Tandem Time: Online Dating for Language Learners

Having a tandem partner is perhaps one of the best ideas I have come across in this city. It was suggested to me by a girl on Tinder (I am but a man; I have needs), and after I thanked her for her suggestion, she unmatched me.

So I went on a site called tandempartners.org/en to look for new friends. They are not paying me, as it is totally free and they seem to have plenty of members already. I am merely suggesting that, if you are decently mobile and want to practise virtually any language or meet people in a new place, it is a great idea.

I made my profile, mentioned what my interests were and what languages I spoke, and got down to messaging absolute strangers asking them to meet me for a very urgent coffee.

The idea of the system is very simple: you probably have a first language just like anyone else, and someone else has a first language you are learning. You look for people who want to learn your language, and who speak the language you want to learn. Then you hang out and split the time between the two languages so that both can learn. With my partners, I have been splitting the time into twenty-minute sections, so that we are switching relatively often. Therefore, we speak German for twenty minutes, then English, then lather, rinse, and repeat.

This is why I call it online dating for languages: you are essentially swiping left and right based on whether they speak a language you want to learn and vice versa, and whether you have interests in common about which you can speak. And you send awkward messages begging them to join your life for some amount of time.

I was not sure how many people would respond, so I sent out multiple messages. Next morning, I had an inbox full of people I had contacted and who had made the first move on me. Spoiler alert, turns out language learners are not the greatest-looking people ever. But also, this is Germany and not Italy. I wish I had known about this when I was there.

After only two meetings, my German is already becoming a bit more fluid. Just speaking at all will help you improve, and I’m meeting people. I’m not sure how much I am going to be hanging out with these people except to learn a language, but I am meeting people, which is something. And what’s more, these people know good places to go in the city and when they ask to meet, I always ask to meet at their favourite café or the most interesting one they know. People love showing off their city and the areas they like.

One of my Partners was so so so stereotypically German, it was almost as if he were a method actor for a comedy. Very nice guy, really, and very helpful. We got a beer somewhere near Alexanderplatz and he ordered some sort of appetiser to share. He told me that the echte deutsche Kneipe, the true German bar, will have this appetiser on demand. The thing is called “Griebenschmalz”. I only knew the word Schmalz from English as a Yiddish borrowing, meaning something almost disgustingly sappy and sentimental. I gave it a try and it was quite delicious, really. It’s sort of sweet and this recipe had what I thought were fried leeks on top, making it an excellent spread for toasted bread. When I got home, I decided to look this stuff up to find out what exactly was in it. I found a recipe in German, and it contains only salt, pepper, a bit of sugar, and a lot of “Schmalz”. ‘There’s my old friend again,’ thought I. I had no idea what the word actually meant in German, and since I find Google Translate really dicks everything up sometimes, I typed it into Wikipedia. If you are looking for a technical term, I find this handy as you can type in the thing you want, click on its full article, and then change the language on the side so you get an exact translation of what the thing is.

So to Wikipedia I went. I typed in Schmalz, and there was an incomprehensible German article on it. Success! Then I clicked on the English version for the translation. And what does Schmalz equate to in English?

“Lard”. Yes, the thing your grandmother used to make soap and pies, and what the rest of us know as ‘pure fat in a can’ is a common spread here in Central-Western Europe, and what I thought were leeks were in fact crispy pieces of pig flesh mixed in. The German diet is quite interesting. It was so so so very good, and I would recommend it and surely eat it at the next Kneipe I find, but I am not going to add it as a regular part of my diet.

All this is to say that if you look for tandem partners, you really have nothing to lose. It’s rather fun to meet a total stranger and attempt to maintain a conversation in two languages for a long period of time, and is actually not that difficult since you are both weak in some way in the other language.

Plus, lard.


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