Having frequent conversations with native Spanish speakers is a great strategy for getting out of Intermediate Purgatory, but finding the right people to connect with can be a real challenge.
Here is an email from Sean sharing his experience with apps like HelloTalk:
I struggle finding language partners that have similar goals, time tables and styles as mine. It seems like I meet tons of people for one or two conversations, and then… Poof! It’s on to the next person.
It turns out that simply being able to contact tons of natives isn’t enough to ensure that they stick around. And even if you manage to stay in touch for a while, it’s common to drift apart once life starts getting in the way.
That’s what happened to Craig:
I used to have great exchanges with a guy from Guatemala, but then he got a job at a call center and our schedules started colliding too much, so we’ve kind of stopped talking.
Finding interesting conversation partners and talking to them on a regular basis are two of the most common obstacles that make it difficult to have fulfilling language exchanges. What can you do to overcome them?
Let’s look at each one in turn.
Finding interesting conversation partners
Even if you live in an English-speaking country, getting in touch with dozens of native Spanish speakers has never been easier.
Just go to Conversation Exchange, install HelloTalk on your phone, or check out My Language Exchange. If you introduce yourself to a few people every day, by the end of the week you’re bound to have a nice list of potential exchange partners with the demographic you’re most interested in.
So, how should you introduce yourself? If you’ve ever spent some time in these sites you know that it’s pretty common to receive messages like this one:
Carlos: Hi, Joe! I really want to learn English. Can you help me?
How excited do you think Joe is right now about helping Carlos with his English? 🙄
He’s probably thinking: “Who is this guy anyway? What’s he all about? Does he like to go bowling on Saturdays or is he more of the chess-playing type? Was his Spotify blasting Kendrick Lamar when he wrote this or is he more of a 90’s-rock-ballads kind of guy? No idea! All I know is that he REALLY wants to learn English. Well, that’s nice…”
Before you start contacting people left and right, it’s definitely worth taking a few minutes to come up with an introduction that gives the other person a glimpse into your personality.
Instead of simply saying “I really want to learn Spanish” or “I love Spanish people”, share the reasons behind those feelings. For example, let’s see how Starr introduces herself to a guy from Costa Rica.
¡Pura vida, Hernán! Me llamo Starr y vivo en un pueblito de Wyoming. Acá todo el mundo habla inglés, así que para compensar me levanto todas las mañanas escuchando El Mañanero 40 y me muero de risa con las tonterías que dicen (aunque todavía no entiendo todas las bromas). Estoy buscando un tico que me eche una mano con el español (sobre todo ¡alguien que me corrija!) ¿Tú cómo llevas el inglés? If you’re also working hard to improve, I’d love to help you out. 😊
I don’t think Hernán will have any trouble realizing that she really wants to learn Spanish and that she wants him to help her. Like your writing teacher used to say: show, don’t tell.
What makes this intro more effective than the first one? A bunch of things:
- It’s personalized: she calls Hernán by name and showcases her familiarity with Costa Rican culture (pura vida, un tico, El Mañanero 40).
- It showcases her personality: she comes across as fun, outgoing and self-motivated.
- It’s mostly in Spanish: she makes it easy for him to check if her level of Spanish matches his level of English.
- It encourages a response in English: she shows that she cares about what he will get out of the exchange.
- It conveys her goals: she mentions the type of interaction she is looking for.
Clearly stating the type of person you’re looking for is an efficient way of filtering out potential bad matches. Doing this early means you can focus your energy on people who actually share your goals.
Let’s drive the point home with another example. This time, Chris is saying hello to someone from Spain:
¡Qué pasa, Natalia! He visto en tu perfil que vives en Málaga (¡estuve allí el verano pasado!), así que te escribo para proponerte un intercambio: yo te mando mensajes de voz en español y tú me los mandas en inglés. ¿Qué te parece? Me da muchísima vergüenza tener conversaciones con desconocidos, así que he decidido tirarme a la piscina (¿se dice así “to take the plunge”?). If speaking English out loud feels equally embarrassing for you, we should definitely give this a try 😅. Añádeme a WhatsApp si quieres y te mando el primer mensaje de voz: +18885552211
Personalized? ✅ (Natalia, I spent last summer in Malaga). Showcases personality? ✅ (forward, eager to improve, self-deprecating). Uses Spanish, English and conveys a clear goal? ✅✅✅
Pro Tip: More than half of the Spanish-speaking world uses WhatsApp to send text messages (in Spain, at least, the number is more like 90%). If you contact your exchange partners using the same app that their friends are already using, you’ll be much more likely to get a response.
What happens when the other person doesn’t respond?
No matter how lovingly you craft your introduction, not everyone will reply. And even if they do, you might realize that you’re no longer interested in continuing the conversation (for whatever reason). Both scenarios are totally valid.
Don’t take a lack of response as a personal rejection. You never know what might be going on in the other person’s life, so since you have zero control over what they do, focus on your actions (you have 100% control over those).
Either introduce yourself to more potential partners or use the strategy below to keep sending them quality messages, but don’t waste any energy wishing they would behave differently.
Talking to your partners on a regular basis
Okay, so you’ve overcome the first challenge and you’ve successfully exchanged several messages with your Spanish partner. Now what?
To keep the conversation fire going, write at least one quality message each day.
Joe.—Muy bien. Me acabo de levantar y estoy desayunando.
Trying to keep the conversation going with small talk is like attempting to rekindle a dying fire by throwing in a few twigs. What the interaction needs is a nice content-rich message that your partner can easily respond to.
Of course, that’s going to take a bit more effort than a simple “¿qué tal?”, but you’ll also learn a lot more in the process.
You might be used to always improvising your text messages, but if you want to get better at writing, you should take the time to craft a mini-story. That means looking up words in the dictionary, rewriting parts of it so they flow better and making sure you spellcheck it (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows).
You can even write several of these messages in one session and use them on different days. Once your partner has replied, feel free to go back to improvising.
Pro Tip: It’s much easier to start writing when you already know the topic you’re going to write about. To prevent procrastination, it helps to keep a running list of things that caught your attention throughout the day. Then, you can use one of your Spanish practice sessions to turn a few of them into mini-stories. If this sounds like a nice idea that you’ll immediately forget to implement, I recommend adding it to your daily planner.
Enough theory! Let’s look at an example:
Chris.–¡Hola, Natalia! Acabo de encontrar mi expresión del día: «¿Te gustó la peli? Bueno, no era nada del otro mundo». En inglés decimos que «it was nothing to write home about». 😊 Creo que voy a añadir unas cuantas expresiones de este tipo a mi lista de vocabulario para poder repasarlas mañana porque esta tarde tengo un montón de cosas que hacer. ¿Tú qué planes tienes?
That’s a bunch of threads for Natalia to play off of. Now she could:
- Provide an alternative idiom:
Natalia.–Gracias por la expresión en inglés. No la conocía 👍 Ah, y también puedes decir que la peli «no era gran cosa».
- Answer the question:
Natalia.–Pues pensaba ir al cine, pero primero dime a qué película te referías, porque si no es nada del otro mundo… ¡mejor voy a ver otra! 😂
- Ask for more details:
Natalia.–¿Dónde escuchaste la frase? ¿Cuántas palabras añades cada día a tu lista de vocabulario? ¿Qué cosas tienes que hacer esta tarde?
- Share her own mini-story:
Natalia.–Ayer quedé para tomar un café con una amiga y estuvimos planeando nuestro futuro viaje por Sudamérica. Nos gustaría empezar en Ciudad de México y bajar hasta Tierra del Fuego. Es un poco locura (y es probable que no lo hagamos nunca), pero me lo pasé muy bien imaginando cómo sería. ¿Tú has hecho alguna vez un viaje así, a la aventura?
Taking a bit longer than usual to write a daily non-improvised message has many benefits:
- It serves as the perfect excuse to expand your vocabulary and take out all those sentence structures that you’d like to use more often
It might motivate your conversation partner to reciprocate with messages that you also find interesting
It provides a consistent source of fuel to keep the conversation going past the honeymoon phase
Your challenge for this week
If you haven’t exchanged a bunch of quality messages with a Spanish native recently, here’s something you can do this week:
- Write an introduction in Spanish (with a hook in English) sharing a few details about your life (enough to showcase your personality) and state clearly what you’d like to get out of the exchange.
- Go to Conversation Exchange (or any of the other million language exchange sites) and look for people that meet your demographic requirements (age, gender, city, interests…). Send a personalized introduction to a few people each day (assume a 50% reply rate).
- After you get a reply, either take the asynchronous route, and start sending daily voice and text messages; or take the synchronous route, and start scheduling Skype calls or in-person meetups (most language exchange apps let you search for Spanish speakers that live in your city).
- To accomplish the challenge, send one quality message to one of your conversation partners for seven days straight. To also get a gold star, send more than one message to more than one partner for more than seven days. 😁
If you’re willing to give it a try, write a comment below and let me know how it goes, or if you have any questions.
You can also share this post with a friend and get them to do the challenge with you.
I’ll probably write another post about Useful Activities to Spice Up Your Language Exchanges or something corny like that. Make sure to write down your email below if you’d like to be notified when it’s ready.
Un abrazo y ¡suerte con tus intercambios!