➡  How to learn 📆 1 December 2021 ✍️  Anikó Couto Szalay

Have you heard of “tandem” language learning (or language exchanges)?

Well, “tandem” a very simple idea. To start off, you need to find someone who wants to speak a language you know and speaks a language you want to learn. For example, you are French and want to learn Spanish? Find a native Spanish speaker who wants to learn French. You can then meet for tandem language exchanges and help each other for free.

My first experience

I first heard about tandem language learning, when I was a beginner Spanish learner. My teacher told me to find someone with whom to practice speaking.

He told me: “There is this Brazilian guy who speaks very good Spanish. He’s a polyglot and wants to learn Hungarian. You should talk to him, practice your Spanish and exchange views on your expat lives”.

This seemed like a great idea. I myself was a Hungarian living in Poland, so meeting a fellow expat, who probably shared the same difficulties, looked quite interesting to me. Nobody was expecting the following story though.

Weeks went by and this Brazilian guy, called Marlon, dropped me a line on a social network site. He had heard about me from the same Spanish teacher. We wanted to meet, but we just couldn’t arrange a time that would suit both of us. So weeks went by again. Then, out of nowhere, he appeared in front of the cinema where I was going with some friends that we apparently had in common. 

I’ll never forget the way he greeted me, we shook hands, he smiled and said: “Mérhetetlenül örvendek, hogy megismertelek.” It stands for “I’m immensely happy to have met you” in Hungarian.

His pronunciation was incredibly correct. Back then, I used to give Hungarian lessons and I admitted to him that I had never heard any foreigner speaking Hungarian with such a clear accent.

To start off, we decided to meet regularly. Every Thursday evening, we’d get together in my kitchen speaking Spanish for an hour and switching to Hungarian for the following hour. Soon, we became tandem buddies. Months went by and our lessons turned into intimate conversations about family, homesickness, faith and even grief. We’d even show each other our poems. As a result, we became friends. 

This brings me to say that “tandem” is one of the greatest ways of learning a language.

It’s an act of give-and-take, a form of language exchange on a very personal level. It’s most fun when you teach each other your mother tongues. This way you become a representative of your culture and your homeland. 

Now, here are 8 (or even 9) ideas and suggestions that I learned and you may consider before hopping on this language exchange adventure ride:

1) Look for the click-effect. 

Find a partner with whom you click. You should feel comfortable around the person with whom you’re planning to spend a couple of hours per month. (Well, those couple of hours can turn into days, weeks and even years. Just keep reading…)

2) Agree on making lessons free-of-charge. 

Tandem is a free way of language learning. You both benefit from the time spent together, so there is no need to talk about finances. We already spend a lot of money on language books, so it’s nice to cut costs on practicing.

3) Always be punctual. 

If your lessons take place in a virtual environment and you live in different time zones, find a time that suits you both. Add your appointments to an online calendar and share it with your partner to avoid misunderstandings. If you are lucky and can see each other in person, being punctual is just common courtesy. 

4) If you need to cancel lessons, do it a day before. 

If you know you can’t make it to a lesson for some reason, let your partner know as soon as possible, not at the last minute.

5) Be prepared for the lesson. 

Write a list of questions or a short text to check during the lesson. Remember that you provide half of the content of your meeting. Your partner is not your teacher (and doesn’t have to be a professional one), but is an expert in the language of your interest. I’m not going to lie, Marlon was way more productive than me. He used to bring entire essays to our meetings while I was sticking to answering basic questions like, “how did your day/week go?”, “what did you do at work?” or “why do you hate working in an office so much?” You know, everyday life.

6) Split your time equally. 

If there is a golden rule for tandem, then it should be: give as much as you receive. If you balance your time well, you take as much out of the lesson as the other person. You can agree to speak language #1 in the first half and then switch to language #2 in the second half. This is what we did, and it worked like a charm. 

7) Find a comfortable place. 

Tandem is all about having fun. Invite your pal to your home virtually. If you feel comfortable with it, show them around your home – a picture says more than a thousand words. Also, it’s a good conversation starter. Marlon and I used to have our lessons in my kitchen. So, naturally, the first words I learned from him were all about kitchen tools. Later, I realised that it was not only because of the environment, but because of his love for cooking… and for food in general!

8) It’s OK to say no. 

If you don’t like something about your lessons, let them know gently. Whether it is about time management or the way they react to your mistakes, you need to tell them. Be considerate and empathic in your communication.

I remember one particular meeting when Marlon didn’t want to finish the lesson at the agreed time. We were caught up in the conversation, but since I was about to go on a date with a Turkish guy, I came up with a rather strange solution. I asked Marlon to accompany me on my walk into town. It took us about thirty minutes to get there, then the two boys greeted each other and Marlon of course had to show off his Turkish skills. I don’t recall much of the date, but I do remember Marlon making a funny face upon leaving. It wasn’t until we became a couple that he admitted how insanely jealous he had been that evening! Huh! You never know… 

(BONUS IDEA) Beware the risk of falling in love.

Well, your tandem pal may end up being your life partner! Personal experience makes me say so… which leads me to the rest of our story:

Marlon and I met for the first time in September, but it wasn’t until next May that we became a couple. Back in April, Marlon asked me if he could come with me to Hungary for some time to practice his Hungarian. I was somewhat surprised with the question, but since I was planning to visit my family the following month, it was just natural to offer him to accompany me on the trip. Needless to say, my family was taken aback, but I insisted he was only a friend. We went to Hungary and I introduced him to basically everyone. We spent our days just like those Thursday evenings in my kitchen: talking and talking in our favourite languages. 

When we came back home (to Poland), I already knew he was the one for me. After we got back, things speeded up a bit, but we kept having tandem lessons on Thursday evenings. At our next lesson he asked me if I knew of a place to rent because he was looking for one. Well, I told him to move in with me. 

A couple of months later we visited Hungary again. I remember sitting at a café next to him. The waiter served us ginger soda, something Marlon had wanted to try for some time. Marlon asked me what it was? I said “it’s Hungarian ginger soda, I know you want to try it” and then he went, “Oh, gosh, you’re so nice, will you marry me?” Soda can go a long way, you know!

Looking back now to those days, I think I might have liked the polyglot vibes so much that I wished we could live like that for the rest of our lives. My wish came true, because slowly but surely our life turned into one ongoing language exchange lesson!

Ever since our son was born, we have stuck to the OPOL (one-person-one-language) method. Marlon teaches Benjamin Portuguese, I only talk to him in Hungarian, and our nanny uses exclusively Polish with him.

I need to finish writing this post now for family reasons: I’m being interrupted by our three-year-old son, who is going to be a polyglot himself!

If you’re thinking about having tandem lessons, just do it and go with the flow. But, be ready for your life being possibly turned upside down!

Anikó Couto Szalay

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