Top Tips for Learning Chinese through Language Exchange

Imagine if you could have your own private Mandarin Chinese tutor, completely for free. Sounds impossible, right?

Actually, there is a way you can have a lesson like this – through Chinese language exchange! With a language exchange, you can find a partner who is fluent in Mandarin but wants to learn your native language. You then arrange a time to chat and help each other learn.

Language exchange is an incredible way to dive into your new language, as you will:

  • Learn new words and structures that natives use
  • Improve your understanding
  • Learn fascinating things about Chinese cultures
  • Make new friends in the most exciting parts of the world

Here are some top tips for making the most of your Mandarin language exchange!

Find the right partner

English, Japanese and Korean are the top three languages people are learning in China. If you can speak English in a good level, it will be really easy for you to find a language exchange partner. English is one of the official subjects people learn from first grade in school. Though Chinese people generally have good English writing and reading ability, they are eager to find partners to practice speaking and listening.

However, you need someone with same language level in your native language as you have in Mandarin. This is important to keep the language exchange balanced. It is also a good idea to find a partner who has similar interests or hobbies to you – though bear in mind part of the fun of language exchange is being introduced to some totally cool new interests!

Prepare beforehand

Have a think about what makes your country special – food, traditions, history. These are always interesting things to ask your partner about and compare! A great topic to talk about with a Chinese language exchange partner is food, as the Chinese are very proud of their cuisine (and rightly so!) Another popular topic are festivals and holidays. Do a bit of research before you begin your exchange so you have lots of questions for your partner.

Chinese people are generally super sensitive with political relevant topics, so these are best avoided until you know your partner better.

Set limits

Decide which language goes first and try to spend equal time with both languages. 20 minutes is a good amount to start with but you’ll need to discuss it with your partner and see what works best. Try to use only the target language when you’re speaking. For example, if your partner does not understand a word immediately, explain it to them using your own language rather than translating. It is also good to have a pen and paper to hand, so you can draw what you are talking about!

Ask your partner to speak naturally, but slowly

Not all words are in the textbooks. Getting to know the most up-to-date slang is one of the best benefits of language exchanges! It is important that your partner avoids using long, involved sentences that might confuse you, but you want to speak like a normal person, so make sure your partner does just that!

Note that when you are coming from English as a native language, it is particularly hard to learn the Chinese tones. For example, with a subtle difference, rain will be fish, bird will be pee. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to repeat something if you find it hard to understand. Be sure that your language exchange practice is going a long way to help your pronunciation and listening skills!

Recognise cultural differences

With a language exchange, you get an insider’s view on what life is like in another country. You also find out how other people perceive your country and culture! While this is an amazing experience, it can also be challenging at times. It might seem obvious – but watch out that you don’t veer into anything that could be classed as an Asian stereotype, as you could easily upset your partner. Be patient, friendly and open.

Victoria Chang

Victoria is the business development manager for China at Tandem Language Exchange. She is from Taiwan and currently works at Tandem's Berlin HQ. She likes tango dancing, creative cooking and Asian food in all of its many forms!