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Conversation exchanges | The best way to improve your speaking

Could conversation exchanges be the key to speaking fluent Polish?

If you want to learn a language, there’s no better way than by speaking with natives. I recommend having at least two conversation exchange partners to save straining any relationships with the Polish natives that you already know!

You might think that talking to a Polish person that you know will be beneficial to learning Polish (and you’d be right). However, there are still many advantages of having a Polish conversation exchange partner via Skype. It saves the Polish person you know the burden of trying to teach you the language. You get a log of your mistakes. They’re completely free. You can do them anywhere where you have the internet (and a Skype-enabled device). Your conversation exchange partner is likely to understand your needs (as they’ll be similar to their own) and because you’ll have always spoken two languages with your conversation exchange partner, it won’t feel weird switching between the two.

Just because they’re Polish, it doesn’t mean that they want to teach you their language

Do you have a Polish partner, family member or work colleague? They might teach you the odd phrase here and there, but they probably don’t want to actually teach you their language. Why not? Because it’s hard.

I’d also like to add that being a native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that you’d make a very good teacher. Natives learned the language in a completely different way. One of my partners once asked me what the difference was between the first and second conditional in English. I had to ask her to tell me what they were!

You get a log of your mistakes

If there’s one question I ask in almost every single conversation exchange, it’s “Jak to się pisze?” (How is it written?). When one of my partners gives me a correction, I don’t rely on just remembering it, I ask them to write it down. After the exchange, I add my corrections to Anki so that I never make the same mistake again. This doesn’t just work for corrections – if my partner says an unfamiliar word, I’ll ask them to write it down for me too.

Ask your partner “Jak to się pisze?” (How is it written?) whenever they say a correction or a word that you’re unfamiliar with.

I actually record my Skype conversations on my PC with a piece of software called iFree Skype Recorder. You can’t do that in face to face conversation. I rarely listen to them, but the recordings can be quite handy. If there’s a correction that wasn’t written down, I can always go back and listen to find out what it was. It’s also nice to have a record of how my Polish has improved over time, although the earlier recordings are cringeworthy!

Conversation exchanges are completely FREE

You have two options when trying to find someone to talk to in Polish.

  1. Pay someone to talk to you solely in Polish.
  2. Trade your native language for theirs.

I’m constantly encouraging you to sign up to italki with my referral link so that you don’t miss out on a free lesson. However, I never actually did any Polish lessons on italki as I never had the money at the time. Instead, I did (and still do) conversation exchanges – a free alternative.

Just to clarify, italki lessons are extremely affordable. Some teachers are available for less than $10 an hour. That’s less than 10 quid. I was just really, really poor.

There are benefits to either route, I just happened to choose the one that didn’t cost me money. We speak English for 30 minutes and then we speak Polish for 30 minutes. No payment necessary. Alternatively, I could have just paid someone to talk to me in Polish for a whole hour and progressed a lot quicker.

There are definitely pros and cons to having free conversation exchanges as opposed to paid lessons. Every minute spent speaking English is time you could have spent learning Polish. Another disadvantage is that not everyone appreciates something which is for free. I’ve had conversation partners not show up. Some have disappeared without leaving a trace. I couldn’t imagine a paid teacher doing that.

It’s important to note that both routes will get you there. Paying will probably get you there quicker. It’s ultimately your choice.

You can do them anywhere with internet

You can do a conversation exchange from anywhere that you have internet. I really mean anywhere. One of my partners has Skyped me from Nottingham, Lisbon, Barcelona, Warsaw and Minehead. We write down the time that we’re going to talk in our respective time zones and he’s always there on time, no matter where he is in the world. I’ve done them whilst walking home from work, I’ve done a few whilst lying on the sofa…I even did one from bed. You really can do them from anywhere. The possibilities are endless.

Your conversation partner understands your needs

More likely than not, your conversation partner will know what you need to progress. Your partner is either going through or has been through a similarly difficult language learning journey to yours. They might recommend you resources, send you links or help you read things. They could give you simple explanations, rephrase themselves or check that you understand idioms. Some might write your corrections in full sentences, speak slowly or guide you with pronunciation. My wonderful partners do all of the above. If they’re not doing something that they could be doing to help, all you have to do is ask.

It won’t feel weird speaking Polish with them

I can’t explain this really strange thing which is going on. My girlfriend, who is Polish, speaks to me in English. Her dad, who is Polish and lives in Poland, only speaks to me in English. Her nan, her uncle and her cousin only ever spoke to me in Polish. What’s strange about that? We have continued to speak the language that we were introduced to each other in, irregardless of our proficiency level in the language.

I have asked my girlfriend to speak to me in Polish many times, but mid-conversation and sometimes even mid-sentence, she automatically switches back to English. I’ve spoken to waiters and waitresses in Poland who, after initially starting speaking to me in English, have realised that I can speak Polish and yet have still continued to speak to me in English. Of course, sometimes people just want to get a bit of practice and others are just trying to be polite, but you’ll usually find that if you’re used to speaking a certain language with someone, it tends to stick. After a few conversation exchanges where you flip flop between English and Polish, it won’t feel weird speaking either language and you’ll feel less inclined to switch.

How to get started with conversation exchanges

You can find a partner on any conversation exchange site, but the only one that I can personally recommend is italki. (That’s my referral link, so if you sign up with it and take a Polish lesson, italki will give us both some italki credits that we can spend on even more lessons. Win win!) There are more than 1 million users on the site. You’re sure to find a few Poles who are willing to exchange your English for their Polish. A few message me every week, so if you really can’t find someone, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

You set the rules of your conversation exchange. The duration, the language, the date, the time, the topic of the conversation and even how often you meet is all decided by you. Plus, since they are conducted via Skype, you can do them from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

My top tips

Here are my top tips for effective conversation exchanges:

Do do these
  • Use earphones. You’ll need to be able to hear your partner over any background noise/chatty significant others.
  • Only speak in Polish during the Polish part of the conversation. If you don’t know how to say something in Polish, either say something else or search for what you want to say in an online translator. Whatever it is, if it helps you get the point across in Polish, use it.
  • In the Polish part of the conversation, make sure that you to do most of the talking. Prepare something in advance, if you have to.
  • Ask your partner for corrections. If you have a list of written corrections, you can look them up and add them to Anki after the conversation.
  • Always show up – on time. If you’re either not going to be on time or need to cancel, send your partner a message on Skype, giving them as much notice as possible.
  • Allow yourself more time than you have scheduled. Conversation exchanges almost always overrun, so assume than an hour long exchange will last for an hour and 15 minutes.
  • Always thank your partner. They’ve given up their time to teach you how to speak Polish – it’s worth a “thank you”.
  • Write the time and date of your next session in your Skype conversation in both of your time zones. It’s important that you both know the right time to show up to avoid any confusion, so once you’ve established the correct date and time, write it into your calendar and set a reminder on your phone.
  • Do have more than one partner. Ideally, you should have at least one male and one female conversation exchange partner. Some Polish words change depending on whether you’re speaking or referring to either a man or a woman. Having both to talk to will not only give you the opportunity to learn the terms for both genders, but should one of your partners be unavailable, you still have another one to have a conversation exchange with.
Don’t do these
  • Don’t keep talking about the same things. If you’re not sure what to talk about either practise asking and answering a few questions from your phrasebook or pick a conversation exchange topic instead. If there isn’t something topical on Onet for you to discuss, there are plenty of websites available with example topics to choose from.
  • Avoid doing more than one conversation exchange a day. You will burn yourself out by taking on too much, particularly in the beginning stages of learning how to speak Polish.
  • Don’t do more than four conversation exchanges in a week. You shouldn’t sacrifice your social life to learn Polish. After all, no one wants to speak to a boring person!
  • Do not forget to send your partner a message when you’re ready to start. That means that they know when they can call you.
  • Establish which language you’d like to start in. Bear in mind that it’s much easier to organise your next session in the stronger language between the two of you! It’s more likely you’ll both show up at the right time too.
  • Don’t ditch a conversation exchange partner before having at least three sessions with them. The first few sessions can be a bit awkward, so give it a bit of time before choosing to pull the plug. I’ve found three to be the magic number. As you’ll see from my log, I’ve had well over 50 exchanges with some partners and less than 5 with others. Be brutal. There are 40 million Poles on the planet. If you don’t like talking to this one, find someone else.
  • Do not forget that you will have good days and bad days. Keep a language log, so that you can keep track of how much progress you’ve made so far when the time gets tough.
What should I do if I only I only know the basics?

MosquitoX writes:

I’ve been enjoying reading your blog and getting some more tips.
A question I have for you, if you don’t mind, is how to get the most out of a language exchange. In your blog you write about what to talk about, but I feel like there are so many, and I mean SO MANY holes in my vocabulary that I couldn’t really talk about these things. You also wrote that your first exchanges were “cringeworthy”, which I can’t imagine mine wouldn’t be either.
Basically, I feel like my Polish is so elementary that I really cannot express myself. What would you say is the best way to proceed?

First off, I just have to say what a great question this is. (Never be afraid to ask me a question. If I know the answer, I’ll tell you. If I don’t, then you’ve pointed out something that I need to go and learn. Either way, all of the Polish learners who visit HowToSpeakPolish.com can benefit.)

I know exactly what this feels like. Before my first conversation exchange, I guesstimated that I’d be able to talk for about 30 seconds before I’d run out of things to say. I’d rehearsed a few things – for example, how to say my name, where I live, where my family come from, where I worked and why I was learning Polish. So, I decided to stretch myself and looked for a partner who’d be willing to do 30 MINUTES in Polish in exchange for 30 minutes in English. So how on Earth did I survive this 30 minute ordeal? I cheated.

Unfortunately, the best way to explain is by doing something that I swore that I would never do. I’m going to post the recording of my very first conversation exchange. This was my first ever conversation in Polish. Yes, you read correctly. My first ever conversation in Polish.


To save you listening to it (it’s painfully bad), let me give you a few take away points:

  • Despite never having a lesson, or completing a course, or living in Poland, I could actually keep the conversation going.
  • When I didn’t know something in Polish, I just asked in English how to say it. My partner wanted to practise his English anyway, so I killed two birds with one stone. Boom.
  • When I didn’t understand something that my partner said, I just guessed. If it was a yes/no question, I pretty much always answered “Yes”. If there was an awkward pause, I said “OK”.
  • I got the word “Kindle” mixed up with the word for “toilet”…and no one died.
  • My language partner asked me some ridiculously difficult questions that I was never, ever, ever going to be able to answer in Polish.

If you did listen to the audio, a few things may surprise you. The most surprising is that I actually knew how to say quite a lot in Polish. How? In a word, Anki. I’d used the very Anki decks that you’ll find in the Resources section and had worked solely on building my understanding of Polish. As I said in the recording, I’d only actually being using Anki for a couple of months and had already achieved great results. By understanding the correct way of saying things, I was able to produce something remotely correct myself. Not perfect, but passable.

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When I didn’t know how to say something, I just typed it into Google Translate. There are no rules to say that you can’t use phrasebooks, dictionaries, translators or even English in your conversation exchanges. In some conversation exchanges, I’ve even mimed what I was trying to express.

Throw everything you’ve got at it. Books, flashcards, interpretive dance – whatever. If those don’t work, use English. You can always build up the amount of time that you speak in Polish over time. Get your point across and ask your partner to tell you the correct way to say it in Polish. Add their corrections into Anki and you’ll be able to say it correctly from that point onwards.

Remember to enjoy yourself!

Have fun! You’ll speak more fluently with partners who correct you less, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re speaking better Polish. Remember, if you’re not enjoying speaking with one of your conversation exchange partners, drop them. Simply thank them for helping you and politely explain that you won’t be doing any more exchanges with them as you’re considering other options to help you improve your Polish. You can search for a new conversation exchange partner on websites like italki and because that’s my referral link, both you and I get some free italki credits when you take your first lesson too.

TL;DR: Conversation exchanges can be one of the most effective ways to learn a language providing that you don’t burn yourself out by doing too many exchanges, only speak in Polish during the Polish part and you add any corrections which you’re given into Anki to stop yourself from making them again in the future.

What are your best conversation exchange tips?

You can keep track of my conversation exchanges here and find out exactly how often and how long I spend doing them each week. One of my most unusual tips is to always have a glass of water handy – you’d be surprised how much you might need it. What are your best conversation exchange tips? Leave them in the comments below!

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Nathan
I taught myself Polish to conversational fluency in just 14 months, despite neither living in Poland nor taking a single lesson. Now, I teach others how to speak Polish in an even faster and more efficient way, avoiding the mistakes that I made. Follow me on Twitter: @how2speakpolish.
http://www.howtospeakpolish.com
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