My university organizes a program called “Each One Teach One”, which is meant to encourage students to learn and teach languages in tandem. I don’t know why I only found the program last October – how many times before did I wish there was more language exchange culture at my university?
Through the program, I found a tandem buddy, Natalia, and since November, we’ve met regularly (twice a week before Christmas, and once a week this year) to practice Russian and Finnish – first half of the meeting we speak one language, second half the other.
I had mixed expectations about tandem learning. Often people think it is the best solution to learning a language, and language learner communities across the Internet are flooded with messages from people in search of a tandem partner. On the other hand, I’ve heard many bloggers and experienced language learners warn that tandem learning can turn out to be more difficult than you think, and it can even be a frustrating or disappointing experience, if it doesn’t work out.
Above all, there is a problem if one of the partners is more dedicated to teach and the other one mainly expects to learn for free. I thought, however, that even if you both have the best intentions, it probably isn’t the easiest form of teaching and learning.
I thought that surely when you already have a decent knowledge and speaking skills of the language, tandem works as great speaking practice. But is it only suitable for more advanced practice? That’s what I slightly feared before we got started. I wasn’t a total beginner, perhaps level B1, but I had never really had a lot of practice of speaking Russian before.
Right from the first messages we exchanged to agree our first meeting, I got the feeling that Natalia spoke a lot more Finnish than I did Russian, and this was confirmed in the first meetings. I got slight inferiority issues in the beginning, and felt the need to apologize that my Russian wasn’t quite conversational enough. After some of the first conversations, I’d feel exhausted and not too happy, after having just been stammering and stuttering and hardly able to put two words together for half an hour.
However, I was quite determined to make it work. And it has been getting better and better, and has turned out to be not only useful, but also a lot of fun.
Here’s what I think have been the main reasons our tandem has worked:
Patience, patience, patience. Tandem requires bucketloads of this attitude from both of the participants. When I’ve tried to start a sentence five times again to think my way around the missing words, or just gone “erm… erm… erm..” for two minutes, or make a mistake and be embarassed, Natalia would just patiently wait, or keep telling me “it’s ok, it’s all good, don’t worry”, urging me to go on.
It may feel difficult, when you’re not able to even get a complete sentence out of your mouth, to practice with a person who thinks and lives and breathes in the language. And chatting with a complete beginner can be demanding for a native speaker, too. It’s not easy to slow down from your natural speed of speech and think of simpler ways to say things. So you both need to be really patient.
Encouragement. Every time I manage to say something correctly, I would get an impressed “Mолодец! Oтлично!” And we’d both be equally happy about each and every small success.
Sure, it takes some bravery, to just open your mouth and get talking. But more courage and confidence can be created by getting prepared. We agreed on the topic of the meetings beforehand. So if the topic was traveling, I’d spend some time at home thinking of sentences and looking up words, so I had at least something prepared I could say about the topic. Even writing down what you could say in the conversation is not cheating, it’s all part of the learning process. You don’t need to be able to speak spontaneously in the tandem discussions; especially not in the beginning. Little by little, you’ll get there.
What has been the best thing about tandem practice?
I think the main benefit is not even in practicing the language, it’s about speaking with someone who is learning your own language, in your own language (or a language you’re much more advanced in, than them).
I think the main benefit is not even in practicing the language, it’s about speaking with someone who is learning your own language.
Because speaking another language is so much about courage, overcoming the fear of making mistakes. Speaking with someone who learns Finnish, has a foreign accent and makes mistakes, has given me a lot of courage. It’s proved me, that making mistakes or not pronouncing perfectly is not dangerous at all.
Russian, like Finnish, has several cases, and like probably in Finnish for many, that is one of the most difficult aspects of the language for me. I was unable to say anything at all in the beginning, because every time I had no idea which case to use, I got stuck. But the thing is, when I speak Finnish Natalia, and of course she makes mistakes, for example with the cases (she speaks Finnish really well, but it takes ages to get all the cases right in every situation!) – I hardly pay any attention! I have to make an effort to remember to correct her sometimes (because, of course we want each other to correct some mistakes every now and then in order to learn from them).
Finally, I have to say, that with languages, no single type of practice makes you perfect on it’s own. Neither does tandem practice. You need to combine it with other stuff. Some other forms of practice has been included in our tandem: preparing for the topics by writing down some phrases, watching Youtube videos we’ve found each other and then discussed at the meeting, etc. But I’ve also done Babbel lessons, grammar exercises and dialogue translations on my own, watched the news and tv series and made videos on Instagram to practice more speaking.
A couple of weeks ago, at our tandem meeting, we were practicing job interviews – a crazy thing to do in a foreign language your hardly B2 level on, and I dreaded it beforehand. But in the end, Natalia said she’d been surprised at how well it went. She said she can see I’ve made progress from since we started. I agree, I feel like I have.
The progress I’ve made is not only thanks to our tandem practice. It’s made speaking easier, for sure, but the progress is thanks to all the stuff I’ve done, altogether, during the last couple of months. However, it is thanks to the tandem, that I’m able to notice that progress. And thanks to the tandem, I was able to share that great language learning success moment with someone who was equally pleased about it!