Tips on Tandems, Plus a Twist

If you’ve been learning your new language for a while, it’s possible that you’ve tried practicing with a tandem partner.

A tandem partner speaks the language you want to learn, and will spend some of their time talking with you in that language so that you can practice your speaking skills. They’ll usually want to learn your native tongue in exchange, which means you’ll spend a certain amount of time speaking that language as well.

The result should be a symbiotic relationship – in which you another person helps you practice your new language and you help them practice theirs.

Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes it can be difficult to strike a balance, for a variety of reasons. Maybe one partner is still stronger in their new language than the other, or perhaps one of you has an accent which is difficult for the other to understand. It could also be a question of personality: one of you might be more assertive or talkative.

This could result in anything from passable, though awkward, conversations to tandem sessions held in only one of your two languages.

The key to a successful tandem partnership is two-fold.

First, both of you must understand and explicitly agree that you’ll be using both, not just one, of your languages. This is where a lot of tandems fail. You might be having a great conversation, but don’t forget that you’re also here to learn. So make sure you get the speaking time that you’re looking for.

Second, you have to accept, and even embrace, the fact that some of these sessions will be very, very awkward. With one native speaker and one learner, you can expect your skills – and vocabulary – to be mismatched. If it’s your native language, be patient and kind. If you’re the learner, be persistent. Don’t let your mistakes get you down and keep on speaking. With consistent practice you’ll be chattering away in your new language soon enough.

Tried the tandem thing? Not your cup of tea? A friend of mine recently moved to Sweden and signed up for tandem sessions at the university, where they’ve added an interesting twist.

Rather than having one native speaker and one learner, these tandem sessions involve a total of four people: two native Swedish speakers, and two English-speaking learners of Swedish.

Adding two more speakers automatically adds to the tandem’s balance. The learners feel less awkward because they’re not alone and can support each other throughout the conversation. The other native speaker can pick up the conversation in case it hits a lull and can also clarify misunderstandings.

Of course, depending on where you are it can be difficult to find one tandem partner, let alone 3. So until you find your perfect foursome, keep trying the tandem thing. It may be awkward or you might find “the one”, but in either case your language skills will improve. And you’ll be helping someone else improve theirs. The most it will cost you is a little bit of awkwardness. And is that really so bad?

Good luck to all you tandem partners out there!

Image by By George H. Van Norman, Springfield, Mass. CREATED/PUBLISHED: c1898. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Source.
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