What’s a Tandem Partner And How Should I Get One?
Illustration: Daniel Marin Medina
When looking for the perfect tandem partner, it’s easy to feel like Goldilocks. When I moved to Berlin seven years ago, finding a tandem partner was a no-brainer. For those not in the know, a tandem partnership is a language exchange between two people learning the other person’s native language (in my case, I wanted to learn German and offered up English).
There was a lot of trial and error in finding the right person, but eventually, this Goldilocks found her just-right bowl of porridge: Dietmar, my tandem partner for several years. Our sessions boosted my feel for German slang and small-talk, and especially my confidence with all those crazy grammar cases. Our conversations allowed me to become comfortable with my new identity in another language – and at the same time make a lifelong friendship.
There is a lot that I would’ve done differently, though, to find a great catch like Dietmar sooner. Here’s my best advice for finding a tandem partner from personal experience:
Set your tandem partner goals.
Why do you want a tandem partner, anyway? Give yourself time to formulate exactly what you hope to get out of this experience before putting yourself out there.
In tandem ads, people often mention their age, occupation, and interests, but looking back, these details weren’t that important. There are a few other things I would’ve liked people to be more up-front about, including:
- What are your tandem goals? (e.g. Are you seeking boring business English or can we yack about anything?)
- Are you a native speaker or a fluent speaker?
- Do you live nearby or are you a long bus ride away? (This question carries less weight now, of course)
- Are there specific days/times you already know you can’t meet?
- What’s your language level? (the most important question of all – more on that later)
Once you’ve defined these, then it’s time to get in touch with potential partners via Facebook groups, Meetup events, et cetera.
My insider tip: Widen your search to universities, language schools and secondary schools worldwide (in our Covid-19 world, most tandems are now online anyway). For example, several educational institutions in Germany offer free tandem databases for everyone and not just students.
With Humboldt University of Berlin’s tandem database, I hit the jackpot. After filling out the application form, I received dozens of responses in a few days (including Dietmar’s). Weeding through everything was a gargantuan task. I realized later it would’ve been easier to have added more details, including specific questions, to my ad.
A few other resources you could also check out are the Tandem app which connects language partners from all over the world or the tandem databases from the language centers at the University of Freiburg or University of Basel.
Find someone on your language level.
My tandem partner search did a 180 after meeting Lisa, one of the first potential tandem partners I connected with. I replied to Lisa’s post in a Facebook group. She lived nearby, was my age, and worked for an NGO (I’m a journalist). No-brainer, right?
Except that Lisa’s English was way better than my German. She already spoke some English at work, while here I was still getting hot and bothered about ordering Kaffee and cake.
She was very patient, enthusiastically nodding like a bobblehead while I stammered, but my nerves were shot. We only did two sessions.
After matching up with Dietmar, I realized how important it is to have a tandem partner on a similar language level. Otherwise, it can be hard to get your guard down and your confidence up.
Work out a schedule early on.
Tandem partners, like Tinder dates, tend to fizzle from scheduling conflicts and overall flakiness. Case in point: While writing this, I unearthed about 10 emails with Tim, a German journalist, who I’d forgotten existed! We never found a time so we never even met. Nice guy, but a logistically incompatible match.
In retrospect, I should’ve talked to potential tandem partners more about scheduling right from the get-go instead of, you know, “trying it out first.”
My hot take: Consider a student as a tandem partner. Back then, Dietmar and I both required tandem partners for our language classes. Being dedicated and committed to regular meetups got us rolling.
Tip 1: Tandem partners and romance don’t mix.
Learning languages gets messy when you catch feelings. Like a friend who started sleeping with her German tandem partner. Needless to say, when he started “practicing Italian” with some barista, her motivation for learning German also petered out.
Some people don’t get it, though – I got plenty of creepy messages in my tandem search. Similarly, a meet-up for German learners I once attended turned out to be a sausage fest of guys who already spoke fluent German, essentially only keen on meeting female newcomers. I didn’t want dates – I just wanted to use my genitive case!
For anyone finding themselves in the same boat, I’d suggest narrowing your search to more academic-minded tandem meetups where romantic meet-ups are clearly off the table.
Tip 2: Take a chance on an unexpected tandem partner.
I’ll never forget Dietmar’s message: “I’m a 43-year-old gay man. I don’t know what I’ll have in common with a 23-year-old woman, but let’s try this out!” After all the copy-paste replies and doomed appointments, that made me laugh. By now, there was nothing to lose.
At that first sit down, I remember being stoked right away about how Dietmar was jumping through the same hoops that I was – slowly searching for words in English like I did auf Deutsch. Instantly, the pressure was off and I felt like I could make mistakes. Being on the same language level allowed a natural rhythm of changing between English and German – no need for awkwardly interrupting or bumping timers like chess players.
Being so different in other ways – age, background, employment (Dietmar works for a gallery) – gave us endless topics to explore. I learned so much from him about art, German customs and society, Berlin queer culture, and such. He’s a cool guy – and someone I would’ve never met otherwise.
Tip 3: Always change things up
That summer, my first in Berlin, Dietmar and I hit parks, cafés, beer gardens, a drag show and shared home-cooked meals. My tandem partner, living 20 years in Berlin, sashayed me through new experiences and helped the city start to feel like home. Even after we had been hanging out for a while, taking up different activities and going on outings kept our tandems always entertaining and exciting.
While in-person tandems might still be far away in pandemic times, I’d also suggest online tandem partners always try “spicing things up” like we did – watching and discussing movies, wine tastings and games, for example. Let’s face it, Zooming can get stale.
At the end of the day, tandem-partner chemistry comes in all shapes and sizes. The best advice I can give is to be open-minded and your own Dietmar might appear when you least expect it.