50. Find a conversation partner.
Updated: Jan 26, 2020
This is it. This is the one best idea I have. This is really the way I learned Spanish. Finding a conversation partner is the most important step you can take to enjoy and improve your Spanish. Regular conversation, exclusively in Spanish, with one other person will improve your confidence and fluency more than any other single thing you can do. It will force you to listen, understand, and reply promptly and appropriately. It will make you think rapidly on your feet with no chance to prepare. It will give you a safe place to practice what you know. It will increase your fluency and confidence immeasurably, and help your vocabulary and grammar painlessly. You will enjoy it immensely. It’s what’s worked for me.
To summarize, my recommendation is this: The one best way to have fun with your bad Spanish is with 1) regular conversation, which is 2) exclusively in Spanish, and 3) with one other person.
Why These Three Rules?
You have already forgotten Spanish grammar and vocabulary that you once knew. Why? You didn’t use them. Language—even your native language—will fade away if it’s not used. In the case of a second language that’s not part of your daily life, you will remember almost none of it without frequent practice. Because it’s not part of your everyday round, you must make a place for it—not occasionally at a party, not after you’ve had a few drinks, not just a phrase here and there. Only by immersing yourself in a Spanish-speaking reality for at least one uninterrupted hour a week will you make any progress.
A curious thing happens when you are listening to another language or trying to express yourself in it. With even one word in your native language, the spell is broken. A word in your own language is an enormous, momentary relief. You have been struggling to understand what you’re hearing, or searching desperately for the correct word for what you need to say. Suddenly you hear a word in English. Someone has thrown you a lifeline. Yes, but it is an illusion. You will not progress if you use English words when the going gets tough. Maintain the pressure to understand and to express yourself in the other language. You need to learn to think in Spanish. Thinking in Spanish means to associate the word with its object or idea without an intermediary journey through English.
This is immersion. It’s really the only way. Throughout history, millions of people, displaced irrevocably from their homes, have learned a new language this way. Surely you, as a pampered American, can decide to place yourself in this uncomfortable position. It’s only for your conversation hour in Spanish that you must do this.
Meet my dear friend Celia (Que en paz descanse).
I learned the value of immersion from Celia, my wonderful, demanding conversation partner of nearly 20 years. She insisted on maintaining Spanish for the length of our walks through the neighborhood. If I lapsed into English out of frustration, she would simply wait until I’d struggled through to some kind of Spanish. If Celia herself was stumped, she would persist with, “La cosa que. . . , The thing that….” or with the present tense of the verb.
Celia also spoke only Spanish to me on the telephone, even on the morning she called to tell me she’d be unavailable because her 101-year-old mother had just died. It’s hard to know what to say in English when someone has died, so imagine how hard it was to say something sincere in Spanish.
So, NO ENGLISH. It seems strange, but total immersion for an extended period is much easier than if you allow any break into English, even for only one word.
You may feel you’re drowning in Spanish, barely able to keep your head out of water. If you stay resolutely in Spanish it will get easier. You will begin to think in Spanish, ever so little though it may be. Even though a word in English comes like a gulp of fresh air to a drowning person, it only delays the moment when you start to feel you’re surviving in Spanish. The minute you allow English you have stopped progressing. In fact, you have actually regressed because you now must start again to get your head back into Spanish.
Make every effort to stay in Spanish. It’s difficult for several reasons. You don’t have an adequate vocabulary. You don’t know graceful transition phrases like “Every now and then,” “Above all,” “In spite of that.” How can you communicate with the limited resources you have?
Your key tactic is to find another way to say what you have in mind. Detach yourself from the English words or phrase you’re trying to translate into Spanish. Do not translate. DO NOT TRANSLATE. Focus on the IDEA you want to get across, not the way you can mangle Spanish to mimic the exact English you’re thinking of.
Any language has many ways to get across the same idea. Consider, for example, some possible ways to ask, “You want fries with that?”
You could say: “Fries?”, “Potatoes?” or just “¿Más?” while making a rolling gesture with your hand. You could gesture to a photo of fries or draw a quick picture or pantomime dipping a fry in ketchup and eating it.
You can act out your word or idea. You can draw pictures, on paper or in the air. You can invent words. Turn an English word into Spanish yourself: “Donde esta el restroom-o?” These are desperate measures, certainly not recommended by teachers, but they serve to keep you in the conversation and in Spanish.
Only one person?
It seems jolly to form a Spanish-speaking group. It is jolly, and you should try to do it, but it’s no substitute for your one-person companion. It’s too easy to cheat in a group.
I’ve been in the same book group of 5 or 6 women for 30 years. We meet every Monday from 5:00-6:00 and discuss, in Spanish, a book we’re reading in Spanish. We are good friends, and this weekly session maintains our Spanish. But, in a group, you can get by with doing very little. Many times in our tertulia I’ve been tired and inattentive and paid spotty attention to the discussion. No one notices. I smile, laugh when everyone else does, and no one cares. That’s the way it is in a group. You can avoid carrying the conversational ball as much as you like.
With one conversation partner, you can’t get away with that. Unless you happen to have a partner who dominates the conversation (and, if you do, that’s not a good partner), you’ll have to pay attention to what’s said to you and right away say something back that makes sense.
Who would be a good conversation partner?
It may take some time to find a conversation partner. The advantages are so great, however, that it’s worth the time, worth the search. How can you select a good partner? First, let’s eliminate some obvious choices.
Who would not be a good conversation partner?
A native speaker of Spanish is not a good conversation partner. The nicest people in the world speak Spanish. They will praise and encourage your most elementary sentences. They’re like a fond Little League parent, applauding the slightest effort. But, in truth, you are a bother to them. They must slow down their thought processes to converse with you. Usually they sense that they must also slow down their speech.
Imagine yourself being approached by an acquaintance who wants to practice English. You would be irritated and bored, right? So do not make yourself a problem to a native speaker. It’s especially important to extend this courtesy to a person who is doing a job, like a waiter, housekeeper, owner of a small store.
Native speakers also will not understand how difficult Spanish is for you. They won’t even notice the momentous first time you produce a sentence with a correct arrangement of direct and indirect object pronouns. Why not? Correctness sounds natural in one’s own language; it’s only incorrectness that is glaring.
Remember, a native speaker has pride in the language and is wounded by your butchering of it. I have many examples of this. Once I was chatting with two friends, native speakers, and asked one of them, “¿Qúe is tu dirección?” The other, though the most genteel woman imaginable, couldn’t stand it any longer and exclaimed, “¡Cúal es tu dirección!” Another time, a teacher from whom I’d taken several classes told me we’d converse only in English from then on because my Spanish was so bad it made her depressed.
A fellow learner of Spanish on a much different level from you is not a good conversation partner. One of you will be bored and the other apologetic.
Someone who can’t meet with you regularly & conveniently is not a good conversation partner. It’s like joining a gym. If you can’t make it fit easily into your schedule, you won’t get around to the workout.
Someone you pay to converse with you is not the best conversation partner. This would almost certainly be a native speaker who would be tempted to turn your time into a grammar lesson. If grammar and correctness are what you want, that’s fine. If fluency and fun are more important, don’t pay a native speaker for lessons.
Though it’s not ideal, if you can’t find anyone else, it’s not too bad to trade conversation sessions with a native Spanish speaker who wants to practice English. Agree beforehand to maintain the target language during the hour. “Ni una palabra in inglés” and “Not a word in Spanish.”
That probably eliminates everyone you’ve already elected in your mind to be your conversation partner.
Who, then, would be a good conversation partner?
Someone on roughly the same level of competence as yours.
Sure, you won’t be any help for each other’s grammar, but both of you will feel comfortable. You need someone who will cheerfully put up with you in the early stages of conversation. Actually speaking Spanish—even bad Spanish—at length with another person will give you fluency and confidence.
Someone whose schedule is compatible with yours and who agrees with you about the ground rules.
The most important ground rule is “No English.” Minor ground rules will emerge, especially about correction of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation. You want to help each other, but your goal is to maintain an easy flow of conversation.
It’s true that it’s hard to converse without looking up words in a dictionary. Make notes and do it later. Don’t interrupt your conversation even to find the key word. it’s part of the fun to have to communicate without the perfect tools.
Your conversation partner will help you progress amazingly in Spanish, without considering it a bore, a chore, a job, or a favor to a friend. You are equals.
Meet my admirable friend Don Alberto.
He came to the U.S. from Cuba with little English and less money. He and his wife have raised five daughters and have prospered here. Many times he has reminded me of his best advice: “Se aprende hablar, hablando.” You learn to speak by speaking.