What's the best, most authentic way to learn any language?

If you're thinking of a book, a class, or an online course, I don't blame you. With all of the advertising and promotion of various language learning tips, tricks, and methods nowadays, it's natural to think that the best language learning resources are a commodity—something you can buy.

In reality, the best language learning resources and methods have less to do with what you own, and more to do with what you do—or, more specifically, who you converse with.

You see, the best, most authentic way to learn a language is in its natural habitat: in conversation with living, breathing native speakers. As a learner, the more conversation practice you get in your target language, the better you will eventually be.

The question, then, is how to get that conversation practice?

There are two methods that I believe provide the best and most accessible means for any language learner to get lots of quality conversation practice: language exchange and language tutoring (affiliate).

Each, however, have their own advantages and disadvantages that I believe you should consider before diving in.

Today, we will examine the pros and cons of language exchanges.

Pros of Language Exchanges:

1. Language Exchanges are Free

The language exchange is, at its heart, a very simple premise: you and another willing person agree to meet up from time to time to practice speaking in each other's language.

Since each participant is getting "paid" in the form of quality language practice, no money has to change hands. This also means that you, as an individual, can get as much exchange-based language practice as you and your language partner(s) would like, without putting any added stress on your finances.

2. Language Exchange Partners are Easy to Find (if You Speak English)

The only real condition that a viable language exchange partner has to meet is that they are learning your native language (or a language you know well) while you are learning their native language (or a language they know well).

While this may not be an easy condition if your native and target languages are obscure, the global prevalence of English (and other common lingua francas) can make this easier.

If you're a native speaker of English, or otherwise know it well, almost any native speaker of your target language could be open to a language exchange partnership with you.

3. Language Exchanges Foster Friendship

Due to the nature of a language exchange, both you and your partner will enter the interaction as equals. Since each of you has one language to practice and another language to help teach, you will both have times where you feel more and less capable over the course of a session.

Alternating between teacher- and student-like roles in this situation makes it feel like you're supporting each other as friends, or at least friendly acquaintances.

4. Language Exchanges are Low-Stress

Practicing your target language can be stressful. While speaking, you'll often worry about making mistakes, and whether or not you'll manage to understand everything your conversation partner is saying.

While any language exchange will feature some of this stress, you'll at least only have to bear it for half the session. When the time comes for you to speak your native language, conversing will become much easier, and you can relax.  

5. Language Exchanges Don't Require any Preparation:

The casual nature of the language exchange means that you'll never have to do any pre-work or homework to get ready for the session—unless you want to. In most cases, you and your exchange partner will just get together and chat about anything that comes to mind.

You only have to add more structure and/or outside work if you and your partner feel that it's beneficial to your overall learning.

Cons of Language Exchanges:

1. Language Exchanges Have Less Incentives to Last

I mentioned earlier how language exchanges are free. While that is a huge benefit, it can also lead to one major drawback: low investment.

Put simply, since the only value that you and your language exchange partner are getting out of the interaction is language practice—and not something more motivating, like money—it's unlikely that the exchange will be a high priority for both of you over the long term.

As your and your partner's schedules and enthusiasm changes, you might find that the frequency of your sessions becomes less and less, often down to nothing.

2. Language Exchange Partners are Rarely Qualified to Teach

Your language exchange partner, by definition, will always be able to speak your target language, often at a native level. However, just being a native speaker does not make someone a qualified teacher of that language.

Most native speakers have little or no experience in teaching grammar, so if you ask them for grammar explanations, be prepared to be given an answer that's either incomplete or wholly inaccurate.

3. Language Exchange Partners May not be Used to Speaking with Non-Natives

Depending on where your language partner comes from, he or she may not have experience speaking with non-natives of his or her mother tongue. This means that they won't be used to adjusting their speech in a way that's clear and understandable for you, the learner.

While this can certainly be overcome (you can always ask your partner to speak more slowly, if necessary), it may take some effort from your partner before it becomes natural.

4. Language Exchange Conversation May "Drift" Towards Your Best Shared Language

Though you and your language partner will both have one "strong" language and one "weak" language, one of those two languages will also tend to be the language you use most often for general communication, outside of meetings.

When you forget a word, need an explanation, or simply want to say something you don't know how to say, there's a natural instinct to use your best shared language as a "crutch" to keep the conversation flowing. This can lead to one language becoming the "dominant" language of communication, eliminating the purpose of the language exchange entirely.

5. Language Exchanges are Harder to Schedule

Language exchanges are, in a sense, leisure activities. Since your partner is usually a friend or acquaintance, your exchange session will take lower priority than family engagements.

Since neither one of you are getting paid, the sessions will also take lower priority than any work obligations. This leaves both of you with a very small window of usable time in which to regularly plan your exchange meetups.

Is a Language Exchange Right for You?

If you need to get first-hand language practice quickly, easily, and cheaply, there's few better ways to do it than organizing a language exchange. All you really need to do is find someone who speaks your target language, is also learning your native language, and is willing to regularly meet with you.

That's it!

However, these perks also have their drawbacks. The ultra-casual nature of language exchanges means that you might have a hard time getting the quantity or quality of language practice that you really need in order to improve.

Advantages and disadvantages aside, I believe every language learner should attempt a language exchange at least once. So why don't you head over to italki.com or mylanguageexchange.com and look for your first language exchange partner today?

If you're looking for something a bit more hardcore, however, stay tuned for my next article exploring the pros and cons of paid language tutoring sessions!

Written by Kevin Morehouse

Kevin Morehouse is a language coach and teacher who is on a journey to make the world a more multilingual place. A member of the LucaLampariello.com team since its inception, Kevin's principal role is that of writer, editor, and content developer. He is currently learning Korean, his primary language focus since mid-2017.

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  • Really sound advice. What I need to do I think is to write down some subjects to talk about, before making contact otherwise I tend to ” drift ” a bit and feel lost. I’ve just started learning portuguese ( portugal, not brazillian portuguese) but obviously I don’t yet know enough to begin ..any ideas how to do this ? thanks in advance for any advice

    • Hi Brian!

      If you’re still very new at Portuguese, it may be a good idea to wait a bit until you do a language exchange for the first time. Not too long, though. You just want to have enough words and sentences in your personal repertoire that you know you can at least carry a basic conversation using simple questions and statements.

      Alternatively, you can use the language exchange not for actual conversation, but for getting your questions answered and receiving feedback. As long as you and your partner have a common language that you both speak at an okay level (probably English), then you can use your exchange time to have your partner help you build mini Portuguese “scripts” that you can use when just starting speaking.

      For example, in most first language exchange sessions, people talk about where they are from and why they are learning their target language. If you’re too new to Portuguese to have that conversation yet, use the exchange time to ask your partner for the words and sentences you ideally would need to know in order to talk about those topics. You can do the same for them, as well, but in English.

      Hope that helps!

  • After reading this piece of information, I feel I should give language exchange a try. I am in the process of learning German. Hope it might help.

    • I think you should, too! It’s something everyone should do at least once.

      Let me know how it goes!

    • If you’re at the level of German, where you can actually do a language exchange (somewhere in a A2-B1 level), then you should listen to the podcast Slow German. It’s free on her website. Just listen to it, when you are cooking dinner or driving to work, in the waiting room at the doctor’s, or going for a walk. If you listen to it whenever you have free time (you can probably get out at least half an hour per day), then your German will improve fast. Then your vocabulary will be good and you can actually understand your language exchange partner. 😉

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