Tandem language learning

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Tandem Language Learning is a method of language learning based on mutual language exchange between tandem partners (ideally each learner is a native speaker in the language the proponent wants to learn). Many language schools in the world, organised as TANDEM International, as well as many universities, are working with this method.

General Background[edit]

In Tandem Language Learning both partners can meet in person (face-to-face Tandem) or learn by e-mail, phone or other media (eTandem, also called distance Tandem). Learning is supported by various materials and methods: work sheets, textbooks or simply informal conversation. There are distinct and self-directed uses of the Tandem method which promote independent learning, for instance, Tandem Partnerships (two people, supported by counsellors), and Binational Tandem Courses (for groups and organised by moderators). The classical style is that where half the time is dedicated to one person while the other half is for the other person. For example, a Portuguese speaker and a German speaker can talk for half an hour in German and then for half an hour in Portuguese. The only condition for participation in self-directed Tandem is to be at a lower intermediate (Lower B1 Threshold) level of language proficiency. The Common European Framework of References for Languages(CEFR) Can-Do statements can provide a clear description of language ability at the Threshold level (B1) in several European languages.

Tandem History[edit]

A full and detailed account is available at Tandem Fundazioa. The following is a brief summary of the account. The origin of the "language learning by exchange" approach lies in the various systems of teaching exchange of students abroad: partner learning, "peer teaching", tutoring models and "Zweierschaften" (Steinig) or 'one-on-one discipleship'. There are several distinct stages:[1] [2]

  • At the beginning of the 19th century in England, Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell instituted the "mutual system", i.e. the supplementing of large parts of the teacher’s activity at school with pupils’ mutual help. Peter Petersen (German educationalist, 1884–1952) developed something similar in the "Jenaplan schools", and from 1960 on, tutoring models also increased in the USA.
  • The "Tandem " concept for two people learning the same language appeared first in 1971 in connection with the "audio-visual method" of Wambach, and from there it was transferred to the binational German-French youth meetings which have been taking place since 1968.
  • Klaus Liebe-Harkort and Nükhet Cimilli transferred the model to their work with immigrants in the German-Turkish area, in Munich. Courses followed in Bremen, Frankfurt and Zürich.
  • This inspired Jürgen Wolff to develop in 1979 the Tandem learning partner mediation, initially for Spanish and German. In 1982 a course programme was designed by Wolff, Delgado, Leute, and Martin Torres in Madrid and this language partner mediation later became the basis for the Tandem network.
  • As a result of publication, travel and training activity from 1983 onwards the idea spread quickly, primarily by the foundation of small "alternative language schools" which merged in 2002 (Information about this merging does not correspond to that available in the Tandem Fundazioa page) into ‘Tandem International’. The material for the partner mediation was translated into almost all major European languages. The network structure facilitates courses abroad, youth exchange, peripatetic cultural events, correspondence between classes and similar cross-border and international activities.
  • The foundation 'TANDEM Fundazioa' was founded in 1994 for the development of scientific cooperation and educational and advanced training. Their head office is in Donostia/San Sebastian, Spain. It acquired rights to the trademark 'TANDEM® ' and issues licenses for it. Public institutions do not need a license. In 2009 the quality certification for mediation was introduced.
  • In 1994, a university e-mail project ‘International (e-mail) Tandem Network’ was promoted financially by the EU. The name was coined by Helmut Brammerts in the seminar for linguistic research at the Ruhr university of Bochum. Subsequently, it became available to all kinds of Internet contacts and renamed “Tandem Server Bochum”.

Opportunities for Application[edit]

Tandem is an approach for every age group, from children to senior citizens. It can be used in kindergartens, elementary schools, secondary schools, vocational schools, tertiary institutions, youth organisations, universities and advanced technical colleges, in teacher and adult education, in companies, in trade union education and in work with migrants. It can take place in the country of one course group, in the country of the other group, together in a third place, or over the Internet. It unites many aims under one roof:

  • general language Tandem,
  • Tandem focussed on cultural exchange,
  • Tandem for professional purposes,
  • antiracist intercultural Tandem,
  • multilingual ‘Babylonia Tandem’,
  • cross-border 'Mugaz Gain' and
  • eTandem on the Internet

and offers self-directed learning with flexibility of content: conversation, narrative, reading, professional activities (phone calls, interpretation, translation...), leisure activities, intercultural differences, etc. Tandem has developed, in the meantime, from a language-learning method to an educational movement.


At first, professional discussion primarily centred round the question of the effectiveness of Tandem in comparison with traditional language teaching. This initiated an investigation carried out in 1983 in the Madrid Goethe-Institute, in which Tandem pairs, a Tandem course and teacher-steered phases were connected with each other and the linguistic progress was compared to a control group, prepared also for the 'Zertifikat DaF'. It appeared that the Tandem participants got better results in listening comprehension and speech skills, while in reading and writing they were less successful, although their performance in the certificate as a whole was just as good as the control group. Another advantage that was noted was the mutual mistake correction, as the linguistic intake was higher than in big classes.

Not only is Tandem concerned with language comprehension and learning, but equally with cultural understanding and knowledge. Accordingly, a critical analysis of its competence must also examine this second ‘leg’. In fact, it turns out that Tandem aids a change of perspective, with comparison of one’s own and foreign points of view. This is also very helpful during translator training. Moreover, native speakers report an increase of awareness about their own language in the course of the Tandem. Therefore, it seems to be suitable as a ‘confidence booster’ for teacher training.

With regard to the requirements and quality of the input, it is essential to give the following basic tools during the practical introduction to Tandem:

• metacommunication formulas in the foreign language, for the learner's role, and

• the most important explanation techniques in the first language, for the learning assistant's role.

For mediation with large numbers of participants "cocktail mediation", with which many people form partnerships after an introduction to Tandem, proved as effective as mediation with questionnaires and images. This method, which saves a lot of effort and is often the only possible way at universities, does not seem to impair learning quality. It can be recommended as a good way of finding learning partners, on the condition that for the remaining students the possibility of questionnaire mediation be made known before starting.

In another investigation, Tandem partners in Bolzano and Merano who had been learning for more than one year together and can be seen accordingly as experts, were questioned about their experiences in order to infer criteria for ‘good’ Tandems. The results showed (in order of frequency, multiple answers possible): human understanding/sympathy, common interests, time availability, punctuality/reliability, consistency, and common aims. Initial support at the beginning of the experience was seen by all as important as a launch or "kick start".

Several series of tandem handbooks have been published in many languages as a result of the European Union funded projects:[3]

  • LINGUA project "International E-Mail Tandem Network" (1994–1996)
  • Open and Distance Learning project "Telematics for Autonomous and Intercultural Tandem Learning" (1996–1999).
  • LINGUA-D project "Tandem Language Learning Partnerships for Schools" (1998–2000)


External links[edit]