If you’re a complete beginner, take one paid class (university classes usually last 2.5 months and meet 3 times a week) before you start with a language partner. It will provide structure for your future learning, and it will cover all the foundations you might be tempted to skip through with a language partner. Furthermore, having others around you who are in a similar situation will lighten the mood and help you get out of your comfort zone. My own experience might seem contradictory, but not so: I was dismayed to realize that much of the Korean I was learning in my very first paid class (at Ewha University) was actually the formal speech that I would almost never use in my everyday conversations with friends. Regardless of my desire to learn useful phrases quickly, the foundation set by that class proved extremely valuable later on, because I soon realized that I needed to know that formal speech or else I would never be able to speak to older people without sounding insulting (in Korea that’s culturally very important).
Once you have a basic foundation in the language, I recommend finding a language partner. There are plenty of websites (new ones open every year) that allow you to find a language partner in your area of the world; just Google, “find a language partner in Guangzhou, China” (or wherever you are) and explore the websites available to you.
TIP: If you are in a country that is hungry for English education, like China or Korea, don’t just settle for the first partner that seems friendly. Remember: You are the native English speaker, you are in demand, and thus you can have your pick of the litter. Choose a partner with an advanced English level who just wants to fine-tune his/her pronunciation and phrasing. This way, the person can explain difficult concepts to you in English, and the majority of the lesson can focus on your learning, because English will have to be used to explain things anyway.
TIP: Should you choose a boy or girl language partner? Well, let me first say: Don’t subconsciously choose your partner because you think she/he is cute (I might have been guilty of this once… don’t do it!). Furthermore, consider choosing someone from the same sex in order to better learn the types of words boys say to boys or girls say to girls.
Next, understand your goals. Are you trying to become better at Listening, Speaking, Reading, or Writing? Think about why you’re learning the language. Is it for a potential career/life in that country? If so, you might want to use your language partner as a supplement to paid classes, and focus on reviewing your homework Language of desire and classroom exercises with your partner. Are you just learning in order to speak better with friends and colleagues? If so, you might not want to spend much time on Reading or Writing. Personally, I only cared about Speaking/Listening, so I focused on using language learning books that had lots of audio/oral exercises.
TIP: Also consider if you want culture to be a major part of your learning, and, if so, consider walking around popular parts of the city with your partner (in place of a sitting lesson) to discuss everyday things.
Now you need to choose your learning materials. Your language partner will bring his/her own materials, but you need to come prepared with materials that you want to learn. To hold yourself accountable, you might want to find a partner who is interested in doing homework exchange with you in between classes. I recommend going to a bookstore to find a book that fits the goals you have in mind (Speaking/Listening/Reading/Writing).
TIP: Connect with each other on smartphone messaging apps that have voice note functionality; this way you can quickly send messages to each other when you have a language question throughout the day.
At your first meeting, you should obviously spend time getting to know your language partner in English first (yet another reason to choose a partner who is already nearly fluent in English). But you should also make sure to set expectations with him/her. Tell the person why you want to learn and how quickly, and set a schedule for meeting and tell him/her that you really want to stick to that schedule. Don’t set a precedent of canceling meetings.