Five Common Problems with Language Exchanges (And How to Fix Them)

A language exchange is a session–usually over Skype but sometimes in person–in which two people practice speaking each other’s language. It’s been popularized in recent years by the site iTalki.

For example, consider a Spanish speaker learning English and an English speaker learning Spanish who meet up. In a common setup, the first half of the session would be a conversation in Spanish, and then the second half would be a conversation in English. This way, both people get some practice–for free.


Prague, Old Town — By Juandev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

I follow several language-learning blogs and lurk on a few forums. Something I’ve observed: Language exchanges are hot. At times, they’re even fetishized. But you’re inevitably going to run into a few problems…

1. You have unrealistic expectations.

Some people–especially those new to languages–believe that simply sitting there talking to someone for a half hour a day will make them learn a language. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen with language exchanges alone. I’ve never met anyone who has learned a language to usefulness by only chatting.

The problem, then, is that you try out language exchanges, realize you’re not making as much progress as you’d hoped, and simply give up on them. Or worse yet, you get so discouraged that you give up on learning languages altogether.

The solution: Realize that a language exchange is a tool. It is beneficial and serves a specific purpose. But don’t stop doing the other stuff, like watching TV, listening to the radio, taking courses, studying vocab, and even studying grammar.

2. You’re not getting much out of sessions.

So you’ve been talking to one or more partners for a while, and you’re starting to feel like you’re spinning your wheels. Lot of repetition of tasks and subjects. Maybe you’re seeing improvement in one or two  areas, but you don’t feel like your sessions are altogether all that productive.

The solution: Structure your sessions. Don’t just chat about your day or your favorite hobbies. Try different things: Pick a specific subject to cover–e.g., cars, music, sports. Or role play–e.g., pretend to be a customer ordering at a restaurant. Or try to work on a specific sentence construction–e.g., use a structure like “I’m going to <do something>” over and over again. If that sounds like too much work, consider hiring a tutor who can help do the hard work of session planning for you.

3. Partner is too easy on you.

One of my language exchange partners complained that I was too easy on him. I didn’t offer enough corrections.

I’ll give my side of the story in a minute, but he had a point. He was trying to improve his English, and I was letting him get away with grammatical murder. You definitely need some feedback to improve, and I needed to give him some.

The solution: Ask your partner to do two things. First, to let you know when you’re completely incomprehensible. Second, to note any recurrent mistakes and help you fix them. Do not ask them to correct every single mistake, because that’s not realistic or even useful. But if you leave every session with 5 to 10 things to work on (writing them down helps) then you’re going to make progress.

4. Partner is too hard on you.

In line with what I just mentioned, some well-meaning partners want to correct every single thing you say. That’s not useful either. In fact, I think it’s extremely harmful.

If you’re trying to speak with any degree of fluency (grr, that word again) then you need to be given a safe space to speak. If someone is cracking your knuckles with a ruler every time you make a mistake, you’re going to become neurotic. You’re going to be so worried about making mistakes that you’re not going to concentrate on speaking or on actually communicating your thoughts.

It’s a challenge just being comprehensible. If you’re uttering sentences like “me like soda” or “she no likes soda,” not only are you getting your point across, but you’re 75% there. Get used to making yourself understood, and then make a small number of corrections every day until your speaking is where you want it to be.

The solution: Tell your partner your concerns and suggest the approach I mentioned in #3 above.

5. Personality conflicts.

Sometimes you’re just not going to get along with an exchange partner. Maybe they’re too flirty. Or maybe they’re flaky. Or maybe they spend most of the time working on their language but not helping you with yours. Personality issues are possible anytime people are involved.

The solution: You can try to work it out, but honestly, if you’re having issues, it’s probably better just moving on to other partners. If you’ve been a good language exchange citizen and holding up your own end of the bargain, then your studying time is too valuable to be wasted on people who aren’t helping you.



  • Cori

    haha I didn´t know that site existed (iTalki). I tried languages exchanges several times. When I was trying to get some Chinese, it was so difficult for me that we ended speaking a mix of Italian and English; and when I was trying to improve my Portuguêse, I ended speaking English because my partner was learning English.
    I guess I´m not good at virtual language exchanging, or I´m too lazy to try finding a good partner. But good tips to try!

    • Ron G.

      Virtual language exchanging is tough. iTalki is a really good platform, but sometimes it can be tough to find exchange partners on there. Takes a lot of persistence. I just can’t maintain that level of effort to keep up with language exchange relationships over the long haul. Something I need to work on. haha

  • Phil Smith

    In language exchanges, I always quickly ran out of things to say. Then I stumbled across this site ( which lists many topics and has many questions you can ask, and you can also answer the questions to your partner. Now I’m never at a loss to what to say, and it helps me to talk in as complicated manner as I can handle.

    It is for ESL learners, but I use it for my Spanish learning.

    • Ron G.

      Awesome link, thank you! That’s a really great page. (If others are getting a dead link, just take the close parens out.)

      Otherwise, are you seeing improvements from your language exchanges?

      • Phil Smith

        Yes, I’ve been studying Spanish for almost 2 years now, every day, with little progress. Two weeks ago Benny’s ideas finally sank in. I quit being embarrassed and started talking my share of Spanish in the exchanges. I used to speak very little Spanish and spent most of the time helping them with English.

        Now we split the time evenly. I pick a topic from that web site and ask and answer those questions to my partner. And those questions open up further discussion beyond those questions. I used to ask something like, “do you have pets?” and discuss the subject very little because I ran out of things to say. Now with this web site, I never run out of things to ask and say. I’ve improved more in these 2 weeks than I have in the other 2 years.

  • Vladimir Georgiev

    nr.6 your language is not that popular and learning it doesn’t bring you economical benefits, so it’s almost impossible to find someone who is interested in learning it..

    • Michael

      That’s a good point. I myself am sometimes learning “obscure” languages, and when I find people who speak that language as a native, they are very happy to find that I want to practice their language, so that they can have a language exchange partner. My suggestion to you is try If you are a paid member (it’s pretty cheap), you have access to everyone, but if you aren’t a paid member, you basically don’t have access to anyone, and since most people aren’t paid members, you can find people much more easily. However, if you speak an obscure language and want to practice an obscure language, no guarantees this will work.

      • Vladimir Georgiev

        it depends on the definition of obscure.. I think that 7-10 milion native speakers put my native language in the middle. I generally have the impression that there are much more people from my country(Bugaria) who try to learn both widespread languages and languages of our neighbouring countries than vice versa.

        • Michael

          Hmm, that’s interesting. In America, where I’m from, most people aren’t that interested in learning other languages, and the people who are, are only interested in about 5-10 languages, usually from western Europe or East Asia. I guess it’s because in America, we have to travel thousands of miles and over oceans to find a country where the people don’t speak English or Spanish.