If you want to learn to speak Spanish, obviously being in the country that speaks it is a faster track. Not only do you practice it in daily casual exchanges, you are also surrounded by signage, radio, television and *$%# instruction manuals.
If you desire to practice speaking on topics other than shopping and eating though, it takes a more disciplined approach.
Classes can be excruciating. Many force you to a perfect recitation of “Paco viene a la casa a las ocho,” before deeming you worthy of moving on. Most on-line programs are similarly flawed (One even flashes “FAIL!” in red when you leave out writing an accent mark). It’s no wonder people don’t stick with it.
My belief is that it is more important to talk like an adult imperfectly than a child perfectly. I once spent 10 minutes in a class on one word, the Spanish word for church veil. I don’t remember the word in Spanish, why would I? The nice thing about online flashcard systems, like Quizlet is that you can put create cards of words you use. If you meditate, you create flashcards for words like mindfulness and dharma, for example, because it's a subject you're likely want to bring up.
As you can see, I have pretty strong opinions on the subject. The optimal situation is having is a private tutor in addition to your on-line tools, someone with whom you have personal chemistry.
You know that you have a personal chemistry when some classes are spent just chatting or kidding around but still practicing. Finding that tutor takes time. Extracting yourself from a tutor that you dread seeing can be awkward, so select carefully.
The unacknowledged problem to language practice with natives is that you're afraid of boring them. As conversationalists, we are taught to be sensitive to our listeners. To keep someone's attention in our own language, we might talk faster or animate more, things that are hard to do when you're concentrating on verb tense.
Bless them, most Mexicans do try to figure out what I'm saying, but their expressions of confusion or impatience sometimes cause me to either to clam up or makes me anxious, making my Spanish even worse. The more I liked a Mexican, the less I wanted to bore him or her, which takes about five minutes of bad Spanish if they are human.
Group classes give you little opportunity to speak. Teachers like to do the talking. I don’t blame them. They sound really good.
Enter the cab ride.
Here’s why I found long cab rides to be the perfect Spanish practice class until you can find the right tutor:
Cab drivers are focused on the road, so you do not see their expression. You will not get distracted or demotivated by impatient or bored looks. Like in a confessional, you can concentrate on what you’re saying. If you're just beginning Spanish, I suggest cabs over Uber. They're a little more used to communicating with people who don't speak much Spanish.
You are paying them. You are the client. You may talk about whatever subject you want to learn to hold discourse on. I think through my subject beforehand and talk about politics, family relationships, culture, music, education and societal issues or even just vent the frustrations of the day (and unlike Uber drivers, cabbies aren't rating you, so you can experiment more).
Unlike in the U.S. many cab drivers are well-read, great listeners and good conversationalists. They converse naturally as part of their job and no matter your speaking level, if you engage them.
A cab ride of twenty-five minutes each way is almost an hour of conversation. The cost is less than a private lesson (which run around $20-25). A fifty minute session of real conversation will wear you out if you are really working it.
Over time, you will collect numbers of your favorite drivers. When you call for the ride, if you have the numbers of a few of your favorites, you can choose which "teacher" you want that day. Unlike a tutor, an uncommunicative cab driver (very rare) is not a relationship you would have trouble extracting yourself from.
Performance-based pay. My tip depends on how well the conversation went. If I got a chance to practice and if they effectively furthered the conversation, the tip is generous. It’s a win-win.
Once at beginner-intermediate level, you will begin to make Mexican friends. Until then it’s up to you to get up to speed. Cab rides are a great way to do it if you put a little fore thought into it.
I have found these rides to be even a little better than language practice groups because conversations between only two people are less fragmented than a group.
When I get particularly excited about topic, sometimes I lose it completely. The cab drivers seem to appreciate my mangled yet enthusiastic effort. At least I am trying and even the most silent of cab driver seems to appreciate that.
Once you graduate to beginner-intermediate, you can start taking Uber.
Related links: A course on the basics of learning anything new, including a second language, helped me improve my technique and made the whole experience more pleasurable. Here are the things I took away from the course.
Next up: Rebar, draping electrical cords, what I refer to as "infinity sidewalks." Of course Mexico is not safe!
Most recent: "What Mexico and Mexicans Can Teach Us About Intimacy.
About the author, Kerry Baker
Two years after this post was written, I wrote the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web, linked and organized into lesson plans.
Finding great online tools is frustrating. Many are mislabeled, poorly organized or misleading in their cost structure. Hundreds of websites were researched for this book to save you time, frustration and money.
Check our "If Only I Had a Place" on renting in Mexico. Anyone who is considering expat life needs to test-drive it for an extended period. This book teaches you fundamental differences, cultural and cognitive, between renting in Mexico and renting at home. Save money, avoid the pitfalls and rent luxuriously for less.