My Japanese ability is still crap.
It's better than it was a year ago when I worked for a company that prohibited us from speaking it at work but it is still abysmal. I am a high beginner at best and a novice at my worst. I cannot handle speed and dealing with spontaneous situations can be rather trying at times - especially at work. But I know deep down that the more these situations arise, the more I'll be able to cope with, should the situation come again. And it is a good feeling when I've understood a customer enquiry or when my friend's card got eaten by an ATM and as the stronger Japanese speaker I had to call the bank to get them to retrieve it. It's nice having chats - albeit brief - with the ladies at my local convenience store. But I know deep down I need to step up my game. And ultimately this comes down to me. So lately, I've been doing a couple of language exchanges.
For those out of whack, a language exchange is exactly what it says on the tin. You exchange language with one another. You might spend a little bit of time speaking in your native language and the rest of the time speaking in the language you're studying. They recommend that in order to get the best out of this, it's better for language learners to be at an intermediate level (or somewhat conversational) in order to get the most out of this arrangement but being me, I jumped the gun a little.
My first exchange partner in Japan was purely text-based in that we simply exchanged messages back and forth. At this time, my Japanese was virtually zero, but I still know this person to this day; we have met a couple of times and I must say that on a computer, my reading and typing comprehension (if we're not talking about kanji) is still my strongest attribute.
My second exchange partner was via Skype and once again, it was at a time where my Japanese was still sub zero. As a result, we spoke mostly in English which was good for him but then he disappeared for a while and I was convinced that I would probably never hear from him again.
Skip forward nearly a year later. I was actively studying and I had already booked my JLPT exam. My job had changed and I could use Japanese at work as and when required. My "second exchange partner" suddenly came back into my life and we have been exchanging languages nearly every week since. The balance between our time spent in English and Japanese has significantly improved and providing neither one of us is tired, we can easily talk for two hours straight.
But it wasn't enough. Because even though I'm living here and learning the language, I still spend most of my life in English. So I started seeking out other exchange partners but it wasn't easy. After all, it has to be considered that simply having an interest in somebody else's language is not sufficient and in the same way that we choose our friends, it's important to be selective because the internet is full of all sorts.
I set up a few language exchanges to test the water but quickly discovered some of them were not to my taste. One thing I strongly dislike during an exchange is if someone decides to drop English in at random intervals when we're supposed to be speaking Japanese. I find that very unfair because when I'm exchanging English, I never drop in any Japanese unless I'm asked to confirm something. I think it's really unhelpful as I understand both as a teacher and a student that sometimes, language learners can't always understand certain words or phrases at natural speed. But if they've come across it previously and you slow it down, they'll get it. And even if they don't, they'll gain a bit of language to add to their arsenal
Another thing that winds me up is when people don't have anything to offer but are happy to talk your ear off when it's their turn. I spoke to a guy for one hour and when we would speak Japanese, he would interrupt me constantly if I couldn't generate the sentence fast enough. When we spoke in English however, he very rarely asked me questions but was happy to answer all of my questions and in a lot of detail, I might add. I don't like being talked at or talked over (I get paid to get people to talk more than I do) so I'm sure you will have guessed that I haven't spoken to him since.
Another issue I've run into are time wasters. I started off speaking to a person in Japanese but when we had to switch to English, he could barely string together a sentence. I asked him if he had been studying and he said that he hadn't studied in years. It lead me to wonder why he'd be interested in an exchange if he wasn't actively doing anything else to improve his English. He also kind of annoyed me because we were supposed to be doing a face-to-face Skype exchange but he decided that he'd rather do a voice chat so he could clean his surfboard at the same time. He was also swiftly cut.
I evidently settled on a third person who I now speak to via Skype every week as well. Said person has roughly the same level of English as I do Japanese and on a good day, is rather patient, never drops in English when we speak Japanese and is even more aware of the clock then I am. I've decided that these three plus the lessons I take every week will be enough for now.