Conversation Partners: 5 Steps to Make the Most

There is no question that technology can be used to facilitate and accelerate language learning. One of the key areas in which technology can help learners is in connecting them with speakers of the language they wish to speak. A number of exchange platforms exist to make it easy to find conversation partners, from iTalki, which is based around using Skype, to HelloTalk, which works through a mobile phone. But once you connect with a native speaker, what do you do?

Many people get very excited about exchange platforms - and rightly so - but their excitement soon fades when they start actually scheduling sessions with conversation partners. If you realize that you don't know how to teach your own language, nor know what questions to ask of your partner, it's easy to waste a considerable amount of time. Let's look at some strategies for getting the most out of native speaking conversation partners through exchange platforms.

STEP 1: Set Your Objective

I've written about this elsewhere and it's a recurring theme in our courses. How you learn a language and what you do will depend largely on your actual objective. What do you want to be able to do in the language? Do you just want to be able to use ritual language, exchanging greetings and goodbyes? Do you need specific practical expressions for an upcoming trip? Do you need to use the language professionally for work? Do you want to be able to read novels in the language?

Once you really define what it is you want to accomplish, you'll be better able to find someone to help you. Setting out your objectives will then allow you to create a whole list of questions to ask, even if they are as simple as “How do you say_____?”

STEP 2: Determine Your Partner Profile

What is your level and how do you like to work? If you are just getting started and feel uncomfortable in the new language, you may want to find someone who has pretty good English, so you can really ask questions. If you have enough of the new language to get by, you may want to find someone whose English is at a lower level than your new language. In other words, finding someone who barely speaks English will force you to use your new language more. They will also be more concerned with getting to a mutual understanding and less concerned with correcting every utterance you make, which can be frustrating. Whether intentional or not, a lot of people can be condescending, assuming you know little even when you know a great deal. Getting corrections is good, but sometimes you want to be able to work your way through a conversation without the partner resorting to English.

The other key consideration in choosing a partner is methodology. Different people like to work in different ways. I have found that a good chunk of the most eager exchange partners are desperate to show off their English skills, won't slow down their native language, and won't allow you to run the session. Many of them have a set idea about how one must learn a language. For me, even when I have a low ability in a language, I have a framework for learning and a context for grammatical structures. I come into a session with several targeted questions. My partner might not understand why I am asking the questions I am, but they are all carefully chosen. Several times, partners have tried to “instruct” me in a language by just teaching me greetings and the like, when really what I want is to question them about sentence structures and language patterns. I've since learned in seeking conversation partners to be upfront about this: I'm looking for someone whom I can ask lots of questions. In exchange, I'm happy to either answer whatever questions they have, or pull out lessons based on the mistakes they're making in English. That's something I feel comfortable doing, given my background.

In summary, pick your partners carefully. Consider their level of ability in contrast to your own, and consider how willing they are to work with you and your particular learning style. It's easy to connect with native speakers through these platforms. When I switched on HelloTalk, I had a couple dozen requests within a day!

STEP 3: Know What Questions to Ask

You can always prepare phrases and expressions you'd like to be able to say in your new language and use them as the basis of your exchange sessions. This can be a good place to start, but it often isn't enough if you really want to understand how the language works. The best thing to do is learn how to ask indirect questions. Let me explain.

If I ask a normal native speaker, “Can you explain the case system in your language?” I'm usually met with confusion and don't get a good answer. If, however, I ask this indirectly, I can get a much better understanding of how the language works. For example, “How do you say, the cup is on the table vs. I put the cup on the table?” By asking a simple translation question like this, you will learn both new phrases as well as structural patterns. Depending on the language, the morphological shape of cup and table might show differences between these two examples.

You can use this form of indirect questioning with any kind of grammatical pattern, particularly ones you struggle with. Let's say you want to master the subjunctive in German. You can ask a native speaker for several counterfactual statements, examples of indirect speech, and if…then… conditionals. Your partner does not even need to be aware that you are working on the subjunctive - for them, it might just be a simple translation exercise.

In short, figure out what you would like to learn, and use your partner to gather as many examples as possible. Patterns can only be learned by multiple examples.

STEP 4: Get Your Ratios Right

Most of us live busy lives, and time always comes at a premium. In our spare time, we often want to do something lightweight and fun, not something mentally draining or taxing. This can be a challenge for language learners, as learning does in fact take work as well as time. While there are many ways of getting the most out of your time learning, you do sometimes need to sit down and do some heavy lifting. This is particularly true if you intend to get the most out of conversation partners and language exchanges.

Some people use conversation partners as a means of maintaining, rather than expanding, an existing ability in a language. In this case, meeting for an hour once a week might be enough. If you are working on learning a language, however, just having a conversation session is not going to cut it. You will need to spend a significant amount of time first preparing for, then reviewing each exchange session.

What's the best ratio? I'd say you should ideally spend four hours of preparation and review to every concentrated hour of live conversation and instruction. So, if you meet once a week for an hour and split the time between you and your partner (i.e. you do a 50/50 exchange of languages) then you should aim to spend at least two hours during the week first preparing your questions and topics, then reviewing learnings after the session.

For each person the ratio may be slightly different. In my experience, however, most people expect to spend more time in conversation than in preparation and study, which is often a mistake. For optimal language learning, you want a higher ratio. If 4:1 is too much to ask at first, try starting with at least 2:1 - it's still better than no preparation or review at all!

STEP 5: Use Multiple Conversation Partners

It sounds funny to say it, but in using conversation partners, it's useful to think about each partner as a tool. Different jobs require different tools. Using multiple conversation partners can help you become more well-rounded.

One conversation partner may have very good English and a good grammatical knowledge of her own native language. To this partner you can ask more detailed questions about structural patterns and nuances of language.

Another partner may have poor English and poor education overall, but may be a vibrant talker. With this partner, you can work on fluidity, speed, and colloquial language.

Each speaker will have a slightly different way of saying things, in terms of accent, lexicon, and sentence structure. Becoming familiar and comfortable with a range of ways of speaking will make future interactions - when you meet new people - easier and easier.


Language exchange platforms can be a valuable tool for practice and learning if you know how to use them. Consider your objective carefully and take the time to find partners who will work with you, your objective, and your own learning style. Then make sure you do some preparation and review for each session to get the most out of them. As a final note, language exchanges and conversation partners aren't necessarily the best places to start learning a language; in my experience, they're much better when you already have some ritual language and an understanding of structure.

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