a language exchange. Thank you Chi Li and Hussain.

  2. Muhammad Ahmedullah

    In recent years I took some interest in learning about the Ming Empire as this Chinese power is what the first Europeans encountered in South East Asia and the Far East when they first came to Asia by the sea. My main interest was understanding Chinese influence the Europeans encountered in present day Indonesia, Malaysia during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

    Fascinating by hearing from Ciyu Li about the Ming Empire and how old Nanjing.

    I am realising how rich a process of learning language through language partners and writing this kind of blogs can be. Learning a language well requires knowing about the cultures and history of the people who speak and practice in a variety of forms, their body language and facial expressions, etc.

    I have enjoyed the interview and the write-immensely. Good luck.


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