I studied Spanish for eight years before I went to a country where I would be forced to speak it. Eight years of grammar and composition, vocabulary and syntax. Eight years of watching movies like Selena and Stand & Deliver and Finding Nemo with Spanish subtitles. Almost a decade, and before I moved to Mexico in my ninth year of study, I would not have said I was fluent.
I could understand if people spoke slowly. I could read and write. But when it came time for me to reply, it was if I’d only just started studying — I’d screw up my conjugations, use ser when I should have used estar, refer to a male with a feminine adjective, etc. But then I moved to Mexico and I had no choice but to speak the rickety Spanish which I had thought was the culmination of my learning, and lo and behold, my Spanish improved drastically. Within a few weeks I was comfortable calling myself fluent. I threw the pluscuamperfecto around like confetti and watched as my vocabulary doubled, then tripled.
The moral of the story is this: in order to learn a language, you have to speak to native speakers. And if you’re living in a Spanish-speaking country, you have absolutely no excuse not to try. So here are some phrases that will hopefully bolster your confidence for the next time (or first time!) you go to a mercado or sit down with an Ecuadorian friend and, when they begin speaking in English, gently interject with a “No, amigo. Hablamos en español. Quiero practicar.”
- No entiendo (noh en-tee-EN-doh): I don’t understand.
- Habla más lento por favor (AH-blah MAHS LEN-toh por fah-VORE): Speak more slowly, please.
- ¿Puedes repetir eso? (PWE-dess reh-peh-TEER EH-so?): Can you repeat that, please?
- Estoy aprendiendo español pero necesito practicar (es-TOY ah-PREN-dee-en-do es-pahn-NYOL PEH-roh neh-cess-EE-toh PRAC-tee-car): I’m learning Spanish but I need to practice.
- ¿Cómo se dice…? (COH-moh say DEE-say): How do you say…?
If I can teach you anything, it would be this — you MUST practice if you want your Spanish to improve, and do so as often as possible. Set up language exchanges with Ecuadorian friends who want to practice English (or MAKE Ecuadorian friends). Try speaking to your waiter at a restaurant in Spanish, and to the lady you buy fruits from. The more your practice, the more you’ll notice your Spanish improving. It’s embarrassing and frustrating sometimes, but it gets easier. I promise.