It sounds good in theory, but does it actually work? The truth of the matter is that the answer ranges from yes to no, depending on who you ask. Why is that?
Language exchange, like any other type of teaching, is not foolproof. There are many other factors beyond just the method of learning that play a role in what you get out of it.
The first step starts with you. You have to be open and willing to work at communicating with your partner about your goals and when you need help while you practice. No matter how good of a practice partner you have, you will not learn if you don’t put in effort on your end.
Be a good listener and pace yourself. Paying attention to your language exchange partner and taking your time while doing so will pay off in the end. Trying to gobble up too much information too fast will put you at an overall disadvantage. The basics are your foundation, and skimming over them to get to the fun or more challenging stuff will only leave you with a weak foundation. Consider hiring an English tutor to learn from as well, in addition to speaking English with your language exchange partner. English speaking takes time to improve, and it won’t happen overnight.
Work outside of your meetings. You can’t expect all of your learning to take place with your exchange partner. Language exchange partners can guide you through your language acquisition journey, but if you do not make efforts to incorporate your learning in other areas and into other facets of your life, your efforts will be in vain. Watch movies, read books (even the backs of shampoo bottles, depending on your language!), listen to music and podcasts. Talk about these things with your practice partner and your tutor. It all helps, and the more you find yourself surrounded by the language, the more you will see improvement in your speaking.
The match matters. When looking for a language exchange partner, you aren’t just looking for someone who has the skills you need, you’re looking for a friend—someone you get along with and feel comfortable with. If you don’t feel comfortable practicing with your partner, you will be focusing more on that than on the information they’re trying to help you with.
Consider paying an experienced tutor or teacher to supplement your English speaking with an exchange partner. A tutor can provide you with experience and direction beyond that of an everyday speaker. Make sure that your tutor’s teaching style matches with your learning style. Everyone learns in different ways. Perhaps you do best by memorizing, while your tutor attempts to teach you predominately through conversation. Just like your practice partner, you need to find a tutor who you feel teaches to your style, while still providing you with a well-rounded experience, so that you can be successful.
Benny the Irish Polyglot once said "You can't teach a language, you have to 'do it.'" The same could be said for learning a language. You can’t just rely on books and step-by-step guides, you have to get out and experience the life of the language. Language exchange partners give you that ability to practice, be it in person or through Skype, and experienced tutors give you the ability to take your learning to the next level. Learn from one another, practice with one another, do with one another.
For more great advice on language acquisition and the art of doing a language, check out Benny’s Fluent in 3 Months blog, and his video on language exchange through Skype by Benny and his fellow polyglots.