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Has this ever happened to you?

Liz.—Buenas tardes. ¿Puedo ordenar dos tacos de carnitas, por favor?

“Taco vendor: Here you go. Anything to drink?”

Liz.—No, gracias ಠ_ಠ.

It can be pretty discouraging to speak to someone in your best Spanish and get a response in English. You might even begin to doubt your ability to learn foreign languages or assume that your level of Spanish isn’t good enough for a conversation.

The truth is that how much Spanish you know is not the only factor that determines whether you get an English or a Spanish response—you also have to consider the type of native that you’re talking to.

The three types of natives

Regardless of where you live, the Spanish speakers you interact with will fall into one of these three categories:

  1. Random natives who don’t know English
    They’re not super proud of their English and they’re more than happy to speak Spanish with you, regardless of your level.
  2. Random natives who speak English
    They can be hit or miss. Sometimes they’ll reply to you in English because they think they’re doing you a favor, or because they want to practice their English, or because they want to show off how well they speak. (These are usually the same people that invite Japanese friends over for dinner and serve them sushi.)
  3. Bilingual friends
    You’ve always communicated in English and they feel a little weird about speaking with you in Spanish. If you push them hard enough, they’ll eventually say a couple of sentences and quickly switch back over to English.

Why do natives resist speaking with you in Spanish?

Learning a foreign language is like building a road. Practicing with a native is like asking them to drive on it.

Random natives who don’t speak English are more than happy to drive on your Spanish road because, even if it’s not perfect, it’s the only one they can use to communicate with you.

Random natives who speak English have invested a significant amount of effort building their own English road. If they think that your road has more potholes than theirs, they’ll probably respond to you in English. They make this decision based on very little data, so don’t take it personally.

Bilingual friends are comfortable driving with you on your English road. Convincing them to try out your Spanish one is not that hard (they are your friends, after all), but the moment they realize you’re not serious about improving it, they’ll go back to English.

Let’s look at some strategies to deal with the last two groups.

How to deal with random natives who speak English

You might think that these natives are incredibly annoying, but they can also be a huge help in your road-building efforts.

If a native responds to you in English and you don’t think you said anything wrong, it means you have a blind spot.

Some random natives will put a Spanish embargo on you because they saw a tiny pothole in the tiny piece of road that you showed them. Are they overreacting? Probably. But instead of worrying about other people’s reactions (over which you have zero control), focus on the three things that you have 100% control over.

1. Ask them straight up what you said wrong

When someone switches to English when you’re speaking Spanish, respond by saying this sentence:

¿Lo he dicho mal en español?
Did I say it wrong in Spanish?

If you did make a mistake, you’ll have a chance of fixing it. If you didn’t, you’ll leave them feeling like a jerk.

2. Keep talking in Spanish

If you know your Spanish road is better than theirs, don’t let them get away with it. They’re just pushing your buttons to see if you’re for real. Smile and keep the Spanish flowing.

3. Ask a native friend

If you have no idea what you could’ve said wrong when you approached the random native, write down what you said, or record yourself saying it, and ask one of your native friends to point out your blind spot.

When Liz from above approached the taco vendor, he responded in English because he noticed a pothole.

Not sure about what it was? Time to ask a native.

How to show your bilingual friends that you’re serious about learning

Liz.—Ayer intenté hablar con el vendedor de tacos en español y me respondió en inglés.
Liz: “Yesterday I tried talking with the taco vendor in Spanish and he replied to me in English.”

Nacho.—¿Qué le dijiste?
Nacho: “What did you say to him?”

Liz.—Buenas tardes. ¿Puedo ordenar dos tacos de carnitas, por favor?
Liz: “Good afternoons. Can I (sort / order) two tacos (of / with) carnitas, please?”

Nacho.—Casi perfecto, pero la próxima vez dile «¿Me puede dar?» o «¿Me daOrdenar es un calco del inglés.
Nacho: “Almost perfect, but (the) next time tell him ‘Can you give me?’ or ‘(You) give me?’. ‘Ordenar’ is a loanword from the English (language).”

Liz.—Ah, vale. Espera que me lo apunto. ¿Algo más?
Liz: “Oh, okay. (Wait that I write it down (for myself) / Let me write it down). Anything else?”

Nacho.—Suenas mucho más nativa cuando no aspiras las tes, las pes y las kas.
Nacho: “You sound much more native when you don’t aspirate the t’s, the p’s, and the k’s.”

Whenever you ask your bilingual friends to “speak Spanish with you”, you’re giving them the wrong message. It’s like you’re saying: “I’m not serious enough about learning to actually do the work myself. Can you do it for me?”

If you really want to get better, it’s your responsibility to initiate the conversation. Just like when you’re flirting, don’t worry about asking for permission first, simply tell them a one-line story in Spanish. If they correct you, or if they say something you don’t understand, it means you found a new pothole.

Whenever you find a pothole, make it a point to fix it.

Ignoring the potholes that natives point out is like burning hundred dollar bills. You already have everything you need to improve:

  • a specific mistake,
  • the context in which it happened,
  • and someone who will feel like an expert by helping you fix it.

Alex.—Me apetece hablar un poco en español. ¿Me ayudas?
Alex: “I feel (like) talking a bit in Spanish. (Do / can) you help me?”

Naroa.—Ah, claro. Cuéntame.
Naroa: “Ah, (clear / of course). Tell me.”

Alex.—Ayer he descubierto un canción que me gusta mucho.
Alex: “Yesterday I have found a song that (pleases me / I like) a lot.”

Naroa.—Vale, canción es femenino. Y como estás hablando de algo en el pasado sin conexión con el presente, usa otro tiempo verbal.
Naroa: “Okay, song is feminine. And since you’re talking (of / about) something in the past without connection with the present, use another verb tense.”

Alex.—Déjame probar otra vez: Ayer descubrí una canción que me gustó mucho.
Alex: “Let me try another time: Yesterday I discovered a song that I liked a lot.”

Naroa.–Perfecto. Si quieres que suene mejor todavía, puedes decir «una canción que me encantó».
Naroa: “Perfect. If you want (that it sounds / it to sound) better still, you can say ‘a song that (enchanted me / I loved)’.”

Fixing a pothole every day is a great way to pave your way out of intermediate purgatory.

Spanish takeaways

The reason why natives don’t speak Spanish to you is not because your Spanish is horrible, it’s either because they don’t understand or connect with your goals (random natives), or because you’re not serious enough about them (bilingual friends).

Instead of focusing on what natives think about you, become a lean, mean pothole-fixing machine. Use random natives to help you find your blind spots and bilingual friends to help you get rid of them.

Before your native friends start “speaking Spanish with you”, they need to understand how committed you are to improving. Don’t just tell them, show them.

If you have trouble meeting natives in person, I recommend the excellent HelloTalk app. It provides a fantastic pothole-fixing experience, and it’s full of native Spanish speakers. (If you want to add me as a friend, go to the conversations tab and click on + (plus sign) | Add Partner | NachoTime (no spaces).)


Bonus story

When I was 14 years old, my parents moved to New Jersey, where I spent 3 years at Lenape High School. My main obsession during that time was learning English as quickly as I could to avoid being called The Spanish Kid (being a teenager was hard enough). My English might not have been that great when I got there, but I was definitely serious about getting better.

Whenever someone would try to talk to me in Spanish, I’d mumble a few words and quickly switch back to English.

¡Hola, amigo! ¿Es verdad que todos en España comen paella?
Hi, friend! Is it (truth) that everyone in Spain eats paella?

No, no es verdad. Now, can you tell me which of the hundred yellow buses in this parking lot is the one that takes me home?

The only girl with whom I had no problems speaking in Spanish was Liz (the one that was buying tacos at the beginning).

We sat together in Mr. Rucker’s freshman World Geography class, and when she found out I was from Spain, she started bombarding me with questions. Her Spanish wasn’t perfect, but she showed interest, she took a bunch of notes, and she showed up every day. Unlike the other paella-loving tourists in my high school, I was more than happy to contribute to her Spanish road-building efforts because she was serious about improving.

Be like Liz and work on paving your road!


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