The perfect partner

How to find a language partner and make it work for you.

An important person

My first big step in learning Mandarin was to find a language partner. Only then did it become, for me, a serious commitment. I don’t think I would have continued Chinese if I hadn’t found someone to help me learn. They have become by language friend. In this difficult journey they have nourished and sustained me.

So, what is a language partner or language buddy? It is someone who helps you learn and improve your use of the language that you are studying – normally, it is someone who is native to that language, but not always. In my case, my language partners are native Chinese. I help them with their English in exchange. I started at zero in Mandarin, they already had intermediate English.

Such partnerships usually don’t involve professionals or the exchange of money. This is what makes them so positive and interesting, but this can also be their greatest problem. Simply having a language partner does not indicate how you go about organising the exchange itself – what you do specifically in the shared time that you both commit to. Nor does it set the kind of relationship you have or develop with the other person. In the beginning, expectations can vary enormously – and, usually, they are left unsaid.

Very human reasons

People are fascinating. Cultures are different worlds. These are my two main reasons for having a language partner. First, through my interest in the person – as a specific and unique individual – I enter their language and start to learn it. Second, these individuals are also doorways into other worlds, other cultures, which fascinates me.

Let me say more about the first reason. It arises from my natural curiosity in other human beings. This not only motivates me in learning a language but raises something crucial to the learning process.

It may be obvious, but I am going to say it anyway: language is human communication. Humans embody the language and, therefore, the culture that it expresses. Developing communication with them in the new language (in my case, Chinese) makes it as real as it can get, including all the imperfections involved in communication generally, which is only too human.

Learning the four tones used in Mandarin provides a very clear example of how humans can make all the difference. These tones are central to Mandarin, as is its unique form of writing. Distinguishing and making the tones work in Mandarin is essential to understanding others and making yourself understood. I would argue that, without human feedback about your use of the tones in the spoken language, you can’t really get them right. If you don’t already speak a tonal language then you have no real reference point or benchmark by which to judge yourself. Only another human can really give you that feedback – become a ‘living mirror’ for you. Apps can’t do this. (I will devote my next blog post to the topic of the four tones since it is so important.)

My current language partners constantly correct my tones and also keep telling me that they are very important. I didn’t realise how important until I started learning with them. Even though I had read about the importance of tones for Mandarin it never really sunk in how important they were – I had no reference for this kind of situation from previous experiences of learning other languages. Sometimes they say that they can understand me but that my tones are not right. I think that they are also very strict with me and that in real, spoken Chinese it is more flexible with the tones, but I can’t be really sure until I get better at the language. So at the moment I follow their advice on the whole, and they are right to be strict with me.

Find the right person

It’s easy to find people who want to learn English; there are plenty of people in China who want to practice their conversation in English. Communicating via Zoom, Skype or messaging apps (such as WhatsApp or WeChat) is cheap and reliable. You can find potential partners through social media, apps or language-exchange websites set up for this very purpose.

Some people prefer to use social-media sites to find language partners, while others go to specific language-exchange sites to find their partners. There are people who are serious about language learning, while there are those who are far more interested in socialising. Some, like me, are drawn to both.

Whichever route you choose, it not easy to find the right person. I have studied several languages over the course of several decades and encountered many different people through language exchanges – for Italian, for Spanish and now Chinese.

Frankly, relationships are difficult to sustain. While there are many factors at work here, the most serious is the confidence of your partner in their own abilities to develop in the language. Lets start with some of the pitfalls to avoid that stem from this lack of confidence.

There is an enormous range of people wanting exchange partners in a particular language; they may genuinely want to learn a language or they may not. Screen out immediately those who don’t really want to learn. How do you identify them? Some of the most obvious are males trying to find female romantic partners. Some have no interest in the language. My personal opinion is that, if people are clear about their intentions, then there will be no problem about this – the issue here is respect. And if a problem arises, just disconnect from them – this is something that the internet makes easy.

As for finding those people who are serious about learning a language, this largely depends on expectations and experience. Expectations vary enormously, so it is not easy to negotiate in these informal situations. These are, after all, voluntary and non-professional commitments. Moreover, because the process is very informal, this can result in a lack of focus or direction in the exchange sessions, or they can run thin after a few sessions. While this brings problems it also generates opportunities to find your own way, and create your own structure. For me, it is all about creating a relationship, and that involves identifying expectations and working towards fulfilling those expectations. Then it is a matter to time to see what you both develop as your own unique method.

Success in sessions

I believe that I have learnt how to build a relationship that promotes language learning. It took some time. Many years’ experience in teaching and learning languages has taught me that, if there is respect, you can develop a connection that supports and facilitates the learning of language.

One of the things that almost all native speakers find difficult is explaining their own language: few know the rules of their own language; even fewer can explain why something is right or wrong. A friend once told me that he didn’t know that prepositions existed in English until he started learning Arabic.

I am fortunate that I have taught English for many years, so I know how to explain it to my partners, and can also suggest how they should go about learning it. I can also, to an extent, anticipate and avoid some problems because I have taught and lived in different countries, and also taught many different nationalities.

Some language learners may not seem serious, but this is usually due to lack of confidence, which may be related to the culture they come from. In front of a native English speaker I found that many Mexican learners of English became deeply embarrassed when speaking in English. They desperately wanted to speak and become fluent, but they had to fight these impediments. My experience with Chinese exchange partners has been more positive – despite feeling unsure about their spoken English, they simply push through and try to deal with the embarrassing moments. A sense of modesty and shame are very important in both these cultures, but they deal with them differently, and it leads to difference outcomes.

I feel strongly that native English speakers need to put people learning English at ease. As a teacher, I have always sought to develop students’ confidence in their abilities. This is more than simply being sensitive to grammar, vocabulary and level, it is about adopting a supportive, encouraging attitude towards those learning my native language.

On top of this, you need to determine how you are going to fill the sessions and manage them, both from session to session and over a longer time frame.

This could be planned well ahead or it could be spontaneous – and it will almost certainly evolve as the relationship develops. You certainly don’t need to be a professional language teacher, you just need to have a concept of what you are going to do in the sessions. Individual ideas may or may not work – the important thing is that you are you constantly finding new ways to learn. There are many ways to do language exchange sessions – and most of them should be interesting and fun as well.

Keep it simple, be constant

My Chinese language partners have consented to teaching me the basics of Mandarin. They are diligent and patient. I know very well that it is not easy for them – it can get boring teaching the same thing over and over again. They teach me in English, so their level had to be sufficient to do this – it wouldn’t have been possible with just a basic level of English. We have been doing this for nearly six months now. To keep it going we make a conscious effort to make our sessions fresh and interesting: like any relationship, it needs to be worked on and there will always be ups and downs. Constantly, I am searching to keep things interesting so that our relationships can continue, and both sides can keep learning.

The progress that I am making in Chinese feels slow and limited. Nevertheless, I am happy with it. The speed with which a native English speaker can learn Italian is different to the speed with which they can learn Mandarin – English and Italian just have so much more in common.

My language partners have been important for my progress and, crucially, for my persistence. I thank them very much. And, without setting out to, I feel that we have also gifted each other with friendship. That is one of greatest prizes for learning a new language – new people, a new culture and a new world.


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5 thoughts on “The perfect partner

  1. Amelialiii

    Very sincere article !!! You are very good at to express yourself. Learning a total new language really need a long time to adapt to it. I think that you have been experienced the initial stage for knowing basic chinese. And being one of your languague partners, I am also grateful to meet a partner like you, experienced, patient, persistent, optimistic, studious. Even building a new language wall is not that easy, let’s do it like what you say “keep it simple, be constant” . AND There is also an old saying in china, Perseverance is victory(坚持就是胜利), has the same spirit.

  2. Muhammad Ahmedullah

    I really enjoyed reading this article. A few years ago, I started to learn Bahasa Indonesia, which is a totally different language from Bengali and English. However, i soon discovered that many English and Bengali words that I am familiar with are also a part of the Indonesian language, most often mixed with their own unique affixes, suffixes and confixes. It took a while before I began to understand and construct simple sentences. And learning some basic and simple Indonesian has widened and multiple my experiences and benefits from recent trips to Indonesia as compared to earlier when I did not know the language at all.

    One of the reasons why Chinese learners English may feel less shy when making mistakes compared to Mexicans is probably due to the econpmic position of China and the general educational levels. I guess Chinese students or young people trying to learn in the 1970s and 80s might have felt more shy, similar or more than Mexicans.

    Thanks for sharing this experience and I am looking forward to your next piece. Good luck with learning Chinese and ni hau.

  3. Victoria, Lee

    Thank you for sharing this!Those tips are good guidance to find a right partner! I enjoy reading your article!They are logic and interesting. Also, the way you learnt has inspired me a lot!It is important to enjoy the process of learning, instead of just focusing on the result! I am looking forward to reading more article from you!

  4. Fazlul Islam

    What a great article! I am going through the process of finding suitable language exchange partners and I can relate to many of the things that you mention. Thanks for sharing your experiences.


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