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Tandem language learning: an introduction

Having a tandem partner is the best. And no, by “tandem partner” I’m not talking about two people who share a bike. I mean tandem language learning – when two people get together to practice languages: Person A practices language B with person B for 30 minutes, and person B practices language A with person A for the remainder of the hour. (I guess, they could technically do this on a bike, but let’s just focus on the languages for now.)

Tandem works best if you take language classes at the same time – that way, you can use the time together to practice conversational skills and really put all of the theoretical knowledge to the test. Without wanting to rain on your parade: It’s probably not possible to learn a language only with tandeming, as you will usually only meet and talk for about an hour each week. But it’s a great way to complement language classes or to help retain your language skills after a study abroad trip.

Benefit 1: Boost your language skills

Let’s start with the most obvious advantage: the language skills. By practicing a foreign language with a native speaker, your listening and speaking skills will improve immensely. Not only that, but your confidence will increase as well. Let’s not forget another perk of tandeming: you’ll learn all the latest slang and idioms.

Benefit 2: Make new friends

If you meet up regularly with your tandem partner and have loads to talk about, chances are that you will become friends in no time. By spending time with someone from another culture, your cultural sensitivity will increase, which is a highly marketable skill. #jackpot

Benefit 3: Enjoy the convenience

We can also talk logistics: Tandeming is convenient. You can work around your schedules and make sure you learn on your own terms. Oh, and the best part? It’s free!

Benefit 4: Learn new things

Not only will your language skills improve, but you’ll just become (even more) well rounded. Say your tandem partner is an expert in grape varieties and you’re a sucker for opera. Meet up, and boom! Just by talking about each other’s interests, you’ll quickly build up wine knowledge and your tandem partner will become an opera buff.

Where to find a tandem partner

There are a number of places where you can start. Usually, universities or study abroad organizations have a tandem system in place. If not, there’s a handy app, appropriately called “Tandem,” where you can practice languages with people from all over the world with video calls.

How to tandem

Now that you know about the why and where, it’s time to explain the how:

  • Be on a similar language level: Make sure you choose a tandem partner who has the same language skills than you do. If you partner up with someone whose language skills are more advanced, you’ll end up speaking that language most of the time.
  • Split the time equally: Have your phone beep when you’re halfway done. This will prevent any awkward “is it my turn yet?” or having to gradually but forcefully changing the conversation to your target language. (Hint, it doesn’t work – I’ve tried.)
  • Be patient and polite: This is key – after all, no one knows how to roll their ‘r’s or round their ‘o’s on their first try.
  • Meet as often as possible: Finding the time to meet up might be one of the biggest challenges of tandeming, but it’s important to take it seriously and stick to a schedule.
  • Channel your inner teacher: Correct each other’s mistakes constructively and offer (and be open to) feedback and improvements.
  • Prepare: Of course, it’s not like teaching an actual class, but try to come up with different things to do during the limited time you tandem together: maybe you want to read an article (aloud) and then discuss it, practice certain conversations or scenarios, or write each other emails for a change. The more you mix it up, the more interesting it will be.

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