Conversation breeds connection.
It was a bright summer morning when it was time for me to finally face the streets of Los Angeles. Solo. I got into my Uber and what is the first thing I noticed? The GPS speaking Spanish to my driver. My brain went into overdrive. I’ve already greeted the lady in English. Should I ask where she’s from? Is it going to be awkward? What if I mess up or she asks me something that I don’t understand?
I blurt out, “Qué tal tu día, y de dónde eres?” She perks up and responds happily in rapid Spanish, explaining that she is from a small town in Mexico and has been living in LA for about 8 years. She is waiting for the rest of her family to join her here in the States.
On another ride, I met an LA native. His family is originally from one of the Native American tribes around the Potomac River in Maryland, where I am from. I had taken a chance on speaking Spanish to him, and he responded in perfect Spanish. I didn’t know about his background until he explained it to me. He had learned Spanish from his Guatemalan and Salvadorian friends while growing up in the streets of LA.
Probably one of my proudest moments was when the most adorable old lady came up to me in the Atlanta airport saying, “Mija, ¿Puedes ayudarme? ¿Hablas español? I was on my way home from Guanajuato, so I had JUST developed a little confidence in my Spanish, but I still paused when she asked me. Is she talking to me?
I always laugh to myself a little when I think about it, because part of me still wanted to say “oh, I don’t speak Spanish” or “mi español no es perfecto” so she could find someone else to help her. But I had the ability to do so now, and I had plenty of time until my next flight, so I told her I would take her all the way to her gate. She told me she was on her way to visit her family in Guatemala and she was proud of me for taking language learning so seriously.
There is a point to these stories.
Striking up unexpected conversations is not only how you grow and get your practice in, but it is also how you meet people. It’s how you make new connections, and cultivate friendships.
For some people it may not be so easy to always approach other people. I was definitely one of those people. And these are the resources I used to overcome this challenge.
1. Practice Your Spanish on AirBnB Experiences
Many people aren’t using Airbnb to their full advantage because they don’t know about the experiences section of the website. Not only can you find awesome places to stay on Air BnB, but you can also book activities that locals host.
Examples of experiences include city walking tours, photography sessions in cool locations, kayaking, yoga on the beach, horse back riding, surfing, cooking regional cuisines- the options are endless and depend on what is available in each city.
Booking these activities, sometimes last minute, are quick ways that I’ve had completely unique experiences, made friends, and managed to get some quick Spanish practice in.
Knowing that you will have bilingual guides if you are in a Spanish speaking area can make the practice process a little less intimidating. Start off telling your hosts you want to practice, but know that you can always ask for clarification in English.
When I went kayaking in the canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City, I had done just that with my amazing guide Alexis. Not only did we discuss the history of the area, but I also asked for general information about the city. This led to me asking about the best local restaurants and bars (I’m a foodie and tequila aficionado). We ended up going out for drinks that night and remain friends to this day.
2. Staying in Hostels
Casa Pepe near the Zócalo in Mexcio City is hands down my favorite hostel I’ve stayed at. If you are a budget traveler and/or are solo traveling and don’t mind sharing space, then I definitely recommend at least trying hostels to see how you like them.
My experience with them has been completely safe and a great way to meet people in new cities without fail. During my stay at Casa Pepe I met a girl from New York. We spent the whole night chatting about our travels. The next morning, a guy from Arizona approached me during breakfast on the rooftop. We ended up going out for lunch later that day.
3. Conversation Exchange Websites
When learning a language, you will never hear the end of, “You need to practice with native speakers!” And well, its true. You can take language classes in school for 5 years and I promise that you will learn more practicing with a native speaker for 6 months.
I’ve met countless people on websites like Conversation Exchange, Italki, and even various Facebook groups for language exchanges. Most are just fleeting conversations, but I managed to find one of my best friends through a language exchange too. So you never know what you will find unless you put yourself out there!
4. The Meetup App
Technology is seriously amazing! Another great way to find a friend or a group to practice with is the app Meetup. You can see what groups (in our case, language exchanges) are meeting in your area.
This is an easy way to push yourself outside of your comfort zone a little. Surrounding yourself with both English and Spanish speakers gives you ample opportunity to grow your speaking skills and friendships.
When I was living in Virginia, the very first meetup I did was in a cute little café in downtown Norfolk. I met several people, but one lady, Mariella, really stood out to me. We connected and started meeting every week at the local library to practice our respective target languages, one on one.
Her family is Peruvian, but she was born in Spain, so she had a mix of accents. Weekly lessons with Mariella definitely had an effect on my learning and is what sort of prepared me for my trip to Mexico later that year.
5. Solo Dinners
Taking yourself out to dinner may seem intimidating, but there is a lot to be gained from the experience. For one, it is easier to talk to other people in the restaurant when you are alone. Servers will stop to talk more often if they have time, or if you sit at the bar, you can mingle with the other guests and talk to the bartenders.
My favorite experience was probably at Almoraduz, a hidden treasure on the beautiful boardwalk of Playa Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido. I am most definitely defined by my love of food, and this place was perfection.
I was able to chat at length with my server about certain things on the menu (I mean, reading fancy menus in English is hard enough!) and he also asked me questions about how I was enjoying his city.
Again, I am rooting for all the Spanish students out there, especially the ones who want to travel too. These trips do not have to be as extravagant and overwhelming as social media makes it seem sometimes.
A random conversation can be what turns an otherwise “ok” trip into a great one. To me, traveling is not just about the great sights and hotels or homes you find to stay at (even though they are pretty cool too), it is about the memories of the people you meet.
Even if you don’t become lifelong friends with everyone you meet, you will always associate a place with certain people you come across. And that energy is exactly what will motivate you to keep learning and traveling. Have a little faith in the process.