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What should I do differently next time?
October 4, 2011
06:40
E-Liza
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I recently stumbled on Benny's blog and have been devouring the posts.  This is exactly what I have been missing in my language learning, and it's obvious that it's the right way forward for me.  

I'm starting to try it out, but it's new for me and some things aren't obvious.  I had an experience Saturday night that I didn't handle so well, and I'm wondering what I can learn from it, to do differently next time.  

I'm a native English speaker from the US, learning to speak Spanish in Uruguay.  I went to a party at the home of a Uruguayan friend who speaks English fluently.  Besides the host, I knew only one other person in advance, a Uruguayan who also speaks fluent English.  I knew everyone else at the party would be Uruguayan and would be speaking Spanish, so I was looking forward to this opportunity.  

Right away I found myself in group of about eight people, who were in high spirits and exchanging witty banter and enjoying getting to know each other.  I was listening intently and picking up maybe 25-30% of what they were saying, but not enough to be able to jump in and join the banter.  After a short while it became uncomfortably clear that I was the only one not speaking, and a few people were glancing at me, encouraging me by pausing slightly to give me a chance to say something.  (At this point no one knew that I wasn't a native Uruguayan, since I can handle simple greetings and introductions just fine.)  Not really knowing the immediate topic of discussion, I didn't know what to say, so I just kept nodding and smiling and listening intently.  I knew I should try something, but I didn't know how.  

The rest of the evening smoothed itself out eventually, and I was able to speak one-on-one with several people.  But I'd like to replay that opening scene and figure out what I might do next time I'm in a similar situation.  Things I can think of, in hindsight:
* Say (in Spanish), "I'm sorry but I can understand only a part of what I hear."  (My accent and phrasing would tell them that I am not a native Spanish speaker.)  or
* Turn to my English-speaking friend and ask him what they're saying.  (I would ask in Spanish, and I'm sure he would reply in English.)  or
* Interject a question (in Spanish).  (Like what?) or
* Say something (in Spanish) that's a total non sequitur, like, "I like this weather.  This weather is nice." smile or
* Excuse myself and go find someone to talk with one-on-one.

It's hard to think of something that wouldn't be something of a wet blanket on their rapid-fire, cheery exchange.  Perhaps I should have asked my friend to introduce me as someone who is still learning Spanish, so people understood that from the start?  

Or perhaps I need to stay home and study until I can understand more Spanish before going to another party??  (No!  That's my old approach!)

You guys who've already been down this road, can you help?

This is especially frustrating/embarrassing because I can participate smoothly and easily in group conversations in English, and often help others integrate into the discussion.  But the tools I use to do that aren't available to me yet in a Spanish context.

Thanks!

October 4, 2011
08:09
kaibri
Beijing, China

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I like the idea of having a friend introduce you as someone who is learning Spanish, but make sure that either you or your friend makes it clear that you want to speak Spanish and not English, otherwise people will want to either speak English with you, or they might feel they have to avoid you if they don't speak English. 

 

You don't want to be the one insisting that people slow down their conversation or repeat things so that you understand, but if they know the situation from the start I guarantee you will find lots of people who are eager to include you in the conversation willingly. 

 

Finding a one-on-one conversation partner is also not a bad idea, although sometimes hearing how natives talk to each other is really helpful. 

Native: English Speaks: Mandarin (HSK 5), German Next up:  Indonesian, Portuguese
October 4, 2011
09:11
kitty

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Definitely don't stay at home and wait til you know more Spanish :)

 

I have been in a similar situation more than a few times when I was learning Hebrew, and found it very frustrating when I could understand around 40 - 50% of what was being said. What I found was, that I felt embarrassed because I don't usually have any problems joining in at parties or when I met groups of people at a bar etc and felt like people must think I was either rude, or very shy!

 

When they knew I was just learning the language, they could understand where I was coming from :)

 

I reckon the best thing is to get your friend to introduce you to the group as something like, "meet E-Liza, she's from the US and she's learning Spanish" then people will know who you are and that you are keen to learn (always a plus) and while a group of people who already know each other and are eager to chat might not slow down all of their conversation, they will be aware of you and help include you. Or you might find that one or two of them are interested in knowing more about your language mission and will chat to you about it. 

October 5, 2011
05:51
Chrystal G.
Las Vegas, NV USA

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Would definitely say something in the situation, but not something just out of the blue like the weather. Lol. Although, that may make them laugh and try harder to get you involved! It would have been nice of your friend to perhaps introduce you to some people first before throwing you into the fire, but I think saying something along the lines of, "I'm learning, but interested in knowing more about your language," would help tremendously. Or even saying that you cannot make out all of what they've said. Definitely do not ask them to repeat something if you are unfamiliar with most of the words as you will be endlessly asking them to repeat. Ask them, maybe, to explain what they said instead or ask what a certain word means. This way, they will detect that you do not speak Spanish fluently and may be more inclined to use more common words or phrases.

We all freeze up; that's a definite! I just remember that I have many people in my work environment that I would never consider fluent in English that I have wonderful conversations with! Gestures, similar words and many other actions have so much meaning! Someone can say one or two words and I can understand want they want to convey. I'm sure it's not much different in another language such as Spanish. In fact, to emphasize this, I used to "talk" endlessly with a gentleman that was deaf and understood only Spanish. Figure that one out. :D He was an awesome person, and I used to help him make phone calls to businesses when he didn't understand what they were trying to say. Did we struggle to understand each other? ABSOLUTELY. I would totally be lying if I said anything different, but we got over it and would spend many days "talking" about his wife, his car, my family and life in general. All it took was a notepad to draw pictures on and a few Spanish-English words. :) Bring a notepad next time! :D

Native: English Learning: German (active), Polish (active, secondary)
October 5, 2011
06:37
E-Liza
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Thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging replies!  Among other good suggestions, I see three votes for having my friends pave the way for me by giving the others a bit of background when introducing me.  I was kind of surprised that they didn't; I guess I'll have to make a point of mentioning it to them beforehand next time. 

And I think I'll try not to let things go so long before saying something, anything at all, if only so people can hear my halting speech and accent so they know I'm still learning. Then it wouldn't have had the chance to turn into an awkward and embarrassing situation.  Now I know, and next time I'll be prepared.  Kitty, you're absolutely right that I worried they would consider me either rude or very shy!  Even if I'd said something that made them laugh at me, that would have been much better!

Good to hear that I was right in not asking them to repeat or slow down for me. 

I agree that hearing natives talk to each other is invaluable, and it's great to get the chance to just hear a group interacting with each other.  I've learned a lot by watching how they talk to each other on Facebook too, lol.  Lots of street slang and "informal" spelling, and I have the luxury of plenty of time to figure it out, and that helps me later on when I actually hear it.

Talking with a deaf person who doesn't understand your language, that's interesting!  In many ways I feel that being a beginner in a language is like being deaf.  It's an invisible communication gap.

 

Thanks again for your help!

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