Four months ago today we started our Spanish conversation group Solo en español. Here are some lessons learned from the last four months:
People come and go. In the last 4 months we have had more than 30 different people participate … some come once and never return, others come regularly for awhile until competing obligations pull them away, there are some that keep coming back periodically, and still others come virtually every week.
The group will never be all things to all people. Since language levels vary, elementary conversation will be too advanced for those just starting to learn the language, it will feel just about right for some, and it will feel, well, elementary to more advanced learners. Also, the format will be subject to debate.
Establish a primary focus. From day one, our primary focus has been to insist on speaking only in Spanish as much as possible. That’s why we named the group, Solo en español. Us gringos will never learn to speak Spanish while living here in the United States if we keep giving up and falling back into English to say something. So, for 1 hour out of the 168 hours in each week, we “bite the bullet” and do our best to communicate in Spanish.
Free is better. For several weeks we paid a native Spanish speaker to be our moderator, we felt that having a native Spanish speaker present would prevent a bunch of gringos from reinforcing each other’s errors. However, because the accounting became a mess (who has paid what?), and because pay-to-participate was likely keeping away participants, we just decided to make it free to any and all.
We rely on the kindness of native Spanish speakers. It is very, very helpful when native Spanish speakers participate … and because this group is not a language exchange (where half the time is spent in Spanish, while half the time is spent in English), obviously native Spanish speakers who are trying to learn English can feel a little shortchanged by participating in this group. However, there are various English conversation groups around for those who want to learn to converse in English, not to mention the opportunity to practice English while going to and fro in the city. We NEED native Spanish speakers, we LOVE native Spanish speakers. J
A conversation starter is helpful. It is good to come prepared with a topic to start talking about, otherwise you might find yourself sitting around and staring at each other.
It pays to advertise. We have found participants by word-of-mouth, through the posting on the chalkboard at Mestizo, by posting ads on Craigslist, through notices on Salt Lake City Spanish Meetup, by participating in various other groups, and through other channels. This weekly email recap – intentionally sent as a blind copy in order to protect privacy – is itself sent to almost 90 different email addresses that have been collected. If someone gets tired of my weekly ramblings and wants to be removed from the list, it takes all of about 10 seconds to do that – done deal. Nonetheless, I try to put something insightful and/or helpful in each weekly email.
Be kind to yourself. Speaking just for myself, it would be easy to be frustrated with my progress based on the number of hours each week I spend learning Spanish, I envisioned myself being much more conversational by now. However, it is best to stay in the moment, do your best, be patient, and be kind to yourself when assessing your progress.
Lastly, and most importantly, help one another. The motivational speaker Zig Ziglar often says, “You can have anything in life that you want, if you just help enough other people get what they want.” Obviously, a person’s intention is askew and their motivation is not true if they help others just to get something out of it. The only thing we can do with our life is give it away, and the happiest and most blessed people in this world are the ones who give freely of their time, talent, money, and self.