When learning a new language, speaking as soon as possible is tremendously helpful in making progress. Experience using the language in the real world is vital to being able to hold a conversation.
But to do this, you need someone to talk to.
There are many opinions on the best way to practice speaking Spanish.
Some say you should talk exclusively to native speakers. Others say you can practice with other Spanish learners or even your pet, as long as you practice speaking.
While you can make an argument for both approaches, I have one rule that will save you a lot of time and frustration.
Never have a bilingual language partner.
Initially it seems like a good idea to speak to a bilingual friend or language partner. Someone who already speaks English and Spanish is a good ally to have while you’re learning.
But this person shouldn’t be your go-to for speaking practice.
These are some of the pitfalls of speaking Spanish with bilingual language partners:
1) They will switch to English
Your Spanish-speaking friends and language partners may switch to speaking to you in English out of convenience or impatience.
If you’re a beginner or even intermediate learner that struggles with listening comprehension, it will be easy for your language partner to revert to English to explain something to you.
This may be helpful for a little while if you are an absolute beginner, but if you want to really get better at speaking Spanish then this will become frustrating and counterproductive.
It’s not always intentional, and usually happens when you get stuck in a conversation.
It just happens naturally because it saves both of you time, but this doesn’t help you learn to speak Spanish.
2) They will make you comfortable speaking English or Spanglish
When talking to someone who is bilingual, when you can’t think of a word you will feel comfortable just saying the word you don’t know in English.
You can skate by with this approach because you know they will understand you.
This does not help you become proficient in Spanish.
While this is fine if you are a beginner and may help you get through conversations, it won’t fly when you have a real life situation where you don’t have the words to say what you want to say.
If you are in a Spanish speaking country or talking to someone that doesn’t know any English, you will be forced to explain yourself using only Spanish.
Figuring out how to ask the right questions and communicate the same concept in more than one way takes practice.
In the beginning you’ll probably find yourself using lots of hand gestures and other nonverbals. Eventually, however, you will develop a skill at describing things with the Spanish you know to get your point across.
This is also a good way to acquire new vocabulary. The association with a social interaction where you forgot or didn’t know a word makes it stand out in your mind more, thus you are more likely to remember it later.
It also increases your motivation to look up words you don’t know since you know you will need to use them.
In this end this will make you a better conversationalist, because you will have practice thinking on your feet and finding different ways to express yourself.
3) Social dynamics may get in the way
In social interactions, you want the conversation to flow naturally and be relaxed.
The point is to share thoughts, ideas, and emotions–not to win a grammar contest or show off your vocabulary (unless your friends are snobs, in which case I’d recommend finding different people to hang out with).
But if you get lost too often, it makes conversation painfully difficult.
It’s unnatural for your friends to slow down and start speaking textbook, slow Spanish to give you time to catch up. More than likely they will just speak to you in English to make things easier for you and to move on with the conversation.
Sticking to speaking strictly Spanish with bilingual friends may be a challenge, especially if there’s more than one person in the conversation.
If you’re among a group of people, it’s common to revert to speaking the common language among you out of respect so that everyone understands the conversation. That is often English.
So who’s the ideal language partner?
To get the most out your speaking practice, chat with Spanish speakers who know very little, if any, English.
The person doesn’t have to necessarily be a native Spanish speaker. Although it is preferred to talk a native speaker so you can get used to pronunciation and intonation in Spanish, a language partner that speaks Spanish as a foreign language may work for you.
The key is to find someone who has a decent level of Spanish and isn’t very comfortable speaking English.
We tend to fall back to our comfort zones eventually, so finding someone who is more comfortable speaking Spanish than English will be more helpful than a bilingual language partner.
This will make relying on the ability to switch back to English less likely if not impossible.
If you are not used to speaking to native or advanced-level Spanish speakers, you make have ask them to “habla despacio, por favor” (speak slowly, please) in the beginning. It may be a little difficult at first, but eventually you will start to understand more and more.
This is learning how the language is used in the real world and not just in a classroom or on Duolingo.
By speaking to Spanish speakers that don’t speak English, you will improve your ability to understand and speak Spanish much faster.
Resources for Finding Language Partners