Tips for Having Your First Conversation in a Foreign Language
So, you’ve done it. You’ve taken the leap and decided to learn a new language. Spanish, you decide. Maybe you’ve signed up for a class with ReDefiners World Languages. You’ve attended every class prepared and ready to learn. You’ve immersed yourself in your new language. You watch the news in Spanish as you eat your breakfast, you listen to Spanish podcasts, and you read books in Spanish. You’re feeling more and more confident, and you think to yourself, “I can do it!”
But imagine this: one day, an opportunity to use your new skills arises. Instantly, your heart starts pounding, your hands get clammy, and your mouth goes dry. Doubt-filled thoughts begin to swim around your head. “What if I can’t do it?” you ask yourself, “What if I make a fool out of myself?” Instantly, you forget every bit of Spanish that you’ve ever learned. You find yourself struggling to get even the most basic words out of your mouth, and you find it hard to keep up with the conversation. By the time it’s finally over, you would give anything to disappear off the face of the Earth. This experience shakes your confidence in your Spanish-speaking abilities, and you analyze the entire conversation, reminding yourself of every little mistake you made. “Is it even worth it to learn Spanish?” you ask yourself dejectedly.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Maybe you’re so frustrated by your lack of progress that you want to give up. But what if I told you that conversations in a foreign language don’t have to be this way? Believe it or not, there is an easier way to have conversations in a foreign language.
A crucial step in your language learning journey is learning how to apply the knowledge you gained in the classroom to real-life situations. But it can be intimidating to talk to someone in a language that you don’t speak very well. The ironic thing is that doubt can damage your confidence in your abilities, making it more likely that you’ll make a mistake while you speak
I started learning Spanish when I was in elementary school, but I didn’t feel comfortable speaking the language until I was in college. When I was first learning Spanish, I was always nervous and shy about using my skills to communicate. I had a lot of doubt in my abilities, even though I picked up the language quickly. What if they laughed at me? What if I made a horrible, embarrassing mistake? Native speakers spoke so fast, and it was so hard to keep up with them. How would I ever speak Spanish like them?
Fortunately, with enough practice and support, my language skills improved, and I overcame my shyness. From time to time, I still feel a twinge of nervousness when I speak Spanish, but I can keep it under control. I no longer doubt my abilities, which means it’s a lot more fun to converse in a foreign language.
I still remember my first real conversation in Spanish like it was yesterday. I had recently transferred to a 4-year university after a few semesters at a local community college. I joined a religious group on campus to help me meet new people and adjust to campus life. I went to a very diverse school, and the club reflected that diversity. About half of the group members were Hispanic and spoke Spanish. At the end of every meeting, we would eat dinner together, and the only open seat happened to be in the midst of a group of girls, all of whom were speaking Spanish. They switched over to English when they saw me coming, and they welcomed me with open arms.
As the meal progressed, I desperately wanted to practice my Spanish skills with a group of native speakers, but I didn’t know how to ask them. Eventually, my desire to speak overcame my shyness. “Could I practice my Spanish with you guys?” I asked timidly. They all eagerly agreed. We all introduced ourselves and talked about our majors, our hobbies, and our families. By the end of the conversation, I walked away with a group of new friends. Even though most of us have since graduated, we still keep in touch to this day.
As my college career progressed, my Spanish skills grew. I was more comfortable speaking Spanish, but the true test would come later, after the Spring 2019 semester.
In the Summer of 2019, my Mom and I traveled to Jerusalem, where my cousin was living at the time. She worked for the U.S. State Department and was stationed in Jerusalem to learn Arabic for her next assignment.
About halfway through our trip, the three of us went to the Dead Sea. It was around 2:30 PM local time, and we were in the cafeteria, trying to get food for a late lunch. It was a bit crowded, so my mom sent me to find seats. The tables were all full, save for one that only had a middle-aged Hispanic woman sitting at it. At first, neither of us said anything. However, after a few minutes, she told me, “la comida es muy rica,” which I later found out meant “the food is delicious.” (At that moment, I couldn’t remember for the life of me what “rica” meant!) I replied, “sí. Hablo español.” (“Yes. I speak Spanish.”) From there, we had a long conversation over lunch. I introduced myself, my mom, and my cousin. I told her that we were from the United States, and I told her that I was a student, my mom worked at a church, and my cousin works for the U.S. government. My mom only spoke a little Spanish, and my cousin didn’t speak it at all. Fortunately, I had just completed my fourth semester of Spanish, so I was well-equipped to act as an interpreter. We learned that she was from Mexico, and she was there on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, just like my mom and I were.
By the time we said our goodbyes, I felt like I was on top of the world. “That was incredible!” I exclaimed to my mom and my cousin after we left the cafeteria. I could hardly believe that I spent the last 15-20 minutes speaking only in Spanish. I had dreamed of having an experience like this when I first started my Spanish-speaking journey, but I didn’t believe it would happen to me. The experience made my day, and I held my head high. Because of that experience, I learned to trust myself and my language skills.
Here at ReDefiners World Languages, we help our students to be able to communicate in the language that they are learning. With that in mind, here are some tips for having your first conversation in a foreign language:
Meet some friends who speak the language that you are learning. Don’t try to converse with strangers at first. It’s often easier to talk to your friends because your friends will be patient with you. They won’t laugh at you for making a mistake. At most, they might give you a gentle correction and move on. Speaking with friends will help you build your confidence.
Practice your language as much as possible. Whether that’s through independent studying, listening to music, or podcasts, you will gain the confidence you need to progress on your language-learning journey. The more confident you are with your language, the easier it will be to read, write, and speak it. We believe that the best way to learn a language is through immersing yourself. Not everyone can travel to or live in a foreign country, though. If that’s the case for you, then the next best thing is to create an immersive environment so that you will use the language as much as possible. Do things such as turning on subtitles, listening to music or podcasts, or reading books. The more comfortable and familiar you are with the language, the easier it will be to use it.
Accept that you’re going to make mistakes. As someone who’s perfectionistic, I know that the idea of making mistakes is difficult and scary. However, if you’re so afraid of making a mistake that you never use your language, then you won't make any progress.
On a related note, remember that no one is born knowing a language perfectly. When babies are learning to talk, it takes them a while to figure out how to make the correct sounds for the right words. They make plenty of mistakes when they’re trying to learn to talk, but they keep going. Don’t get discouraged if you make a mistake. Mistakes are how we learn.
Remember that most people are not going to judge you if you make mistakes. Most people are flattered when you try to speak their language. I know that when people practice their English with me, I’m very patient and understanding. If necessary, I gently correct their English and answer their questions about pronunciation and grammar. I do all of this because I know that English is a hard language to learn, the other person is doing their best, and any efforts to learn another language should be encouraged, not discouraged. Besides, language is intertwined with culture and identity. If you’re genuinely trying to learn, most people will accept it as a compliment. You’re saying, “I appreciate this language so much that I’m willing to take time out of my busy schedule to learn it.” Most people will be patient because they see your efforts to learn their language as a compliment. Think about how you would react if someone genuinely tried to speak your native language. Would you be impatient and rude to them? Or would you be patient and understanding? Odds are, most people will show you the patience and understanding that you would show others.
Seek out opportunities to use your new language skills. Is there a museum or cultural center near you where you can volunteer and use your language skills? Do your friends or family members know anyone who speaks the language you’re trying to learn? See if you can find someone who would be willing to practice with you. Find someone who speaks your language fluently (if possible) because they can answer questions about pronunciation and grammar. They can also teach you new words and phrases. Once you find someone, practice with them consistently. The more conversations you have in your new language, the easier it becomes to use it.
Know that it’s okay to take a break. If you find yourself getting frustrated during your language-learning process, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that it’s going to be okay. If you find yourself getting frustrated with speaking a new language, then that’s a sign that something needs to change. You might need to go back and review the fundamentals, practice more, or look into some individual classes or tutoring. At ReDefiners, we offer private classes both in-person and online, in addition to group classes.
Know that it’s not going to be an overnight process. Learning a new language isn’t always easy. It’s easy to get discouraged. You might even be tempted to give up. Learning a new language is like weightlifting. At first, it’s difficult, your skills are limited, and you’re tired afterward. However, over time, it gets easier because your skills have improved. As a result, you’re not as tired after. Stick with it, and you will see results.
Having your first conversation in a foreign language can be intimidating at best. If you have perfectionistic tendencies, it can be even harder to keep your doubt and anxiety under control. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Practicing with a few trusted friends can build your confidence, as can regular studying. It’s worth remembering that most people will be patient and understanding with you as you’re speaking the language. With patience, perseverance, and dedication, you’ll be on your way to successfully speaking a foreign language.
Need some more help learning a new language? Consider taking a class with ReDefiners World Languages! We offer online and in-person classes, as well as group and private instruction in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, and English. For more information, please visit www.redefinerswl.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.