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,[1] as well as many universities implement this approach.

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), placing emphasis on cultural integration as part of the language-learning process. Learning is supported in different ways, for instance, via worksheets, textbooks or simply informal conversation. There are distinct uses of the Tandem method which promote independent learning e.g. Tandem Partnerships (two people, supported by counsellors), and Binational Tandem Courses (for groups, organised by moderators). The classic style is that where partners equally share the available time during the exchange. 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. In this way, through language exchange partnerships with native speakers, and extra social and cultural experiences, participants become fully immersed in the target language culture. The only condition for participation in self-directed Tandem is to be at a lower intermediate level of language proficiency (Lower B1 Threshold). The Common European Framework of References for Languages ( CEFR[2]) Can-Do statements provide a clear description of language ability at the Threshold level (B1)[3] in several European languages.

Tandem history[edit]

"Language learning by exchange" or the Tandem Approach is based on various systems of teaching exchange students abroad, such as: partner learning, "peer teaching", tutoring models and "Zweierschaften" (Steinig) or 'one-on-one discipleship'.[4]

The following are some of the most important highlights:[5][6]

  • At the beginning of the 19th century in England, Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell instituted the "mutual system" which supplemented 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, similar tutoring models began to appear 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 binational German-French youth meetings.[7]
  • Klaus Lieb-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.
  • In 1979, this inspired Jürgen Wolff to develop the Tandem learning partner mediation, initially for Spanish and German. In 1982 a similar course programme designed by Wolff and his colleagues in Madrid later became the basis for the TANDEM network, later established as the TANDEM schools network.[8]
  • From 1983, the TANDEM model is adopted as an alternative way of language learning, whose basic elements of language courses abroad, youth exchange, cultural tours, class correspondence and similar cross-border activities are replicated in selective schools throughout Europe.
  • The network cooperates with various educational institutions including the E-Tandem Network,[9] founded in 1992, and renamed the International E-Mail Tandem Network in 1993.
  • 'TANDEM Fundazioa[10] was founded in 1994 for the development of scientific cooperation and educational and advanced training with their head office in Donostia/San Sebastian, Spain.
  • The majority of the schools under the TANDEM Network established the association 'TANDEM International'[1] with headquarters in Bremen, Germany. Since March 2014, TANDEM International has been the owner of the brand 'TANDEM'.

Opportunities for application[edit]

Tandem is an approach that can benefit all ages, which can be implemented in different educational settings, but perhaps is best appreciated by language students with a lower intermediate proficiency or above. It can take place in the country of one course group, in the country of the other group, together in a third location, or over the Internet.

Tandem unites many aims under one roof:

  • general language Tandem,
  • Tandem focused on cultural exchange,
  • Tandem for professional purposes,
  • cross-cultural understanding Tandem,
  • multilingual ‘Babylonia Tandem’,
  • cross-border 'Mugaz Gain'[11] and
  • eTandem on the Internet

And offers self-directed learning with flexibility of content: conversation, narrative, reading, professional activities such as phone calls, interpretation, translation, as well as leisure activities, intercultural differences, etc. Tandem has developed from a language-learning method to an educational movement, as evidenced by the sources cited.

Positive effects[edit]

Improvement in language skills

At first, professional discussion primarily centred round the question of the effectiveness of Tandem in comparison with traditional language teaching methodologies. This initiated an investigation carried out in 1983 at 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, who were also preparing for the 'Zertifikat DaF'. Results showed that the Tandem participants got better results in listening comprehension and speaking skills while they were less successful in reading and writing, even if their performance in the certificate as a whole was just as good as the control group. Another advantage was mutual mistake correction, which was fostered by increased language intake.

Development of intercultural competence

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’ in learning contexts.

Getting started with Tandem learning[edit]

Considerations for 121 Tandem

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:

meta-communication 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.

Considerations for Group Tandem

Mediation with large numbers of participants, "cocktail mediation", in which many people form partnerships after an introduction to Tandem, has proved as effective as mediation via questionnaires and images. 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.

Criteria for ‘good’ Tandems

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
  • common aims
  • initial support at the beginning of the experience

Several series of tandem handbooks have been published in many languages as a result of the European Union funded projects: Tandem and eTandem Handbooks and Teacher Guides[12]

  • 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)

From tandem language learning to telecollaboration[edit]

In order to compete in our digitally advanced world, the acquisition of 21st Century skills,[13] or Global skills has taken priority in the classroom. And as can be seen from its history, Tandem Language Learning has metamorphosed over time, reflecting these changes in our attitudes to learning. Today, with a focus on intercultural competence, a key global skill, Tandem Language Learning has been also called Online Intercultural Exchange (OIE) (O'Dowd, 2007),[14] Internet-mediated Intercultural Foreign Language Education (ICFLE) and Telecollaboration. Such exchanges, despite being held at distance, give participants access to different cultures and beliefs with an authentic audience, boosting student engagement.

Benefits of virtual language exchanges

Indeed, benefits of virtual exchanges[15] are seen to include

  • development of intercultural competence
  • improvement of foreign language skills to communicate with native speakers
  • increase in student motivation
  • student-centred learning

Drawbacks of Virtual Language Exchanges

  • possible lack of accessibility due to time difference
  • communication gaps due to social and cultural differences and expectations between groups.
  • this, in turn, may have a negative effect on motivation.

Key Pedagogical Implications for Successful Telecollaborative Activities (O'Dowd, 2013)[16]

i. time for students to reflect on the experience (during and after the activity)

ii. adequate resources

iii teacher (pedagogical) leadership

iv. pedagogical integration of the activity into the class and the learning process

Digital Tools to Facilitate Telecollaborative Exchanges (Guth and Thomas, 2010)[17]

  1. Media Sharing (Flickr, YouTube)
  2. Social Bookmarking (Delicious, Connotea, CiteULike)
  3. Feed Aggregators (Bloglines, GoogleReader)
  4. Social Networks (Facebook, My Space, Ning, Twitter)
  5. Wikis
  6. Blogs to create collaborative working space and writing exchanges.

Getting Started with Telecollaboration

These virtual platforms allow easily observable and assessable student activity, and may provide access to virtual partnerships. One example is that of the Skype in the Classroom,[18] part of Skype, an online telephony platform. It hosts a ready-made activity called Mystery Skype, where classes have to guess where in the world their exchange-class is based. This is a simple, easily adaptable task that could be easily integrated into normal classroom activity.

Video reviews of Tandem Language Learning[19] exchanges are available on YouTube.[20]

Tandem Language Exchange[21] is an app, licensed by the TANDEM Fundazioa, which allows learners to connect and practice the Tandem method together via video chat and instant messaging. Other available solutions include Idyoma[22], HelloTalk, Bilingua, and Speaky[23].

Intercultural Communicative Competence in Telecollaboration and Tandem

Telecollaboration enables the augmentation of cultural awareness and second-language acquisition by geographically distant individuals using computer-mediated communication tools. A key objective of this exchange process is the development of Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) (O’Dowd, 2013[16]), given that previous research (see for example see Kern, 2000;[24] Fischer, 1998[25]) has established that exposure to different cultures via online communication may have bolstered perceptions of difference by reinforcing stereotypes, as opposed to facilitating deeper cultural awareness and understanding between participants in the online exchange. Moreover, Helm and Guth (2010)[26] hold that Telecollaboration is based in a globalised milieu where the ideas of culture and language may not be consistent with those of national identity; identity may derive from historical and geographical processes within a multicultural context that extends beyond national boundaries (Risager, 2007 cited in Helm and Guth, 2010, p. 71[26]). This shift highlights the importance of facilitating an awareness of cultural diversity, in terms of how learners perceive their own and other cultures. Based on this research, fostering ICC is essential given today’s cultural diversity in education (Helm and Guth, 2010;[26] O’Dowd and Waire, 2009[27]). Further, with the proliferation of Web 2.0 (and indeed Telecollaboration 2.0) students are increasingly immersed in situations where an awareness about their own and other cultures is essential to developing communicative competence in a culturally-diverse setting. The key to the development of these competencies is collaboration within the wide array of communicative task-based activities used in Telecollaboration(O’Dowd, 2013[16]).

Telecollaboration Using Task-based Learning: Challenges for Instructors

There are several challenges inherent in instructors’ choices of appropriate tasks in fostering ICC within Telecollaboration. Firstly, Samuda and Bygate's research has indicated that while instructors may be able to implement tasks aimed at fostering ICC, they may not be able to clearly conceptualize the intended outcome of the chosen tasks (Samuda and Bygate, 2008, cited in O’Dowd & Waire, 2009, p. 174[27]). Secondly, collaboration between tandem instructors may create challenges in respect of differing views on task design, especially in relation to learner autonomy, that is, how much autonomy students should be given in choosing and completing tasks (O’Dowd & Waire, 2009[27]). Thirdly, instructors’ differing views on their role in terms of intervention and management of the task may affect the task outcome (O’Dowd and Waire, 2009[27]) as well as result in lengthy, time-consuming online exchange.

Fostering ICC within Telecollaboration Using Task-based Learning: Task Types

Research conducted by O’Dowd and Waire (2009)[27] highlighted 12 task types that could foster the development of such non-linguistic pedagogical objectives. These task types fall within 3 categories:

  1. Tasks designed to foster Information Exchange mainly used at the introduction stage, where students interact via the exchange of basic personal information. This may be conducted by providing cultural autobiographies, virtual interviews and informal conversation.
  2. Comparison and Analysis tasks are more demanding as they go beyond information exchange and require participants to compare and critically analyze cultural artefacts from their respective cultures, such as books, newspaper articles, and films. Furthermore, ICC may also be fostered through the use of questionnaires designed to elicit discussion regarding different perceptions of word associations and social situations (Furstenburg et al., 2001, cited in O’Dowd and Waire, 2009, p. 176[27]), creating a context for virtual discussion on these matters.
  3. Collaborative tasks are aimed at the co-production, i.e. the creation of a joint artefact, in the form of an essay, presentation, translation or cultural adaptation of a text. This type of activity is designed to engender a context in which participants actively negotiate meaning linguistically and culturally, and reach an agreement on their final co-production arising from their collaboration (O’Dowd and Waire, 2009[27]).

Tandem learning using the Cormier Method[edit]

According to Chang & Kuo (2009) [28] the Cormier method is based on instructions in which small groups of learners with different mother tongues interact for in-tandem learning to occur. Devised by Helene Cormier, a language teacher at Club d'échange linguistique de Montréal language school (CELM), the participants develop conversations that are aimed to consolidate developed skills in the areas of listening, comprehension, vocabulary and pronunciation.

Participants of this language exchange can experience how native speakers interact through text, voice and video chat. The sessions take about roughly one hour, in which the participants speak in one language for thirty minutes and then switch to the other language for the following thirty minutes. Additionally, through this experience the learners have the chance to learn something from their peers’ culture by using the target language accordingly.  

In Mullaiselvan Mohan’s (2016) [29] Google site, there are five recommendations that should be taken into account in order to develop sessions with the Cormier method.

These include:

  • Utilising the timer accordingly
  • Taking charge of your own learning when speaking in your second language
  • Being sensitive to your partners' needs when speaking in your own language
  • Not correcting grammar all the time, but striving for communication
  • Being considerate to others

Abdulezer et al (2007) [30] state that the Cormier method is implemented in mylanguageexchange.com, a formal language-learning site, which recommends the implementation of Skype since it is free, mobile and easy to install in most electronic devices that possess a webcam and a microphone. Through the use of Skype audio conferencing learners are able to formulate small groups and use the built-in timer in Skype to maintain the rotation of languages.


  • Small focused groups allow all participants to practise and develop close relationships
  • Pre-designed lesson plans and engaging activities stimulate participants’ motivation
  • Real-time communication with native speakers of your target language is arguably more beneficial than any textbook or pre-recorded media
  • Can be accessed anywhere with an adequate internet connection
  • Virtual timer manages and allocates time for each participate to practice


  • Only suitable for intermediate and above levels
  • Native speakers may struggle to assist learners’ if they have no teaching background
  • Learners from different educational backgrounds and knowledge may hinder communication
  • Accessibility in certain countries
  • Practice vs Progression  

As this method is primarily for practising, it should not be the main source of language learning and should be seen as a review or a tool that helps learners improve their language learning skills.

Cormier’s method is a simple approach to e-tandem learning that has clearly had success, particularly with the use of Skype. Implementing such a method is possible with relative ease, but there are drawbacks as previously discussed. However, with an abundance of new technologies emerging, different and improved approaches to that of Cormier may have even greater success in the future. These tools could be utilised to incorporate language-learning beginners, as well as improve upon the accessibility to learners in countries where Skype may not be available. Alternative digital tools such as Google Hangouts, Viber, ooVoo, WeChat and many more means that e-tandem learning and telecollaboration will be an area of language learning that continues to grow and prosper.

Why tandem language learning does not always work[edit]

Tandem language learning is in theory a great idea that reaps various linguistic and cultural benefits. Students of different nationalities can learn from each other for free. However, there are various reasons that may not allow this to work (Drummer, 2012).[31]

  • Lack of sufficient amount of foreign students who wish to study a particular minority language (such as Polish, Maltese and others). Even if speakers of minority languages want to learn more popular ones such as English or German, they may find difficulty to find others who are interested in theirs. Minority languages are not very attractive in the world market of foreign languages (Drummer, 2012)[31]
  • Participants´expertise: this may involve two factors:
  1. Insufficient knowledge: Native speakers may lack sufficient knowledge to teach their own language to others. It may also be very challenging and time consuming for students to be methodologically and pedagogically apt to design meaningful learning experiences (Drummer, 2012).[31]
  2. Error correction: According to Py (2000)[32] as cited in Cappellini (2016)[33] novice learners speaking in a foreign language during tandem programmes may make mistakes which provoke interruptions from the language experts that aim to correct the error. Such interruptions may hinder the flow of the conversation, disturb the fluency of the novice speaker and produce further foreign language anxieties[34].
  • Task design:  If the online language interaction lacks proper integration within the learning process and the course curriculum, displays no pedagogical leadership and has carelessly designed tasks, the value of tandem language learning can be downplayed by both students and teachers alike (O´Dowd, 2013).[35]  
  • Affordances of technology: Technology can sometimes come in the way of successful online intercultural exchanges. Lewis (2017)[36] argues that there may be a non - alignment of visual input and output when using certain conferencing technologies such as Skype. Consequently,  students will appear to be socially absent from the conversation which will bring about miscommunication. Moreover, the affordances of teleconferencing can undermine actual communication by interrupting the usual process of indicating social presence that includes looking directly at the interlocutor. Hence, if students by mistake signal themselves as socially absent from the other teleconference participants, it can contribute to their exclusion from the conversation.
  • Cultural issues: Telles (2015)[37] implies that during tandem programmes when comparing cultures, students may share their subjective opinions and reinforce intercultural stereotypes that may create a hostile discourse and interrupt the flow of the conversations.  To this end, he suggests that without teacher interventions tele tandem interactions “may fall into shallow performances of sedimented and pre-given representations of self and other” (Telles, 2015, p. 1).[37] This tallies with O’ Dowd (2013)’s[16] views who sustains that preconceptions of the other learner's culture can affect learners’ proactive attitudes and levels of participation in the exchange (O´Dowd, 2015 as cited in O´Dowd, 2013).[16]  

To conclude, in theory, language tandem is a great idea and at times it may be beneficial. However, it requires a mutual effort from both parties, time and synchronization. If one of the parties is not satisfied with the learning experience, the tandem language experience may not be a successful educational endeavour (Drummer, 2012).[31]  


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External links[edit]