Japanese Language Exchange: Do’s and Don’ts in Your First Interaction

Japanese language exchanges can be a powerful tool to improve your Japanese communication skill, but finding what works best for you can feel overwhelming — and more frustrating than the conversation itself. 

Starting your language exchange right out of the gates can be tough, but avoid falling into these common pitfalls. So how do you make the most with your language exchange partner and keep having meaningful interactions?

Side note: If you are looking to join a language learning community, Coto Community has a Meetup group, which you can join for free by creating an account. You’ll get updated about our exciting online and in-person events without missing a beat. Join today.

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What’s a Japanese Language Exchange?

Language exchange is the meeting of two people who are learning each other’s language and have agreed to practice it together. 

Let’s imagine Bob, who came from the United States. He took Japanese language lessons in Tokyo. He learned the grammar, kanji and vocabulary words.

But somehow, even with all the roleplays and speaking sessions with his teacher, he felt like it wasn’t enough. He still lacked the confidence to speak. 

And then his Japanese co-worker, Tanaka-san, invited him to be his speaking partner. They agreed to practice twice a week on these terms: every Monday, after work, Bob and Tanaka-san would only speak Japanese for an hour. On Tuesday, it’s a whole English session.

During these times, both Tanaka-san and Bob would fix each other’s mistakes, encourage them to speak and make sure the conversation stayed engaging. 

In its most basic sense, Bob and Tanaka-san were participating in a Japanese-English language exchange. They tick all the requirements for a basic exchange session.

So why do people recommend language exchanges — specifically for those learning Japanese? This is because Japanese is a unique language for a few reasons (hint: and it’s not because of their complicated three-type writing system). 

Japanese is a unique language for a number of reasons. In linguistics, it’s grouped into the “high-context” language, which means communication relies on social context.

In other words, when you’re speaking Japanese with a native, you’re not just paying attention to the words spoken — you pay attention to their nonverbal expressions, social cues, relationships and social settings. 

That means your challenge isn’t just to learn Japanese grammar and vocabulary, which is relatively straightforward, but to be intuitive. 

Speaking Japanese in a real-life context (not roleplays or scenarios) helps you grow more contemplative about what to say to whom in Japan. 

What’s the Benefit of a Japanese Language Exchange?

Language exchanges allow you to practice speaking the Japanese language beyond textbook-molded scenarios and experience the difference between real-life conversation and classroom learning.

This is the biggest plus point of language exchanges: they help you break the barrier of speaking and make you more comfortable in the language.

And because you are practicing with a native speaker, you will hear firsthand the most natural way to communicate in said language: the slang, pronunciation and other colloquial expressions that you wouldn’t learn with a formal teacher. 

  1. Language exchanges make learning Japanese fun and motivating. You’re practicing listening and speaking simultaneously, so you’re going to be more engaged than just memorizing theory. Plus, your exchange partners are like peers, or even friends (case point below), so you’ll likely feel more at ease. 
  2. They’re free. You might have to splurge a bit for drinks and food if you’re meeting in person at a cafe, but other than that, language exchanges are usually free. 
  3. It’s a great way to make new friends. The chance of meeting someone you don’t click with is high, but so is finding amazing people. You’ll learn about the different cultures of the world and expand your network. 

tips for japanese language exchange

The don’ts for a successful experience

A lot of people are completely fine with one-time language exchange events, which are a great way to make friends and meet new people — like the events hosted at Coto Community. But some of you might be looking for long-term exchange partners.

Either way, be mindful of do’s and dont’s to avoid an awkward time. By the end of this, we hope you’re ready to tackle your first Japanese language exchange event like a champ. 

1. Don’t come with zero Japanese skill

We know learners are eager to jump right off the boat to talk Japanese, but you might experience trouble if you have zero Japanese skills.

Firstly, you won’t have enough vocabulary to even make the most basic conversation. A good Japanese language exchange partner will encourage to speak and maybe even tone down the complexity of their speech, but in the end, it’s not going to be as effective as the entire session will just be slow and painful. Remember that a language exchange focuses on helping you talk. 

Instead, study the language first and do the exchange a few months down the road. Once you’re ready, you can move to speak. A good benchmark is when you can start expressing opinions, thoughts and feelings, which will put you around upper-beginner to intermediate level 

2. Don’t ask the generic, boring questions

You’re meeting someone online or in person you’ve never met before. You might be inclined to focus on basic icebreakers, like asking, “How old are you?” or “The weather is nice!”

While those questions are great as a way to kickstart the conversation (Where are you from? How long have you been to Japan), chances are, you and your counterparts have already been asked these kinds of questions a million times.

It can make the interaction dull and boring because you’re not actually exploring new things. Worse, it’ll make the conversation short because you’ll feel like you’re just trying to kill time. 

You don’t have to ask advanced stuff about global news or politics, but try to think of questions that can carry a conversation: hobbies, culture and fun facts. 

3. Don’t ask controversial and sensitive stuff

While open discussions are fun, Japan is still a relatively conservative society, and people tend to not discuss “controversial” topics for fear of being out of line. Dodge things like strong opinions on national and global politics, drugs and gun control, just to name a few.

The worst thing you can do is create tension between the both of you (or your group) because of unnecessary agreements and loose your exchange partner. You don’t know how people will react to things, so it’s best to avoid them. Instead, ease into a casual style of conversations. 

Same as for personal life or family in the first few sessions. Some people are not comfortable talking about these things until they know you better. 

4. Don’t ask them to teach you 

You join a language exchange event because they offer what teachers can’t give: real conversations. That said, they (or you) are not academic teachers. The word ‘exchange’ means it’s a give-and-take situation. 

Don’t ask your partners to ‘teach’ you the JLPT or Japanese grammar, because the burden isn’t at them. Plus, it will only push them away.

Instead, treat the conversation like how you would between normal friends. In these interactions, you’ll naturally be able to correct grammar, use context-specific vocabulary and nail better pronunciation. 

When both sides are bringing value to the table, you’ll get benefits. In a language exchange, you want to practice the Japanese language, and your friend will want to practice English (or your native language).

5. Don’t mix up two languages at once

Most successful exchange events happen when you only speak one language at a time. This allows one of you to focus on practicing said language (and your partner to help you correct your mistakes). 

Imagine Bob, our non-existent student, talking in Japanese, while Tanaka-san, his partner, talking in English.

Bob: いい天気ですね!(Good weather today)
Tanaka: That’s right!
Bob: 今日何を食べましたか?(What did you eat?)
Tanaka: I ate curry from the konbini. 

The conversation felt one-sided because you’re both trying to get to the goal of speaking the other language simultaneously.

It’s tough to make sure both parties get a fair chance to practice their target language, but you can do this by  setting time limits or arranging schedules where you both can switch from practicing one language to the table

For example, you meet once a week for an hour to talk fully in English. The next week, you both agree to do it in Japanese. You want to make sure both partners have equal time to talk in their target language. 

6. Don’t forget to set your expectations and arrangements

Let your partner know your goal and language level from the start. It’s good for them to know how long you like to meet and the frequency. Every person’s availability and preference are different, so communication is key. It’s also good to set expectations on how you want to receive feedback: during the conversation or after, for example.

The things to keep in mind are:

  • The time, day and frequency of language exchange
  • Your Japanese language level
  • The things you’re uncomfortable talking about
  • What you like to talk about
  • How you like to receive feedback

Setting up these technicalities might feel awkward, but it allows you to avoid any miscommunication and focus on the actual language exchange with ease. 

7. Don’t flirt with your partner or think of a language exchange as a date

Are there situations where the relationship evolves into something more than just language exchanges? Yes. But you don’t use a language exchange app as a dating app or a meetup as a date in the first place.

Most people do it to improve their language skills and make friends, so trying to flirt is a huge red flag. 

The same thing goes for when you sense that the language partner is trying to flirt with you. If they do that with you, they will keep doing it with other people.

As soon as you sense their intentions, try to walk out as soon as possible. You want to meet serious learners and have meaningful language exchanges. This leads us to the next point.

8. Don’t give away personal information 

Whether it’s through a language exchange app or an in-person coffee chat, you’ll essentially be meeting a stranger. The worst thing to do is to share private information with them for the first time. 

Now, there are some cases where they might be relevant. You might also become friends with them. But although Japan is known for being a safe country, you don’t know who’s there with shady intentions. 

Stay within the language exchange app and let your friends know where you are before you do the language exchange in person. 

9. Don’t stick to the wrong partner

A good rule of thumb is to listen to your gut. If you feel like your language exchange partner is not serious, or if you feel like you’re investing in helping your counterpart more, talk about it or walk away.

There are tons of people who want to seriously do a proper Japanese language exchange, so you’re in no serious trouble to find a new one.

All you have to do is be honest and polite — and hop out of any uncomfortable situation before it gets worse. 

10. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Spoken Japanese can be quite different than what you learn in textbooks. When your partner gives correction, accept the feedback gracefully. The best way to learn is from mistakes. A good partner should make corrections without overdoing them or being rude. 

Here’s a tip: The best way to ‘correct’ is not to point out the mistakes, but paraphrase the sentence as if you’re only confirming what your counterpart said when you’re actually mispronounced or used the wrong word or phrase for an expression. This won’t interrupt the dialog. 

Instead of saying, “Yeah, that’s right,” use this opportunity to repeat the correction before moving on. 

Tips to Make the Best Out of Your Japanese Language Exchange

  1. Know what to talk about. Before starting your language exchange, create a list of possible topics or discussion questions — all adjusted to your Japanese language level. If you’re at a more advanced level, try to challenge yourself with more difficult conversation starters. This will allow you to learn more specific words. 
  2. Take notes and record the conversation if possible. Make sure to ask if your partner is comfortable with this arrangement. Record your conversations and listen back to them. You can repeat the phrases when you’re alone, which can help you remember the words.
  3. Bring a notebook too because it’s handy to write down new words. Plus, you can spruce up the language exchange session by having your partner write kanji or spell Japanese for you. 

How To Find A Japanese Language Exchange Partner

Join a language exchange community

You can join Meetup groups that host different language exchange events. In Tokyo specifically, you’ll find meetup events for foreigners to gather to practice their Japanese.

Coto Community has a Meetup group with more than 60 (and growing)  members of both English and Japanese speakers. We will be hosting in-person and online events, so feel free to join us in whichever way you can. Create an account and join the group today. 

Set a profile on a Japanese language exchange app

If you think group language exchange events are less favorable than one-on-one sessions, you can always download language exchange apps. Here, you can search for language exchange partners by either text or voice chat.

Some apps offer features to call or video calls them, and because it’s all online, you’re more likely to have a safety net in case things go south. You can find a language partner with your targeted language (besides English and Japanese).  

  1. HelloTalk
  2. SewaYou
  3. Tandem

What is a Japanese language exchange?

Language exchange is the meeting of two people who are learning each other’s language and have agreed to practice it together. 

How do I find a Japanese study partner?

Conversation Exchange, HelloTalk, italki and Meetup are great apps and websites to meet people who want to study Japanese and/or English.

Where can I make Japanese friends online?

Most people rely on apps like HelloTalk or Hinative. You can also visit a lot of conversation bars if you are in Japan.

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