A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Learning Spanish Online, Part 3: Applying What You’ve Learned by Using It to Talk to Native Speakers
What’s a Language Exchange?
It’s when two people who are learning each other’s native languages get together to help each other out, simple. Example: a native English speaker (say, a Canadian) who is learning Spanish gets together (in person, Skype, phone, e-mail, doesn’t matter) with a native Spanish speaker (say, a Colombian) who’s learning English, and then the native Spanish speaker helps the native English speaker with their Spanish and then, in return, the native English speaker helps the native Spanish speaker with their English. So in our hypothetical example the Colombian would help the Canadian with their Spanish and then the Canadian would help the Colombian with their English. Usually the two parties will agree upon a set, equal, amount of time to separately work on each language so that each person gets a fair shake, the most common times I hear are 15 minutes in each language (30 minutes total) or 30 minutes in each language (60 minutes total), so typically between 10 and 30 minutes in each language. So the native Spanish speaker is agreeing to spend 15 minutes of their time helping you with your Spanish in exchange for you spending 15 minutes of your time helping them with their English. Got it?
Also, to be clear: this whole process is entirely free, you don’t need to pay for anything, I’ll show you how to do this below…
This is the most important step, you cannot skip it
Here is where you take all the Spanish that you’ve learned via your course/lessons from Part One and/or your Spanish media source in Part 2 and you use it to actually talk to people. Honestly, this is probably the single most important thing you could do. You can half-ass your lessons or just not do the technique described in the previous part altogether (you need to do either a course or the Telenovela Method, you don’t need to do both, though I do recommend it), but if you don’t do this, if you don’t actually practice talking with native speakers and start making mistakes and getting feedback, it doesn’t matter how good your course was or how diligently you studied it or how many Spanish movies you watched and how well you can understand and say the Spanish used in them:
You will NOT be able to just walk up to a native speaker one day and start speaking fluent Spanish right off the bat having never actually spoken to someone before in Spanish.
It does not work that way; a lot of people think it does. A lot of people, wanting to avoid having to make mistakes, wanting to avoid “embarrassment” (it’s not actually embarrassing, I’ll tell you why in a second), wanting to avoid putting off having to actually talk to – god forbid – another person, will do course after course, workbook after workbook, watch movie after movie in Spanish, study grammar until they’re numb…and they still won’t be able to speak Spanish. They think that if they do those things enough, then “one day” they’ll cross a line or a point where their skill is sufficient for them to be considered “fluent” in Spanish such that they can talk to people in the language about whatever they want and they won’t make any, or very few, mistakes. It does not work that way because you never learned to use the language, learning how to use it means learning how to dynamically interact and communicate with another person with the language, and that can only be learned by doing. What I mean by “doing” is communicating with someone as best you can, making tons of errors initially, getting corrected on them and learning the right way to do it, and then going back and doing this all over again time after time, improving significantly (and you will) each and every time. You need feedback and the best possible person to get feedback on your Spanish from is…a native Spanish speaker! Surprise!
It’s fun, and there is NOTHING to be afraid of or nervous about!
Oh, and it’s fun, by the way. Ha. Just thought I’d mention that. It really is. There’s nothing to be frightened of…everybody is so scared to death of this – I certainly was – but it’s so silly when you think about it: you’re going to be talking with other people who have signed up for this service that you met them through (a language exchange site) for the specific purpose of doing exactly what you’re doing: learning a foreign language by talking to a native speaker of it. So they’re in precisely the same boat as you are: they’re talking to a native speaker of a language that they’re learning which they don’t speak very well. They are about to subject a native English speaker to their poor-to-middling, error-riddled, not-quite-correctly-pronounced, thick-accented English, and they know it…how do you think they feel? Just like you. Not only are they just as nervous as you are but they completely understand your situation and how you feel! They’re not going to think you’re stupid, they’re not going to find you annoying, they’re not going to make fun of you.
What to do
Step 1: Get Skype
Alright, first of all you’ll need to sign up for two (free) services: Skype (click here to go to their website) and a language exchange. I doubt you don’t know what Skype is but just in case: it allows you to make phone calls to anyone anywhere in the world for free via your internet connection so long as the other person also has a Skype account, plus if both people have webcams then you can have a video call where you’re actually talking to the person face-to-face essentially (I highly recommend this when possible because it lets you use body language and facial expressions to communicate which are very valuable). Almost everybody signed up on language exchange sites has Skype and they all know the deal: you meet someone on said language exchange site, do a quick introduction, ask if they’d like to set up a language exchange via a Skype call sometime, and then they do it (the Skype call that is) and most future communication between the two people is done via Skype and e-mail; the language exchange site generally just serves as a means of meeting people and allowing them to make some initial introductions and set up further, more direct, communication in the future, it doesn’t really serve as a means of continuing communication. So go to their website, sign up and download the software, and then we’ll move on to language exchange websites…
Step 2: Sign Up for a Language Exchange Site
Ok, now we need to sign up for a language exchange site. I’ll keep it short and simple: my top recommendation that I think, right now, is the best free language exchange site is iTalki – sign up then look at the tool bar at the top where it says “Language Partners”, click that and then start searching. Some additional ones you can check out are: The Mixxer, Polyglot Club, and LingoFriends.
Step 3: Find Friends to Talk To
All of these sites have some kind of search feature that allows you to find people to connect to as well as a messaging system allowing you to make initial contact with them. I find that iTalki’s search function is the best. The long and short of it is: just search for native Spanish-speakers who are learning English. That’s it, simple. Then message them asking them if they’d like to talk sometime on Skype. Don’t be afraid to use Google Translate, it’s not perfect but I’ve found that it’s good enough that people can always understand you. Here’s a simple stock message I use:
“Hola [their name],
Acabo de darme cuenta de que usted habla español y aprende inglés, y yo aprendo español y mi idioma nativo es el inglés. Así que pensé, si usted quisiera, que podríamos ayudarnos mutuamente por hablar alguna vez.
Which translates to:
“Hi [Their Name],
I just noticed that you speak Spanish and are learning English. I’m learning Spanish and my native language is English. So I thought, if you’d like, that we could help each other out by reviewing each others’ entries.
Talk to you soon,
Now you wait for their response. When they respond, many of them will just automatically provide you with their Skype username as that’s what they’re used to, they understand this is how most people do language exchanges. If not, ask them.
Step 4: Talk to Them on Skype!
You can schedule a time or you can just get on Skype whenever you feel like it and message anyone you see online (yes, Skype has a chat feature so you can check with them to see if they’re available to talk before calling them so you don’t risk bothering them or wasting your time if they’re not available) and ask them if they want to talk.
I recommend for you beginners that you actually write a few things up, in Spanish, ahead of time to say and talk about with them, e.g. some general introductions and getting-to-know-you type type stuff such as asking them how they are and responding properly when they inevitably ask you the same in return, telling them where you live and what you do for a living, asking them where they live and what they do, explaining your reason for wanting to learn Spanish, asking why they want to learn English, telling them about your family and asking them about theirs, etc. This is an extremely effective technique for nervous newbies which I find really helps to eliminate their fear and nervousness prior to their first call by allowing them to be well-prepared so that they know they won’t get tongue-tied and unable to think of anything to say. Use Google Translate to do this and feel free to run it by some native speakers on Lang-8 or a Spanish-learning forum such as Tomisimo (use the Translation forum) in order to catch and correct the errors, then use Forvo to learn the proper pronunciation of the words you want to use.
Step 5: Remember to Note Everything you Learn!
You’re going to learn a ton from even very short language exchanges of just a few minutes and you’ll want to note it all down for later review. You can either have Anki open during the exchange and make cards as you go, or you can do what I do and have some sort of note-taking software open where you can quickly jot everything down and then enter it into Anki later after the call is over when you have more time. Personally, I prefer Evernote (yeah it’s free), though you could use any sort of word processor or text editor.
Seriously, that’s it. It’s simple, easy, fun, and the single most effective way to learn to speak a language: actually speak it with native speakers! Yes, you will be terrible at first, yes you will make many errors at first, no they will not care, no it does not matter, yes it’s actually a good thing because if you don’t make those mistakes and get feedback from people who know how to speak the language properly then you’ll never learn how to speak the language properly!
Integrating your favorite Spanish-language media (TV show, comic, etc.) into your language exchange so your partner can help you with them (so much fun!), lots more prepared dialogue and conversation ideas for you to use, and MUCH more on language exchanges and how to do them effectively…
The chapter on language exchanges is the longest one in my book because I think they’re so important. I will teach you exactly how to not only integrate them into the Telenovela Method so that you’re seamlessly using the Spanish that you learned from your chosen media (TV show, movie, etc.) during your language exchange (thereby allowing you to learn how to use that Spanish correctly since your partner will be listening to and helping you), but also how to do the Telenovela Method during the language exchange with you and your partner watching, reading, or listening to your chosen media together! Doesn’t that sound like lots of fun? For both people? It is! That’s the idea! Not only does it help keep you interested but this fun and novel approach also helps keep your partner interested which is very important since they’re doing this for free (essentially, they help you with your Spanish in exchange for you helping them with their English) and can, if they get bored, decide not to talk to you anymore at any time.
Additionally there are a lot more (several pages worth) of example dialogue you can use during your conversation as well as several clever techniques I use to generate topics of discussion during the call (they involve looking up information online during the conversation and then discussing the information you find with your partner) that will give you hours and hours of fun and interesting conversation where you’ll not only learn Spanish but also tons of information about the other person’s culture. If this sounds like it might be something that would interest you, check out my book by clicking on the link below which will take you to its page on Amazon where you can look at the table of contents (in the book description) as well as read the first 10% of the book via Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, and purchase it if you like for just $9.99 (that’s in U.S. Dollars, it’s $9.99 Canadian, £6.34, €7,59, and $10.34 Australian):
The Telenovela Method: How to Learn Spanish Online for Free Using Spanish TV, Music, Movies, Comics, Books, and More
Also, I wrote a blog post about it that goes into a lot more detail you can read here, and if you’re not in the United States (and consequently use an Amazon site other than Amazon.com) it’s also available on the following Amazon sites: Amazon U.K. (Amazon.co.uk) – Amazon Canada (Amazon.ca) – Amazon Australia (Amazon.com.au) – Amazon Spain (Amazon.es) – Amazon Mexico (Amazon.com.mx) – Amazon Deutschland (Amazon.de) – Amazon France (Amazon.fr) – Amazon Italy (Amazon.it) – Amazon Japan (Amazon.co.jp) – Amazon India (Amazon.in) – Amazon Brazil (Amazon.com.br)
I really hope this was helpful to you, please don’t hesitate to contact me (click here to get to my contact form) with any questions or comments you have, and of course feel free to leave a public comment below as well.