Episode 06: Lessons Learned from 6 Million Language Exchanges (Interview with Tobias Dickmeis from Tandem)

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Learn Spanish Con Salsa Podcast

Episode 06

Lessons Learned from 6 Million Language Exchanges: Interview with Tobias Dickmeis from Tandem

What if there was a way to make friends with a native Spanish speaker and practice at any time and any place for free? This week we are joined by our guest Tobias Dickmeis, one of the co-founders of the popular language exchange app Tandem. The app has close to 6 million users in over 150 languages – ¡Dios mío!

Tobias shares with us some of the factors that contribute to a positive language exchange experience, how to find the right partner, and how Tandem makes finding language partners safe and convenient. He also gives us some advice on how to make language learning fun, relevant, and interesting from his own experience learning English, Spanish, and French..

Transcript

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Speaker

Transcript

00:31

Host

Hola y bienvenidos. Welcome to episode six of the Learn Spanish Con Salsa podcast. In this episode, we're going to continue to talk about language exchanges. Now, if you didn't catch our last episode where we talked all about best practices for how to establish an effective language exchange, go back and listen to episode five where we talk all about the details of how to set up a language exchange. You can listen to that episode at learnspanishconsalsa.com/languageexchange. That's learnspanishconsalsa.com/languageexchange,

01:08

Host

And on the show notes page, you'll also find a worksheet that will help you determine the best way to set up your own language exchange. And there's also links to an audio book, an E-book on how to establish effective language exchanges, and I think you'll find that very valuable when you go out and you look for a language exchange partner.

01:26

Host

Now, once you've figured out what type of language exchange is best for you, you'll need to go out and start looking for some folks to have conversations with. So in this episode we're going to be talking to one of the co-founders of the language exchange community Tandem. Now since launching back in 2015, the app has almost 6 million users from around the world that practice 160 different languages and both Apple and Google have given the Tandem app their prestigious best of the year awards. So we're going to be talking to Tobias Dickmeis and he's going to tell us all about that and how we can have effective language exchanges. Welcome Tobias.

02:06

Tobias

Hey, thanks for having me.

02:08

Host

Yeah, thanks for taking the time to join us today. Tell us a little bit about you and a little bit about Tandem and how you got started.

02:16

Tobias

I'm Tobias and I'm one of the co-founders of Tandem and that's a language exchange community. You can become a member of that community by downloading one of our apps, either on the Playstore for Android or the App Store for iOS and basically what you do is you set the languages that you speak and the ones that you want to learn and then we present you a list of other members who speak the languages you want to learn and learn the language you speak,

02:40

Tobias

and then basically you can get into a messenger experience like Whatsapp or Facebook messenger where you can practice together with text messages, audio messages, sending images, video, audio sets, and also some special language learning features like being able to correct each other's messages or translate them or also have have them pronounced.

03:00

Host

And I remember when I attended your presentation in Montreal over the summer at Langfest 2018, you shared some great insights about language exchanges from what is it you said 6 million plus users now?

03:14

Tobias

Yes, yes. Almost 6 million.

03:16

Host

So can you share with us and things that you've learned that can maybe help language learners have more effective language exchanges from your huge community of members that have been trying to practice and learn different languages?

03:27

Tobias

Oh yeah, of course. There's a lot of factors that basically contribute to a successful language exchange. It starts from how to find a language exchange partner to what you actually should look for in a partner and also then how you go about actually practicing and learning together. The question that I get asked often is when is it actually the right time to do a language exchange and it definitely makes sense to already have some basics in a language.

03:52

Tobias

We roughly always recommend in the European framework to be on a 2 level or to be a bit more precise. It usually helps to be able to form past tense in the language that you are learning because that's what you talk about a lot. You talk about what you've done and the week before or things that happened in the past, but basically you don't need much. You don't need much in terms of vocabulary. Actually language exchange kind of forces you to express yourself with even limited vocabulary and that's a great way to learn.

04:19

Tobias

Then what to look for in a partner, it's extremely important to have matching goals and motivation. That just helps if one of the two wants to learn the language, maybe just to go on a vacation in three weeks and wants to refresh and the other one is more on the long-term journey of wanting to maybe move to another country or maybe a language study. That often leads to language exchanges that are not so successful.

04:42

Tobias

It's kind of important to learn with the same intensity and time investment and it also helps to have learning times that are kind of similar, especially when you live in different time zones and it also helps that the level that you have in the target language doesn't differ too much. So if one of you is a beginner in one language and the other already advanced and you're switching from one language to the other and you have just switched from discussing philosophy to basically the way that a child would talk, it usually has the effect that you tend to talk more into the language where the advanced speaker is.

05:17

Tobias

So that also helps to align in that. There are also some data that we see in our data also in data of research that has been done about language exchange. For example, it helps especially when you're a bit younger and your twenties to have more or less the same age, more or less five years in the same age. When you get older it gets less important. But when you are younger we see that language exchanges are more successful when people have the same age.

05:40

Tobias

Then about 70 percent of the exchanges on Tandem are actually between female and male, 20 percent male-male, and 10 percent between two females. So that seems to be also a factor. Common interests of course help, but they shouldn't necessarily be overrated it often helps to have just one topic in common that you can talk about.

05:59

Tobias

The most important factor is the one that's maybe hardest to grab. This something that's maybe chemistry. You kind of have to develop a certain interest in each other's lives to really sustain a long term language exchange. Yeah, that's basically what we found out what's important and what to look for in a language exchange partner.

06:17

Host

So it sounds like having shared goals, having similar schedules and about the same language proficiency level really helps to have an effective language exchange.

06:28

Tobias

Yep. Yeah, definitely important factors, yes.

06:31

Host

Yeah and you mentioned something else about sort of the ratio of gender, like the male to female language exchanges, and I want to ask you this because I do have a lot of female members of the Spanish Con Salsa community as well, some of my female language coaching clients, who kinda complain that some people seem to use language exchange apps like they're dating sites, right?

06:50

Host

So it's like they think they clicked on Tinder instead of Tandem. So can you kind of explain what you all do at Tandem to sort of address that type of issue? And just kind of, you know, safety in general because people get concerned when you're meeting people online and you don't really know who's out there with so many different people. You know, people are always also concerned about security. So what does Tandem do to address the online dating language exchange app issue?

07:14

Tobias

Of course, to a certain extent it's a balancing act. Members at Tandem are definitely very serious language learners. Those are the ones that we want to support with all the features that we built. Then there's definitely a group of members who want to learn languages, but they also have the motivation or the goal or the interest to make friends along the way, are maybe not super serious about it, but are interested also in other cultures and cultural exchange. And then there's also unfortunately a group of people who want to do anything but learn languages and those other ones that we actually don't really welcome in our community.

07:47

Tobias

And what we do about it is when you sign up for Tandem, we ask you a couple of questions and basically check what your motivation is. And we also decline a significant number of people and don't let them in the community because they obviously don't have a language learning motivation. In the app itself,

08:04

Tobias

then we also rely on reporting other members who they feel don't behave according to the values of the community because we don't and we never want to monitor chats, so we kind of rely on that, but we take reports very seriously and blocking seriously and then also kick people out if it's necessary. That's what we're doing about it.

08:26

Tobias

In the grand scheme of also alternatives of doing this online and through an app, of course you're always most safe and secure than if you meet people in real life that you don't know. It's also much easier to simply stop a conversation with someone. The features that we offer you to avoid such experiences are you are able to block people, you're able to delete conversations with them and you're also able to report them to us. And then we take action if they obviously violated our community rules.

08:54

Host

Okay. So it sounds you do some screening, which I think is helpful. It should make people feel a little bit more comfortable with going on to the app and meeting new people. I know for me and a lot of people that I've sort of met along the way and learning Spanish and just other languages that, you know, you do tend to make friends, right? I mean you're learning, you're practicing the language, but you get to learn about different people, different cultures, and you do start to develop friendships with people.

09:16

Host

So that's one of the great things about language exchanges I think is that it is a really good way to meet people from all over the world. Like you mentioned, I think you said 160 different languages you have in different countries around the world. So it's a really good way to open up your mind and learn about, you know, just other people and different worldviews and not always see things from your perspective. So I think that's definitely a bonus, too, of language exchanges.

09:40

Tobias

Yeah, not just language exchanges, I think languages in general – it's a big bonus you get. It opens the doors into other cultures and enables you to make friends that otherwise you wouldn't be able to make. I think that that's also the main motivation for a lot of people to learn languages in the first place.

09:54

Host

And how often would you recommend someone actually communicate or have conversations with a language exchange partner to really begin to make progress. Because we talked a little bit about scheduling, having shared interests and goals, but kind of once you kind of have all that and you find sort of your ideal partner or maybe a few people that you can chat with on a regular basis. How often would you recommend really having that practice and interaction in the target language to really get good?

10:19

Tobias

Of course it depends a bit, but just with like any language learning and also courses, it probably has more to have contact for 10-15 minutes everyday rather than maybe a once a week for an hour or so. So the more often the better it is. What we see often is that language exchanges also take place across time zones so that are a bit asynchronous and based on more like text messages and other messages while with an audio and video chat and then it's often…that you receive a message in the morning and you answer in the evening, but you kind of try to stay in contact every day.

10:51

Tobias

But because of course is also a pretty time intensive. There's also definitely a pattern that people use the app more on the weekends than during the weekdays and are more like the weekly contact with a language exchange partner.

11:02

Host

Do you have any data, or have you tracked about how long it takes someone to really find a language partner that they click with?

11:10

Tobias

It's a bit hard to get this data, but roughly from experience and interviews it helps to write to maybe 10, 15, 20 people on the app to in the end have like 2-3 language exchanges that last long-term. Because like I mentioned before, one of these factors that contribute to a successful language exchange is whatever you might call chemistry and that's really hard to figure it out before you actually tried to talk to a couple of people.

11:36

Tobias

But eventually if you start 10, 15, 20 conversations, the chance that you end up with 2, 3 long-term language exchange partners is pretty high. And of course on an app like ours that's also pretty easy. You can do this within a few hours. You can start these conversations rather than in the offline world where you might have to meet with all those people in some cafe somewhere and it's just much quicker and easier to do this online.

11:56

Host

So that's good to know. So if someone's discouraged because maybe they've sent out two or three messages and they haven't heard back from anyone or found someone they really click with yet or like you mentioned how that chemistry, that they should really try to least send out at minimum 10 messages to sort of see if they can find more.

12:14

Tobias

It depends also largely on language combinations because unfortunately there are some language combinations that are a bit unbalanced. Like we have a lot of members in China and most of them want to learn English, but we don't have so many English native speakers who want to learn Chinese. That's something that we try to balance with our algorithms, but it's just impossible to some extent because it's just a reality that the one group is bigger than the other.

12:38

Host

So what's the ratio like for Spanish speakers, so for different Spanish speaking countries or just the number of native English speakers that are learning Spanish? I know that it tends to be one of the more popular languages to want to learn, English in general. And then for English speakers, I think Spanish is one of the most popular foreign languages that English speakers try to learn. So is that what you find too with Tandem, with your community?

13:00

Tobias

Yes. So after English, Spanish is the language that most members want to practice. And Also between Spanish and other languages, it's pretty balanced. So there's still more Spanish speakers will want to learn English than the other way around, but the difference is not so big. Then with other languages and especially in languages like Spanish-Portuguese, Spanish-French, Spanish-Italian, Spanish-German are very balanced.

13:21

Host

So anyone out there learning Spanish should have a pretty easy time finding someone to practice with

13:24

Tobias

It's definitely probably the easiest language to find an exchange partner. Yeah, that's true.

13:29

Host

Thank you for that insight. Now I want to switch a little bit to talk about your language journey to see if there's anything that you can share from your personal experience that might help out our listeners as well. So what languages do you speak?

13:40

Tobias

So I really only speak… German is my native language and English, and my French and Spanish are on basic levels that I'm trying to improve through language exchanges. And I actually have neglected, especially my Spanish in the last weeks a bit.

13:57

Host

So I'm assuming you use Tandem for your language exchanges, right?

14:01

Tobias

Yes, yes.

14:02

Host

So we can find you out there and practice if we want, no? (laughs)

14:05

Tobias

You can find me, yes, practicing Spanish and especially if you want to learn German, I'm very happy to help, but also with English.

14:13

Host

I know like with any language exchange or any sort of language practice that we all tend not to be perfect. Right? And I'm personally a recovering perfectionist. I really don't like making mistakes, but I know that making mistakes is really the key to really getting better at speaking a language. Right? So I was wondering if you could share with us one of the funniest or most embarrassing moments you had. A mistake that you made when you were practicing either English or Spanish or French.

14:36

Tobias

Oh, let me think. Well yeah, there was this one incident. So I was actually learning Spanish in Chile, which is probably not the best because the Chilean Spanish is a very special, the use quite a bit of slang, they talk very fast and sometimes also have different words.

14:52

Tobias

And I remember… so I lived in Chile, in Santiago, when I was studying Spanish. One of my light bulbs broke and I wanted to get a new one and I looked up the word for light bulb in a dictionary and if I remember right, I found the word ‘bombilla' and then I went to a shop, an electronics shop, and and I asked for a ‘bombilla'. I got quite a laughter because apparently ‘bombilla' in Chilean Spanish is the straw that you put into cocktails. It's almost like I ordered a cocktail in an electronics shop and the Chilean word for this is ‘lamparita', which I will never forget.

15:25

Host

(Laughter) Yeah, I always say that those mistakes really make you remember things right? You'll never make that mistake again.

15:32

Tobias

Yes, I totally agree that making mistakes is actually a good way to make progress.

15:38

Host

What strategy would you say made the biggest difference for you in your language learning? What's the one thing that you think that even if you were starting with a brand new language today that you would recommend is the most effective way to improve your language?

15:50

Tobias

Yep, yeah. So I think there's always these two factors that are really important for the language. One is really about what's the best method for me, like a tactical approach, what's most efficient? Then there's the stay whole motivation part and I know for myself that the motivation part for me is actually almost more important than the didactic part. So what have I learn I try to find ways to make it fun.

16:11

Tobias

I learn with apps like ours, but also of course other apps that teach you vocabulary and grammar that are more like games rather than actually serious courses. I actually also really learn with what your approach is, with songs and poems, or other material that I really like, and football or soccer in the US. So, and when I was in Chile I watched a lot soccer and try to learn vocabulary through this. It's maybe not always the most efficient way, but it's the way that I learn best in probably that's different for everybody.

16:39

Tobias

But to figure out what's the way that you learn best and what's most fun for you, I think is most important. So my experience of learning languages in school was rather traumatic. It was always my worst subject. We look forward to the lessons, when I learn the right way and I reserve like an hour per day for learning languages and I'm actually really looking forward to that hour. Usually I do it in the evening and I'm really looking forward to and I'm really enjoying it.

17:14

Tobias

That's most important for me and it's not so important for me that I always know the grammar right. Usually I start to study these boring grammar tables when I've failed a couple of times to whatever, build the past tense or something, then I kind of run into a word like three times. Then I'm super motivated to do that. If I do it without any context and without any concrete need then it just doesn't work. I can't remember all this stuff. So that's how I learn. It's maybe not really the most efficient way, but for me it's the most efficient because it's fun for me.

17:29

Host

Yeah, I think you touched on a few things there, making sure that you're doing something you enjoy, so you actually look forward to it. Because I think when we force ourselves or we approach it like I have to take a class or something, it does get boring and it's not really relevant and then you're dreading, you know, learning. Especially like you mentioned, I think a lot of us have had experiences in school with learning languages where they weren't the best. So really finding a way that the language works for you is really important.

17:54

Tobias

When it comes to relevant, what's relevant content for me, then language exchange also works really well for me because the kind of content that I'm studying are messages that someone wrote to me. Like somebody took the effort to write me a personal message. So of course I want to know what it means. I want to decipher it, and I also to write a meaningful reply. There's no more relevant content for me than something like that. It's much more relevant than reading soccer news or something like this. Somebody wrote a message for me that's like the biggest motivation for me to actually try and to understand.

18:25

Host

Thank you for sharing that. Now we're going to do our quick fire round, so this will be an opportunity for you to practice your Spanish.

18:32

Tobias

OK.

18:34

Host

All right. So, Tobias… ¿Cuál es tu canción favorita en español?

What is your favorite Spanish song?

18:38

Tobias

En español es la canción ‘La Flaca' de Jarabe de Palo.

In Spanish the song is The Skinny Girl by Jarabe de Palo.

18:41

Host

¿Cuál fue la última cosa que leíste, miraste, o escuchaste en español?

What was the last thing that you read, watched, or listened to in Spanish?

18:41

Tobias

Creo que un poema de Pablo Neruda.

I think a poem by Pablo Neruda.

18:41

Host

¿Recuerdas cuál fue la poema?

Do you remember which poem it was?

18:41

Tobias

La poema se llama ‘Tus Pies.'

The poem is called ‘Your Feet.’

18:41

Host

Ok, saca tu teléfono, tu móvil, y busca el último texto que recibíste y trata de traducirlo al español para nosotros.

OK, take out your phone, your mobile phone, and look for the last text that you received, and try to translate it to Spanish for us.

19:10

Tobias

Un momento. Es un mensaje de una amiga que visita Berlin. En inglés, ‘Is there good food in my area?' En español, ‘Hay buena comida en mi área?

Just a moment.  It’s a message from a friend that’s visiting Berlin.

19:31

Host

Muy bien. Gracias. Y la última pregunta, esto es una pregunta al azar. So this is just a random question. ¿Si pudieras ser cualquier animal, que serías?

Very good, thanks.  And the last question, this is a random question.  If you could be any animal, what would you be?

19:37

Tobias

Creo que eras (sería) un pájaro, pero no sé qué pájaro.

I think I would be a bird, but I don’t know what bird.

19:47

Tobias

Entonces gracias Tobias. Thank you for doing our quick fire round. Thank you again so much for your time and for sharing with us a little bit about Tandem and language exchanges. So if people want to get in touch with you or to download Tandem, how can they get in touch with you on social media or how can they access the Tandem app?

20:03

Tobias

So our website is tandem.net, but if you look for Tandem or Tandem language exchange on both episodes, you should find us very easily. We also have social media channels, of course, we’re on Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Wayboy in China, and all these are ways to get in touch with us.

20:18

Host

Okay. So thank you so much Tobias for your time, y que tengas un buen día.

20:23

Tobias

Thank you. ¡Buen día!

20:26

Tobias

I hope you've enjoyed this episode of Learn Spanish Con Salsa. Now to access the show notes page to get a link to the Tandem app as well as all of the things we talked about in our episode today, go to learnspanishconsalsa.com/tandem. That's learnspanishconsalsa.com/tandem. You'll be able to access a special link to join Tandem right from our show notes page. And with that, as always, I hope you have learned something in this episode to take you one step closer from beginner to bilingual. ¡Adiós!

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Links and Resources

Guest Information

Tobias Dickmeis, Tandem Co-Founder

Guide to Successful Language Exchanges > Get the audiobook now on Audible.com” class=”wp-image-3680″/></a><figcaption>Audiobook now available on <a rel=Amazon (Only $3.95)

If you're looking for more best practices and specifics on how to establish an effective language exchange, you can download the e-book or audiobook: Guide to Successful Language Exchanges. It includes worksheets and scripts you can use when you're reaching out to a language exchange partner for the first time, and some tools that you can use to help you schedule sessions that take into account the different time zones around the world.


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