Want Cultural Immersion Abroad? Find a Tandem Partner

Before going abroad, most of us set a goal of immersing ourselves as much as possible in our host communities. Once we actually arrive, however, immersion is easier said than done. One easy way to reach out is to sign up for a tandem partner once you are settled in your host community.

Fellows on the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals program pose in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Christopher Roman

What Is a Tandem Partner?

A tandem partnership consists of two native speakers of different languages who are trying to learn the other’s language. The partners set up a meeting schedule, usually weekly, and meet for about an hour each time. The meetings are simply conversations during which the partners speak for half of the time in one language and in the other language for the other half.

The idea is that during the conversation, the native speaker corrects the partner’s mistakes. Partners can also ask each other for unknown vocabulary or expressions. The best and most helpful condition of the tandem partner arrangement is that both parties are genuinely interested in improving their language skills, which makes it easy to both give and receive assistance. 

How to Get Started

Finding a tandem partner is a fairly simple process. Usually a local college, university or continuing education center will have an office that keeps a running list of interested potential partners. Now that we live in the age of social media, there are websites and Facebook groups that serve as forums where potential tandem partners can find one another.

Though there are plenty of reputable sites, many students still prefer to go through an office simply because it provides an additional layer of security. As with any situation in which one meets a stranger for the first time, it is always best to proceed with caution: Plan the first meeting in a public place and make sure to let a friend know where you are going and when.

Find a Tandem Partner Online

You never know who you’ll meet when you practice your language skills with a tandem partner. Photo credit An Suho

Benefits of a Tandem Partnership

Practice your language skills one-on-one with a native speaker at no cost

You can tell this person what you need and what you hope to gain from your meetings as he or she is speaking with you. While your language skills will undoubtedly improve just from hearing and using another language to do everyday things, your main focus in most everyday situations will be to be understood.

With your tandem partner, you can ask him or her to pay attention to certain mistakes you make, pronunciation, etc. Having a tandem partner is essentially having a native speaker who will offer you targeted advice and answers to questions and can provide you with an extra edge in improving your skills.

Meet someone who is not from your home country

Despite the best intentions, it can be all too easy to fall in with a crowd of other people from your own home country while living abroad. Furthermore, different social customs can sometimes make you feel as though the people in your host country are cold, superficial or difficult to approach, let alone befriend. None of this applies with your tandem partner; he or she is obligated to spend an hour with you and talk to you.

In addition to just speaking the language, your tandem partner can also offer some insight into the strange ways of their fellow countrymen. If you really hit it off with your tandem partner, you may even meet his or her friends or score an invitation to a party.

Get out and about

As the honeymoon phase of being abroad begins to wane, and you find yourself watching episodes of American television on the internet, just gathering up the desire to leave the house can become difficult. Having an arranged time to meet with someone will force you to take a shower, change out of your sweatpants, and go outside.

Some folks abroad have even been known to establish multiple partnerships so that they have someone to meet with on three or four different nights of the week. Once you’re out, it’s easier to stay out.

CBYX fellows enjoying breakfast with new friends. Photo credit Will Biesiadecki

The Possibilities Are Endless

During my first experience living abroad, I studied at a university in Freiburg, Germany through an exchange organization. It was my first time in another country, and although everyone had warned me not to spend all my time with the other Americans in the program, I did it anyway at first because it was comfortable. Since one of my majors was German, my main goal in studying abroad was to improve my German language skills. Clearly, that would not happen by spending each night with my fellow international students, so I sought out a tandem partner.

My partner, Melanie, was a German student who had spent a year as an au pair in Ireland and was eager to not let her English slip away. Melanie and I met once a week at a local Irish pub. It was awkward at first; I felt bad correcting her in a conversational setting, and I found it difficult not to lose my thoughts when she interrupted me with corrections. We pushed through the awkwardness, and eventually made some ground rules. For example, we decided to wait for a natural pause in a story to interject with suggestions, questions, or advice.

Eventually, we organized some tandem partner group meetings, in which three or four other pairs of tandem partners, who were also working on German and English, would meet and chat with each other. These group meetings were a nice way to meet other Germans and to receive feedback from different people on my German.

Amanda reconnects with old friends at the Berlin Wall. Photo credit Amanda Rohm Daquila

A few years later, I went on to become an instructor of German at an American university. The improvement of my language skills while in Germany had been crucial in helping me land the job. Furthermore, it helped to make me a good teacher. Since I had experienced firsthand how great an impact conversation has on language learning, I used a conversational style in my classroom. I also developed an online forum where beginning German language learners could meet and arrange weekly conversation meetings. The inspiration for this idea clearly came from my own experience with my tandem partner.

In my current position as the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals Program Director with Cultural Vistas, I use German daily and have the opportunity to advise students on how to immerse themselves successfully in their host communities. Finding a tandem partner is always at the top of my list of suggestions.

Learn more about Cultural Vistas’ Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals Program