While there’s a lot of studying you can do on your own, I think there’s tremendous value in finding a native speaker to do a language exchange with.
But what do you do when you’ve found someone? You might wonder, “What do we talk about first?” or “How should I manage my language exchange sessions?” Frankly, it can be a bit intimidating to meet with a language partner for the first time.
Luckily, I’m here to help!
In this article, I thought I’d round up all my best ideas, tips, and some useful Japanese phrases for facilitating a successful language exchange. Over years of doing language exchanges with Japanese speakers, learning from professional teachers, and taking small group classes, I’ve compiled some great resources to aid and inspire you to start your own language exchange or make more out of one you’ve already started.
And, even if you’re looking into hiring a tutor instead of starting a language exchange, keep reading. Most of the information from this article will be useful for tutoring sessions as well. Although tutoring or lessons may not be exactly a language exchange, there are a lot of similarities so you can still put these tips to use.
Prerequisites: In this article, I’ll be sharing some useful Japanese phrases for language exchange sessions, but they’re written in Japanese, assuming you already know hiragana and katakana. If you need to brush up, have a look at our Ultimate Hiragana Guide and Ultimate Katakana Guide. Or, if you haven’t studied hiragana and katakana, now might be a good opportunity to get them down before you start a language exchange!
What Is a Language Exchange?
A language exchange involves two speakers of different languages working together to improve.
A language exchange can refer to several scenarios. Typically, a language exchange is a mutual learning environment in which two speakers of different languages work together to teach and help the other person improve their second-language skills. Usually, both speakers will be experts in their first language (meaning, native speakers or those with native-level proficiency from having lived or grown up in an immersive environment) and looking to improve in their target language in which the other is the expert.
In this article, I’ll be specifically talking about learning Japanese through interacting with a Japanese language partner, while helping them to improve their English (or whatever language you’re fluent in) in return.
Mostly, I’ll be talking about doing synchronous language exchange, either through live online communication or in-person, but I think much of this would also apply to asynchronous language exchanges, like text-based messaging in different time zones.
Why Should I Do a Language Exchange?
There’s a lot you can only get from native speakers.
With that out of the way, why would you want to do a language exchange in the first place? Well, in my opinion, it’s among the best ways to both make progress and truly put your skills to the test. I think it’s incredible the amount of studying students are able to do totally on their own. By reading textbooks, listening to podcasts, immersing in native material, and much more, you can reach a high level of Japanese proficiency all on your own. That said, there’s a lot you can only get from native speakers. From learning the nuance or usage of specific words and answering questions, to detailed grammar explanations or guided practice, being able to learn from a native speaker has in my experience opened a lot of doors.
Additionally, there’s a lot of value in putting your practical Japanese to use. Especially on your own, it can be easy to get caught in a loop of only inputting — for example, just reading books and watching dramas, etc. — and never working on output. There have been a lot of times I thought I understood a grammar point or a word’s usage, only to realize I didn’t quite understand it as well as I thought I did, by making a mistake in either writing or speaking. And I might not have realized my mistake at all without the support of native speakers who let me know.
There’s a lot of value in putting your practical Japanese to use.
Finally, I think it’s super beneficial to try explaining things to others as a means of solidifying your own knowledge. You might be surprised to hear that I think explaining English grammar and vocabulary to my Japanese friends has made my Japanese stronger. This technique can help you break down and think about language in a way you might take for granted as a native speaker, which in turn helps you analyze your Japanese as well.
If you’re lucky enough to find a good, mutual language exchange partner, make sure you’re doing your part, too! Not only is it good etiquette, but it might also do more for you than you’d expect.
Where Can I Find a Language Exchange Partner?
I would suggest trying both language exchanges and formal lessons.
Now that you know why you might want to seek out a language exchange, where can you actually find one? First, you need to think about what sort of language exchange you want. I think both proper language exchanges and formal lessons (i.e. tutoring) have their merits, and if you’re able, I would suggest trying both.
For doing a true language exchange, I’d first look at some of the apps available, or if you prefer something in-person, see if there are any meetup groups nearby. If your city has a Japanese culture center or consulate, they might be a good place to check, otherwise, consider your local university or even the library. If these aren’t an option for you, don’t worry; there are a ton of apps for this exact purpose!
Since I wrote about this previously in my HelloTalk review and guide to finding a Japanese tutor articles, I’ll keep this section brief. If you’re looking for a teacher or tutor, I’d recommend iTalki, Verbling, Wasabi, or JapaTalk. Of course, there are many more websites and services besides these, but I think these should be enough to get you started.
So, why might you choose one over the other?
Language exchange apps tend to be free, though you tend to get what you pay for.
Cost is one important consideration. Language exchange apps tend to be free in my experience, though you tend to get what you “pay” for. It can be difficult to meet someone whose personality is a good fit for you, who’s also good at answering your questions or correcting your mistakes, and of course, it’s expected you’ll do the same for them.
Working with a teacher or tutor in any setting is just another form of practice with a native speaker. Teachers can be quite expensive, though cheaper options exist, and trial lessons can help you make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. And you can probably go into a lesson with a bit more confidence that the teacher will be good at explaining things, and without the expectation that you’ll have to teach as well. Bear in mind that teachers often have their own teaching style, class format (be it freeform conversation practice, or something more structured), and even materials, which can mean more time spent learning and less time trying to figure out what to work on.
Luckily, it’s not an either/or situation. Making friends through a language exchange is both great practice and motivation to keep studying, and a teacher can’t be beat for staying consistent, filling in blind spots, and getting the most detailed explanations and help.
Before You Get Started…
Here are a few things to consider before you get started with a language exchange to make sure it’s the best it can be.
For one, think deeply about your goals.
As I mentioned in my article on finding a tutor, you have to decide if you want something more formal like actual lessons or something more casual like a friend to chat with. What would your goal be for a session? Are you looking for some structure to keep you consistent? Do you want listening practice? Are you just trying to make some cross-cultural friends? All are fine aims for getting started, but depending on your ultimate goal, the sort of exchange you’re looking for could change over time.
Next, consider your level.
If you’re just starting out, it might be difficult to do a casual language exchange with a native speaker; perhaps working with a teacher would be more fruitful, or you’d be better suited to doing some self-study, first.
Think deeply about your goals and consider your level.
There are a number of other considerations to keep in mind for lessons, too. As I mentioned before, many teachers can help you decide what sort of class format and practice suits you, and it’s well worth talking to them beforehand to find a method that fits your needs best. Do you want to follow a textbook, or something a bit more free-form? Will you plan conversation topics or themes in advance? Do you want them to assign homework and formally grade you, or simply correct your mistakes? It’s best to think about these sorts of things beforehand, but you can always try something out and make adjustments as you go along, just be sure to lay a good foundation first.
Next, I find it helps to think about scheduling. I find it’s best to keep consistent with a time that works regularly, but if your schedules don’t allow, try and set up your next meeting time at the end of each session. That way, you don’t suddenly get off track when you forget to schedule one.
I find it’s best to keep consistent with a time that works regularly.
There are also a lot of great tools online that can make this easier. For example, I keep all my appointments in Google Calendar. Additionally, you can try using apps like Calendly, Doodle, or WhenAvailable to find times that work for both of you. This is especially helpful when trying to schedule a meeting with someone in a different time zone.
I think having some idea of a routine also helps even for the most casual exchanges. For example, I usually chat with a Japanese friend of mine on Saturday nights. Since both of our schedules change around we can’t always meet up, so we just let each other know if we’ll be free or not each week.
Preferences For Corrections and Feedback
The next point to consider is corrections. Of course, as a language learner, you’re going to be making a lot of mistakes. This is okay, and in fact, great! Making mistakes, seeing what’s incorrect, and adjusting in the future is one of the best ways to make progress in a language and one of the best things a native speaker can help you with. Even so, it’s important to consider the sort of feedback you’d like from your language exchange partner, and how they should give it.
Making mistakes, seeing what’s incorrect, and adjusting in the future is one of the best ways to make progress.
For example, would you like them to correct every mistake or only the big ones?
Personally, I always want to know if I’ve made an error so I can correct it, but I totally get people who’d prefer to focus on just using Japanese and having fun. You can get even more specific and say that you’d like your pitch accent or pronunciation errors to be pointed out too! It all depends on what you want to get out of the language exchange sessions.
And if you want corrections, should they let you know right away, or wait?
I don’t mind if someone interrupts me to correct my particle usage, for example, but maybe you’d prefer your partner simply make notes and give them to you after you finish speaking, or at the end of the session.
You need to find an approach that makes the most sense for you as a language learner.
Of course, improving your practical language skills is ultimately the point of doing a language exchange, but you need to find an approach that makes the most sense for you as a language learner. I think it’s best to establish this right away, so it’s not awkward to ask them to make a change later on.
You should also remember to take the time to thank your partner for listening carefully to you and offering feedback. It’s only natural that people find it hard to correct someone they’re just getting to know, so be appreciative and extra open to feedback, and make sure your partner feels comfortable pointing out your errors. If you’re in a true language exchange setting, you also want to make sure to return the favor — of course, taking their preferences into account as well.
One last thing before you get started; think about some of the practical considerations. For example, what platform will you use? If you’re meeting with someone in real life at a coffee shop, this doesn’t matter much, but with online language exchanges, this is one thing you’ll want to decide first. Will you chat online via an app like Zoom, Skype, or LINE? Or will you use a language exchange platform, like HelloTalk or iTalki’s online classroom? Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and limitations on what you can do.
For example, if you’re using Skype or Zoom, it’s easy to share your screen so you can both look at the same article or dialogue. Or maybe you’re on a call on LINE, but will also use a Google Doc to share corrections and notes in real-time.
In general, I find taking notes to be super useful, and I always at least have a pen and paper nearby. That way, if my partner says a word or phrase I’m not familiar with, I can note it down to look up or study later. You can also take notes in case your conversation goes on a tangent, or jot down tips and corrections for your partner that you can send them afterward.
Finally, if you’re doing virtual language exchange, be sure to use headphones or earbuds, and find a quiet place. Of course, speaking is as important as listening here, so you also want to make sure you’ve got a good microphone and stable internet connection to avoid interruptions. You don’t want to derail your language exchange before it even gets started because your partner can’t hear you, or you can’t hear them. Make sure you set yourself up for success!
Topic and Format Ideas for Your Language Exchange Sessions
So, now that you’ve found a language exchange partner, what’s next? Especially when you’re just getting started, it can be a challenge to come up with topics for discussion or figure out what it is you want or need to work on together. Having gone through this process a number of times though, I have a few ideas for how to both break the ice and build a strong rapport regardless of who your language exchange partner may be.
The first step in any Japanese language exchange will likely be the same: 自己紹介, or a self-introduction. For Japanese language learners, being able to give a self-introduction is a pretty important and common practice, so you might as well think about it now. In every class or lesson I’ve ever taken the teacher has asked for a formal self-introduction. If you’re just chatting with friends I don’t think you’ll need to be too rigid, but it would be good to talk a bit about your interests and aims, and ask the other person about theirs!
So what should go into a self-introduction? Luckily, they almost always tend to follow a template.
Here’s a list of phrases that I usually go with when introducing myself. You can replace words marked
like this with info relevant to you and use these phrases for your own self-intro.
|Nice to meet you.
イアン と申します。(More formal)
|I live in
|I’ve been studying Japanese for about
watching baseball and
My hobbies are
watching baseball and
|I look forward to working together. / I’m looking forward to getting to know you.
First, start strong: はじめまして, meaning “Nice to meet you.” Can’t go wrong with that, right? Next, I always give my name. In my case, I usually just say イアンです, or “I’m Ian,” though in more formal situations, イアンと申します (“My name is Ian [using humble language]”) might be more appropriate. I usually say where I live, シカゴに住んでいます which means “I live in Chicago,” and how long I’ve been studying Japanese: ４年くらい日本語を勉強しています which means “I’ve been studying Japanese for about 4 years.” Finally, I like to close with a few of my interests 野球を見ることと本を読むことが好きです which means, “I like watching baseball and reading books,” and end with a good old-fashioned よろしくお願いします, which in this case might mean something like, “I look forward to working together.”
Finding Common Ground and Breaking The Ice
I’d definitely start these sorts of exchanges by trying to find some shared ground.
In general, language exchanges that take place on HelloTalk or a similar app are probably going to be a lot more casual and less structured than a lesson with a teacher, or even just an online tutoring session. However, I would definitely start these sorts of exchanges in the same way you might when meeting anyone for the first time: trying to find some shared ground. For example, are you both big fans of music? Do you like the same or different genres? Maybe you don’t really share any hobbies, but you can ask them about their hobbies, and explain a bit about yours. Like any conversation, it should be a give and take: both balancing out how much you’re speaking, in which language you’re communicating, and for what amount of time.
While hobbies are a great lead-in, don’t feel limited to just that! I love asking Japanese people about how their name is written if it uses kanji, their goals and aims for studying English, as well as about Japanese culture, like their favorite foods or seasonal events. Really, getting to know your language exchange partner is no different from meeting anyone new, except you already have a common interest — studying a language. If you find someone you click with, the conversation will come naturally like with any friend; albeit peppered with little questions about language.
What Should We Practice?
Hopefully, this gives you a good idea of how to hit the ground running with a new language exchange partner, but what exactly should you practice together, and how?
If you want a little more structure, you can also try and decide on a topic together beforehand.
Probably the most common and popular form of language exchange is conversation practice. You meet up with your partner and talk about life, or whatever topic pops up organically. If you want a little more structure to save you from any awkward silences or wasted time, you can also try and decide on a topic together beforehand, which will allow you to look up any grammar or vocab you think you’ll need in advance. However, having to come up with a topic each time can be somewhat time-consuming in the long term. To remedy this, you can search for ice breaker topics online to help you explore a wide range of topics you might otherwise not bring up on your own and wouldn’t get a chance to practice talking about.
If you’re working through a textbook, that’s a great jumping-off point.
While conversation practice is great (especially since you can’t practice it alone!), the options are wide. If you’re working through a textbook, that’s a great jumping-off point. Maybe you have a question about some of the grammar or vocab, or you want to read through the dialogue or text together. You can also pick up a textbook or workbook specializing in a specific area you want to focus on improving, such as pronunciation or business expressions to work on with your partner.
I’ve given mini-presentations on various topics and read through something in Japanese.
I’ve given mini-presentations on a variety of different topics before, which helped me learn a lot of new words and put my grammar to use while also practicing speaking smoothly. In other sessions, I’ve read through something in Japanese like a web article or a part of a story. While reading alone is great practice, I like both the challenge of reading aloud and testing my knowledge of kanji readings without looking anything up. Additionally, this not only gives you a topic to discuss, but can give you and your partner a better idea of your reading comprehension level and help you understand anything that goes over your head.
One final practice activity I’ve enjoyed is watching a video together. From clips of Japanese TV shows to street interviews, this can be a great test of your listening comprehension. Despite my best intentions, it can be easy to tell myself I understood something I listened to or read, but on closer inspection, I might’ve only gotten the gist rather than the full nuance. Testing yourself in this way helps drastically improve those skills.
Talk to your language partner and discuss what would work best for the two of you. Of course, a language exchange partner, unlike a teacher you’ve hired, may be less proactive in suggesting activities (unless they’re super passionate about teaching). In that sense, it’s your job to decide what you want to do in your sessions and proactively communicate that to your partner.
Tips and Best Practices to Get the Most Out of Your Language Exchange
Now you’ve hopefully found a partner, and maybe even have some things to work on together. But how should you go about a language exchange? I’ve got a few tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years to hopefully make this both as smooth and as beneficial a practice as possible.
First of all: be polite! While this might seem like a no-brainer, I specifically mean to start out with using formal Japanese (です and ます), regardless of whether you’re working with a teacher or a more casual study partner. While most people will probably forgive you for mistakes here and there, it’s important to remember Japanese is a lot more deliberate about the distance between people than English. Making a friend through a language exchange partner can be a great way to practice casual Japanese, but even here, I’d recommend starting formal and easing into casual as you get to know them better.
So how do you know when it’s a good time to switch to casual Japanese in less-formal situations? There are a couple of rules of thumb here.
For one, consider the relationship. For example, is there an age difference? It can be a lot easier to start speaking casual Japanese with someone younger than you. Also think about how long you’ve known this person. Some native speakers might feel uncomfortable jumping into casual language before you’ve gotten to know each other a bit better.
Native speakers are usually very forgiving of mistakes, so long as you’re trying your best.
Second, pay close attention to the sort of language they use. If they’re already using casual Japanese and there isn’t an obvious social distance between you (as in, are you roughly the same age?), it might be a sign to move in that direction.
Finally, feel free to just ask. In my experience, native speakers have been very understanding and forgiving of mistakes or misunderstandings, so long as you’re trying your best. Don’t feel afraid to make a mistake. Just ask if it’s okay to practice more casual Japanese together.
Key Phrases and Expressions
Next, here are a bunch of useful Japanese phrases I’ve collected over the years to keep in mind.
Phrases for Asking Questions
Especially when you’re first starting out with a language exchange you may be feeling a bit self-conscious. While that’s understandable, it’s in your best interest to ask for help when you need it. Tell yourself there’s no shame in asking questions. In fact, settings like language exchanges or lessons are probably the safest place to make mistakes and ask questions on the planet.
Even communicating that you didn’t understand something gives your language partner a better idea of your current abilities and makes it easier for them to help you — even better if you can ask your questions and understand the explanations in Japanese. This means knowing how to ask questions in Japanese comes in handy. Here’s a list of useful phrases related to asking questions.
|I have a question.
|Is it okay if I ask a question?
|What is …?
|What is … called in Japanese?
|I understand it now.
|Sorry, I didn’t really get it.
|Could you please repeat that?
Perhaps the most important is the humble すみません. Of course, the meaning of this phrase can be wide-ranging, from “excuse me” to politely get attention (like if you wanted to ask a question, for example), or “I’m sorry” to apologize if you made a mistake. Next, if you do have a question, you could say something like すみません、質問があります (Excuse me, I have a question) or 質問してもいいですか？ (Is it okay if I ask a question?) I would say the latter is a bit more casual despite still being formal Japanese, and would be good to use with new language exchange partners. (Maybe later on you could ask 質問していい？ if the situation calls for more casual language).
If they use a word you don’t know, you could ask about it by using 〜って、なんですか？After an explanation, you might want to let them know you understood, using わかりました (I understand it now), なるほど (“I see,” which is better for longer or more detailed explanations), or even just そうですか (“Got it,” when said with falling intonation). Or maybe you didn’t understand, so you could say すみません、よくわかりませんでした (I’m sorry, I didn’t really get it). If you want to ask them to repeat themselves, you can say もう一度お願いします (One more time, please).
Expressions to Help You Get Your Point Across
Additionally, there are a lot of useful phrases if you can’t quite remember something. Rather than constantly looking up words, trying to explain what you mean with words you already know would be much better practice. Here are some expressions that I find convenient in a situation like this.
|similar to …
|opposite to …
For example, ～みたい (like …) might be my most used word, alongside ほぼ (almost) or …に似てる (similar to …). Along those same lines, I often use 感じ or “feeling,” as in the phrase, …みたいな感じですか？ (Is it like … (feeling)?)” to ask if my explanation or the impression I had was correct. 逆 (opposite) or 〜の反対 (…’s opposite) can be super helpful if you can only recall the antonym of a word. Finally, I tend to use ～じゃなくて (“It’s not …”) while trailing off, especially if I’m unsure about a word’s usage or the correct reading in context.
Phrases for Wrapping Up Your Session
Lessons tend to have a designated end time, but what do you say when you want to conclude a call? Here are some phrases to wrap up your session politely and respectfully.
|I have to leave shortly.
|I gotta go soon.
|It’s time to finish the session, isn’t it?
|Thank you very much.
|See you, then.
|See you next time.
With a language partner, if you need to leave, I would say そろそろ失礼します (I have to excuse myself shortly) or そろそろ行かなきゃ (I gotta go soon) depending on your relationship with them.
You can also say もう終わりの時間ですね (it’s time to finish the session, isn’t it?) to gently remind your partner that it’s almost time to go. Make sure you thank them with an ありがとうございました (thank you very much) before you go, and say goodbye with それじゃあ、また (“see you, then”) or if you’re good friends, またね (see you next time).
Working and communicating with a native speaker can be one of the most rewarding and most daunting parts of learning a language. But like all aspects of language learning, it becomes easier the more you do it. So push your comfort zone a little bit, and go share cultures! Hopefully, some of these tips will make your language exchange as painless as possible, and help you unlock a whole new world of communication possibilities.