So you’ve taken a Spanish course or two and you’re feeling ready to take the next step: putting your new skills into practice with native speakers. You block out a long vacation and buy a plane ticket. But once you’re on the ground, you run up against a common problem: the very people you want to practice your Spanish with insist on speaking to you in English. Here are two good ways — and one bad one — to avoid this problem. But first let’s look at the cause.
They Need It More Than You
If you’re in Mexico or another Spanish-speaking country — whether for a short visit, a longer stay, or permanent living — you’ll run into people who could improve their career opportunities, or just their life in general, if only they spoke English better. And they know this. That’s why many people, even people with limited incomes, pay for expensive classes in private English language schools. And they’ve had English instruction in school from an early age, despite results that are often modest. Their favorite music and television is in English. And yet most of them don’t find themselves surrounded with native speakers they can easily practice with. Although this doesn’t describe everyone, there are more people like this than there are local foreigners like you, wanting to practice their Spanish.
Altar, la Virgen de Guadalupe, Iztacalco, Mexico City
Think for a moment about how locals perceive you. To them you’re probably a cultural tourist, someone who is in their country by choice rather than necessity — a choice that many locals find hard to fathom. They may see your supposed need to improve your Spanish as something akin to a hobby, like improving your golf game. They may assume that you have many people to practice your Spanish with, whereas they have only you to practice English with. These assumptions, correct or not, are often their starting point for how they approach dealing with you.
In Guanajuato I once spoke to a group of Mexican college students who were frustrated about the foreign exchange students who came for a semester to improve their Spanish but refused to help them practice their English. They told me how important English was for their future careers and how frustrating it was to have few so opportunities to practice it. They couldn’t understand why foreign students wouldn’t be willing to help them.
Call this the Necessity Gap, real or perceived. They believe they need English more than you need Spanish. So this is what you’re up against.
Sometimes Spanish speakers just want to use their English with you to show off. You’ll notice that their friends, family or coworkers are within earshot. Fortunately for you, such people often have only a basic level of English and quickly reach the limits of their ability.
Your Progress Is Not Their Problem
If you enter a tlapalería and ask for a tool that you can use to take out a screw, the clerk will get the part for you but will not helpfully mention that it is called a desarmador. Unpaid language tutors or free conversation clubs with native speakers to help you with your Spanish are rare or nonexistent unless a language exchange is expected in return. Language exchange partners will be focused on what they’re getting out of the session, not how they can best help you. Native speakers will not generally go out of their way to help you improve your Spanish. And if you think they should, you aren’t understanding their mentality, priorities or their reality in general.
As for the Mexicans students in Guanajuato who complained about the foreign exchange students not helping them practice their English, I predict that if they themselves were foreign exchange students in an English-speaking country, they wouldn’t be seeking out opportunities to help locals practice their Spanish. Instead, they’d be using their time to practice their English with locals. This is the attitude you need to adopt.
They Assume Your Spanish Sucks
If they’ve had experience with foreigners, they may understandably assume that your Spanish is too basic told hold a decent conversation. So they’ll try English first. This is not a reflection on you but on the foreigners who came before you.
The Skills Gap
It is not realistic to expect Spanish speakers who have achieved a good level of English through hard work and study to practice Spanish with you for free, especially if their English is much better than your Spanish. While you might benefit from such an interaction, they are likely more interested in the quality of communication, which would be higher for the two of you in English. Even though they may indulge you from time to time with Spanish, they are probably thinking how much faster and easier this would be in the other language. That’s not a good basis for an ongoing relationship.
The Skills Gap is the key to solving the problem at hand.
How to Get People Not to Speak English with You
The best way to get people to speak Spanish with you is to close the Skills Gap. That is, you need to get your Spanish to the point where it’s as good or better than their English. Once your Spanish is that good, most people will naturally feel more comfortable using Spanish with you. They’re more likely to accept you as a Spanish speaker. The conversation will feel more authentic since you’re both using the language where you communicate best together. Here are two ways to close the gap:
- By focusing on establishing relationships with Spanish speakers whose English is poor. Such people exist in large numbers throughout the Spanish-speaking world. If you aren’t finding them in your social circle of locals, find a different circle.
- By improving your Spanish. This advice sounds almost cruel. How can you improve your Spanish if you need to improve your Spanish in order to improve it? The answer is that you need to offer something. Here are some things I have personally tried and benefitted from.
- Pay. You can pay for a trained language teacher, a course in a school, or an online course. In addition, some websites offer speaking sessions with untrained native speakers for a fee.
- Time. You can seek out a language exchange, half in English, half in Spanish, where you effectively pay with your time.
- Self study. With the right approach, you can make a lot of progress on your own. Textbooks, video and audio learning materials, web instruction, television, movies and so on. This is not a replacement for speaking practice, but it can help lay a foundation.
- Personal relationships. Establishing quality relationships — whether of friendship, business, romance, sex, whatever — with native speakers can lead to great opportunities for using your Spanish. However, don’t expect such people in your life to give you the feedback you would expect from a teacher or even a language exchange partner. That’s not why they have you in their life. No one enjoys being used. As long as you are selecting people for additional qualities that they have and not just because they speak Spanish, the relationship can thrive for both of you.
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t expect something for nothing. If you’re the one with the weaker language skills, you’ll usually need to provide something tangible or intangible in return until your Spanish is stronger. That’s the key to establishing productive relationships with native speakers.
One Bad Idea
A teacher once recommended that I tell native speakers that I don’t speak English. She thought that would encourage them to speak Spanish with me. This is bad advice because the goal is to establish some kind of ongoing relationship with the speaker, which you’ll find hard to do if you won’t be able to share who you really are.
When I first started using my Spanish with native speakers, I had a hard rule about not speaking English with them, ever. I was worried that we’d fall into a pattern where we’d be speaking English more and more. Also, I wanted to screen out people who were primarily interested in me for English practice. But these people are easy to identify, since they refuse to speak any Spanish right from the beginning, even after they see that you are able to handle the conversation without difficulty.
Maybe this was a good rule to start with, but over time I’ve found it best to be flexible with people I already know. If they want to practice their English once in a while, doing so is a good way to strengthen the relationship. In any event, they’ll usually tire of it after a while.