Language Exchanges, the Science of Friendship & More

When learning a language, eventually you’re going to need to actually talk to someone. The internet makes it stupidly easy to get in touch with new people (both for language exchanges and for conversation in general), but what are you going to talk about?

“I’m learning Russian.” “Why?” “Blah blah blah…” lasts for about 5 minutes.

Then what?

This is a list of conversation questions and topics that have one overarching goal: can you find some points of connection with a conversation partner? Could you even create a lasting friendship?

Anyone who’s played around with the 5-minute chats on Verbling gets a sense that it’s easy to get bored with small talk. The people you actually want to converse with are people who you’ve gotten to know on a deeper level than “What’s the weather like in Moscow?”.

The science of friendship

A psychologist named Arthur Aron published a neat study about this.

Basically, he stuck two people in a room and had them chat about the inane crap we tend to talk about when we’re stuck in a room with a random person – Where are you from, do you have any siblings, where do you work, etc. As you might expect, most people had little interest in keeping in touch with their conversation partner after the study.

Then he tried something different. He gave participants a particular series of questions that they would ask each other. These questions were deeper than your average “How’s the weather where you’re from” – things like:

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

After a while (and after both people got a bit more comfortable with each other), these eventually led to more personal questions:

Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
What is your most treasured memory?
How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

And finally, after a string of questions like those, landed on some fairly intimate stuff:

If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

After 45 minutes of this, study participants consistently reported having positive feelings for their conversation partners and wanted to keep in touch. They didn’t even balk at the personal nature of the questions; they all had a lot of fun (in part, this was because the earlier questions are less intense than the later questions, so you both kind of warm up to it). Interestingly enough, this was regardless of whether or not they had anything in common in the first place.

What’s going on? Basically, the main thing that produces a feeling of connection with someone else is self-disclosure. If all you and your conversation partner know about each other is the number of siblings you both possess, you’re not going to want to stay in touch. But if you know something about the values, feelings, and goals of your partner – what’s going on beneath the surface – and he/she knows the same about you, you’ll both want to stay in touch. Aron’s questions are designed to gradually, comfortably increase the amount of self-disclosure between two people until they feel like old friends. He’s just squeezing all that self-disclosure into a single 45-minute period.


So what’s all this mean for language learning?

I’m not suggesting you charge into a language exchange and immediately ask about your conversation partner’s relationship with his mother. Nor am I suggesting that you start by declaring a set of game rules – I’m going to ask you a question. Then you have to ask me the same question – and making your partner play your game.

But a little bit of knowledge (and a small reserve of well-thought-out questions) can go a long way. If you know that “What’s the weather like in Moscow” isn’t going to be as interesting for you or your partner than “What’s one of your favorite memories,” then you can generally steer in the direction of self-disclosure and see if your exchange partner follows suit. You’ll often find that they will, and with a little luck, you might make a new friend who happens to speak your target language.

A list of conversation questions

Questions from Aron’s study:

As far as I can tell, the original list of 36 questions was broken into 3 groups of 12, in order of increasing self-disclosure. I’m going to italicize the questions I think could actually make their way into a typical language exchange (i.e., aren’t ridiculously personal when they come out of the blue).

List A:

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest? 
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a perfect day for you? 
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose? 
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?

List B:

13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory? 
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?

List C:

25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
26. Complete this sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about? 
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why? 
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

(Many (if not all) of Aron’s questions came from Dr. Gregory Stock’s Book of Questions, which is a lovely source for these sorts of things!)

Questions from a similar 2008 study about developing friendships in groups

Group A:
  1. Do your close friends tend to be older or younger than you?
  2. Does living as if you control your own destiny lead to a more powerful life?
  3. If you could choose the sex and physical appearance of your soon-to-be-born child, would you do it?
  4. What would your ideal or perfect life be like?
  5. How many times a day do you look at yourself in the mirror?
  6. Would you be willing to have horrible nightmares for a year if you were rewarded with extraordinary wealth?
  7. What sorts of things would you do if you could be as outgoing and uninhibited as you wished?
  8. What important decision in your professional life have you based largely upon your intuitive feelings? What about in your personal life?
  9. While on a trip to another city, your spouse (or lover) meets and spends a night w/ an exciting stranger. Given they will never meet again, and you will not otherwise learn of the incident, would you want your partner to tell you about it?
  10.  Do you judge others by higher or lower standards than you judge yourself? Why?
  11. How do you feel when people like you because they think you are someone you are not?
  12. How many children do you hope to have? Do you know what you will name them? If yes, what?
Group B:
  1. If your friends and acquaintances were willing to bluntly and honestly tell you what they thought of you, would you want them to?
  2. Would you be content with a marriage of the highest quality in all respects but one – it completely lacked sex?
  3. What are you looking for when you converse with people? What kinds of things do you usually discuss? Are there things that would be more interesting to you?
  4. If you could take a one-month trip anywhere in the world and money were not a consideration, where would you go and what would you do?
  5. How much do you tend to examine your actions and motives to find out more about yourself?
  6. What was your most enjoyable dream? Your worst nightmare?
  7. Whom do you admire most? In what way does that person inspire you?
  8. When you are with your friends, do your interactions include much touching – for example, hugging, kissing, roughhousing, or rubbing backs? Would you like to have more of this?
  9. If you could choose the manner of your death, what would it be?
  10. Can you envision how you are likely to look back upon the things you are doing today? If so, how much do you try to live now as you think you will one day wish you had lived?
  11. What do you like the best about your life? Least? 1
  12. What would make you feel most betrayed by your mate – indifference? Dishonesty? Infidelity?
Group C:
  1. Do you have any specific long-term goals? What is one, and how do you plan on reaching it?
  2. Do you ever feel nervous about hanging out with other people, even your close friends?
  3. Do you find it so hard to say “no” that you regularly do favors you do not want to do? If so, why?
  4. What things are too personal to discuss with others?
  5. Have you ever disliked someone for being luckier or more successful than you?
  6. Who is the most important person in your life? What could you do to improve the relationship? Will you ever do it?
  7. Do you believe our life is predetermined by fate or is solely a consequence of the choices we make (or both)? Explain why.
  8. If you were guaranteed honest responses to any three questions, who would you question and what would you ask?
  9. Would you risk your life for someone close to you out of feelings of obligation or out of feelings of love? What if the person asked you not to risk your life?
  10. In terms of their relative unpleasantness, how would you rank the following: a nude stroll in public; being spat upon by a crowd of people; being arrested for shoplifting; begging for money at an airport?
  11. If you were happily married and then met someone you felt was certain to always bring you deeply passionate, intoxicating love, would you leave your spouse? What if you had kids?
  12. Do you believe in any sort of God? If not, do you think you might still pray if you were in a life-threatening situation?


(More info from the UC Berkeley Relationships/Social Cognition Lab)

Some picks from a recent AskReddit thread:

This post was inspired by a recent AskReddit thread, “Reddit, what are your best questions to get to know someone?”. Here are some picks that would actually work for a language exchange. I’ve added links to the comments with a bit more background than just a question:

  1. What’s the last thing you’ve done for the very first time? (icepick_)
  2. What’s your favorite food and where I can get it? (cminnett) (permalink)
  3. What is your favorite/least favorite word? (Just_an_ordinary_man) (permalink)
  4. What is your favorite/least favorite curse word? (Just_an_ordinary_man) (permalink)
  5. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?  (Just_an_ordinary_man) (permalink)
  6. What’s your LEAST favorite movie? (Mitch_Deadberg) (permalink)
  7. What are the top 3 websites you visit? (totinospizzaftw) (giant list: permalink)
  8. If the world was going to end and you knew it, what 3 things would you do? (totinospizzaftw) (giant list: permalink)
  9. What’s the best/worst gift you ever got? (totinospizzaftw) (giant list: permalink)
  10. What’s your favorite book/author? (totinospizzaftw) (giant list: permalink)
  11. If you could visit anywhere where would you go? (totinospizzaftw) (giant list: permalink)
  12. What’s something (not language related) that you wish you were better at? (totinospizzaftw) (giant list: permalink)
  13. What is something you can’t help but spend money on? (totinospizzaftw) (giant list: permalink)
  14. How would you describe yourself if you could only use five words? (totinospizzaftw) (giant list: permalink)


Do you have some conversation starters that always seem to work, particularly in the context of language exchanges? Put them in the comments!

Edit: A friend just suggested a $2 eBook titled How Did You End Up Here? It’s compiled by Davy Rothbart from TED, and it contains a collection of ~100 crowd-sourced and curated questions to ask someone you’ve just met. Check it out!

[shareaholic app="share_buttons" id="28313910"]

Think In Any New Language