How to Structure a Language Tandem

Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldaña on Unsplash

The German verb ‘austauschen’ really sums it up. ‘Tauschen’ is an exchange where I get what you had and you get what I had, ‘austauschen’ is where we both get something but don’t lose anything. Nothing is given up. It’s win/win. Austauschen is an ‘interchange’.

So how do you improve the chances of getting a real ‘Austausch’?

If you’re going to go into it in an unstructured way, it’ll probably fail. The fact is that your partner is not (yet, and may never be) your friend. If you think you are just going to sit down and hit it off and start chatting it’s not going to work. You run the risk of death by small talk.

First of all, you want to learn German (say) and the other person wants to learn French (say). You have different objectives. Unless both objectives are satisfied, the tandem won’t last because one side is getting more out of it than the other side. It has to be structured so both sides get equal value.

Here’s what I did. The time you meet is limited. Let’s say it’s 90 minutes. Where are you going to meet? Let’s say you meet in a café. It’s OK to drink and maybe eat cake, but probably a good idea to avoid doing lunch together because it’s not so easy to talk when you’re eating.

The way I did it with my partner is that he would tell me a story in German (his mother tongue) and I would ask him questions in German back. I’d start by repeating stuff. If he used a word I didn’t know, I’d repeat it and he’d do his best to explain it by finding another word that I did know. Then when he’d finished I’d ask him questions about his story using all my questions words.

Then it was my turn. I’d tell him a story in English (my mother tongue) and he’d as me to clarify words and then he’d ask me questions at the end.

The advantage of this is that we were just getting going so it was more important to listen than to speak — which doesn’t mean that I didn’t speak, because I did. It just means the balance was on listening and comprehension.

Now maybe you want to know what makes a good story. Everybody can tell a story. Some people are out of practice. The easiest stories to come up with are travel stories. And the best travel stories are where something goes wrong (but it’s alright in the end…). i.e. a kind of adventure. Now I’ve met a few people who have never had a bad trip — but I honestly find it hard to believe. Everybody in this city doing a language tandem has travelled. And everybody has had something go wrong.

It’s important to follow some simple rules about storytelling. Just tell the damn story. Just say what happened. Don’t analyze it. Don’t make a summary of it. You’ve got something like 45 minutes before you have to switch over. That’s definitely enough time. Your partner is not going to cut you off. He/she is not going to start telling you their story. They are there to listen. It’s good if the story has a beginning, a middle and an end — and something goes wrong. And there’s a resolution. That’s all you need. You should figure out which story you’re going to tell before you get to the meeting.

This is a lot of fun. It won’t work with everybody, but you’ll soon find out. If the person turns out to be boring — ok, well nothing is lost, you just need to find somebody else.

So that’s stage 1.

Stage 2 is you tell a story in the language you are learning. First write it in your mother tongue and then translate it. I’m saying this because I’ve worked with dozens of learners and it works better. So, if your language is English, write it in English. Simplify it. Translate it as best you can. Then get it checked. Then go through it again and identify your learning points. (I’ve got a template for this I can let you have. Just email me.) Then you’re ready to tell the story.

You don’t read it to your partner. It’s just that you have a kind of script. If you want, give the story to your partner in advance. Then you try and tell it. It’s going to be a simplification of course, but your partner can give you hints to get you back on track if you start to get confused. But this is your story. You definitely know it. There’s no need to memorize anything.

We are taught to write differently from how we speak. Too bad. You are writing to speak, so it’s not an essay. When you write imagine it’s more like a long email. If you’re learning German and you’re using the past tense, then use the Perfekt past and not the Simple, because that’s how people talk!

Remember you’re writing to tell a ‘friend’ a story. This is what kicks off a conversation. Your partner will then ask you questions in German and ‘voilà’ your having the experience you wanted. This is an ‘Austauch’.

If you’ve made it this far, please give me a clap or two. It’s very encouraging! If you like the style, then click on the follow button.

NOTE: We are working to establish a partnership with the Freie Universität in Berlin in 2018 to do ‘Speed Storytelling’ (which is like speed dating but with stories instead of love — although it might lead to love). If that interests you then leave a message in the comments with your email or FB name.

Peter Merrick PhD. Peter is a teacher and storyteller. He runs languagegym.net in Berlin which uses personal narrative to get people talking. New modules starting every month incl. deep grammar patterns, reading novels, writing personal narrative. peterjmerrick@gmail.com. You can find example stories written by students in Berlin here https://medium.com/fictionaufdeutsch