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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.
Speaking Skills: Intermediate Level
One of the biggest compliments you could get regarding your Spanish is a native speaker telling you that your Spanish accent was so good that they thought you were either a native yourself or that you have Latin roots. You will probably never speak just like a native, sorry, but it still feels good to know you are doing something right, something better than the average speaker of Spanish as a second language.
Speaking with a thick American or other non-native accent is not the end of the world though. In fact, I don’t think it is very important for communicating effectively. However, speaking with little or no accent does have many benefits, namely earning respect of native speakers and providing them more confidence in your ability to hold a conversation with them. Although a strong accent doesn’t mean someone doesn’t speak well, it can impede effective communication. It certainly be difficult to understand. Think about it. Remember that time you asked someone for help at a local supermarket or a tourist asked you for help and they had a rough accent, what did you think? My first thought usually is, “Wow, I wonder if they understand what I’m going to say.”
This can become a distraction.
A trick I learned to achieve more fluency in my speech was to run words together, like native speakers do rather than separate them too much. For example, in English as you are speaking with your girlfriend or boyfriend you might say, “I think about you all the time.” In normal speed this may sound like many words stuck together, something like, “Ithinkaboutyou – allthetime,” two words, right? Well in Spanish it’s no different. Instead of separating the words so distinctly start combining them. So translating what we just said in English to Spanish you get, “Te pienso todo el tiempo,” (five separated words). Let’s combine them and make it, “Tepienso – todoeltiempo,” again changing the word count to two.
Let’s try smaller words clusters. Consider changing the following examples.
Tus ojos tusojos “your eyes”
Te quiero tequiero “I love you.”
Te lo digo telodigo “I’ll tell you”
Te extrano teextrano “I miss you”
This technique is especially helpful when you advance is your grammar and you say sentences like the these:
Me lo dió. Melodio. “He gave it to me.”
Me lo regaló. Meloregalo. “She gave it to me (as a gift)” (Literally- She gifted it to me.)
Se lo dijeron. Selodijeron. “They told him (it).
Lo, la, le, se are examples of indirect and direct objects. Some of the examples are “it”, “me”, “them” and so on in English. What’s makes it tough is the order is backwards in Spanish. It forces you to think a few extra seconds to get it right. “Wait, um, ‘Dio lo me,’ no , I mean, ‘Lo me dio,’ no!” When you do start to get how to say them in the correct order you will probably separate them too much, thus sounding a little rough. I’ve heard other English speakers creating too many pauses in between the words. That’s why I recommend blending the words together.