Level: All Levels
In the summer of 1995 I sadly finished another college internship at Disney World and returned home to Ohio. It was my second time doing the program within a year’s time. I didn’t want to leave for many reasons, but one was because the amount of Spanish speakers that I would encounter would drop off the face of the earth. There just aren’t that many native Spanish-speakers in Ohio especially compared to Central Florida and this is both the visitors from out of the country and residents.
So how was I going to practice Spanish with seemingly no one to practice with?
It did look gloomy, but there was hope. That ray of light that shines through when all hope seems lost. I wanted to learn so badly that there was nothing that was going to stop me. I found Spanish speakers any way I could. One of the first things I did was work a part-time job at a Mexican restaurant. There I met someone that would have a great impact on my language skills for the rest of my life. The funny thing was he was Puerto Rican, not Mexican. Rafael taught me what few people would do and that is to illustrate the slight differences in pronunciation between similar sounds in both English and Spanish. For example, the “de” in “de nada” is soft, more like the “th” in the words “they, the, this”. When you pronounce it like the hard sound in English as in the words “dog or David” then you speak with an accent. I never would have noticed if he hadn’t told me. Nevertheless, the point here is I looked for people. This is just one example.
There are other lessons I learned in Ohio about Spanish that I still could list off to you to this day. I will give you some ideas further down. I discovered an important key to finding the right people and situations to improve my language proficiency, not all are equal. The main thing you are looking to do when seeking out Spanish speakers is to make friends with natives, even if they are just acquaintances. The ideal person is the one that wants to help you, who has patience and better yet if they can explain grammar and why things are said the way they are.
Celebrate every new word, every time you understand when a native speaks to you or a new phrase. Learning 10 new words, 50 a 100 is still more than you knew before. You start with words and some phrases, just words and phrases. Later you learn how to use verbs, the action words that act like glue to make the other words stick together which turn into sentences. You get better at making those sentences and you get better at understanding them being spoken to you as time goes on and then BOOM- you are very effective at communicating in Spanish.
I promise you there are native Spanish speakers somewhere in your area. You do NOT have to travel to another country to learn Spanish. This brief list gives you a variety because I know that not all are possible for everyone.
List of Places to Find Native Spanish Speakers in Your Area
- Spanish church: the service itself is good to learn from but the more important part is making friends before and after.
- Family owned Latin American restaurants or cafes (Mexican, Dominican, Venezuelan, Colombian, Puerto Rican, etc.): the non-chain places are more likely to have native speakers working the whole restaurant, from hostess to server. I frequented a place and learned a lot just by creating conversation. Visit when it’s not busy.
- Latin American Supermarkets or Convenience Stores: Not only learn the different names of foods from the signs but everyone usually is either native or second generation who speak it fluently. Even the ones here in the US remind me very much of the ones in Venezuela. See how more closely knit everyone is. All the customers and employees know each other.
- Dance Classes (salsa, merengue): want to spice things up and have some fun? Learn how different dancing and music mean to Latin Americans and make some friends along the way.
- Spanish tutors: you don’t need to drop a ton of money on a zillion lessons but just a few can help and again you can make friends with them and their friends. Latin Americans are very social people and often build a big circle of friends. You can find the tutors nowadays much more easily with the use of the internet. I found a tutor through my mom’s school where she taught and learned a lot just the few visits I went.
- Universities: some students plan parties, festivals and other events. Sometimes native speakers are official tutors at the university for other students.
- Latin American Festivals: great food, music and lots of people to meet. These are great opportunities for Latin Americans to meet each other especially in places where there aren’t many. There should be some that take place in your area.
- Beauty Salons: Many Latin American women love to style hair and do nails and often start their own businesses.
- Neighbors: Often there is someone in your neighborhood that’s a native speaker, even if just one. And people know people.
- Farmers Markets and Flea Markets: This is a great place for Latin Americans to make some money while sharing their culture, plus a tasty way for you to experience it too.
You all will encounter obstacles while traveling down your Spanish journey. You will say things like, “I’m too busy”, “I’ve got kids”, “I don’t know any Spanish so how can I practice, where do I begin”, and others. It can be hard, but you can find ways. Please, please, please do not feel like you have to be on a schedule to learn, that you need hours and hours of time every week to learn because you don’t.
Don’t stop after the first few attempts to find people to practice with. It took me a few attempts before having success. But again, if you live in an area where there are not many Spanish speakers do not let this discourage you, seek them out, they are there.