If you want to learn to speak Spanish, obviously being in the country that speaks it is a fast 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 an accent). 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 its translation in Spanish, why would I?
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 is opportunities to speak in depth. As speakers, we are taught to be sensitive to our listeners. We are sensitive to their boredom or impatience.
Bless them, most Mexicans do try to figure out what you're saying, but their expressions of confusion 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. We sound pretty bad and 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.
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 once just vented which, oddly, amused the driver.
Unlike in the U.S. most 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 favorites. When you call for the ride, you 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 withstanding as little torture as possible.
Even over practice groups, I have found these rides to be great practice because conversations between only two people are less fragmented. 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.
Next up: Rebar, draping electrical cords, what I refer to as "infinity sidewalks"..of course Mexico's not safe.
Most recent: "What Mexico and Mexicans Can Teach Us About Intimacy.
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" if renting luxuriously is part of your expat plan.