Are you hiding behind a native English speaker?
If you are living in the United States and trying to improve your English, there is one specific thing that you MUST do to increase your chances of improving in English.
You must be self-reliant.
In order to succeed as a student of English, you must push yourself out into the world by yourself. You cannot hide behind a native English speaker who will speak for you in every challenging situation. You must make yourself vulnerable to the world.
Today I want to share a story with you to explain how I learned this the hard way. I made a mistake that caused me to lose a lot of precious time and opportunities to improve my Spanish.
In 2006 my goal was to become fluent in Spanish
In July of 2006, I left New York City to travel to Latin America with a friend who was from Spain.
This was my chance to explore a whole new part of the world.
However, I was not just traveling for sightseeing or to pass the time.
I wanted to return to New York after a year, completely fluent in Spanish.
That was my goal.
I wanted to be able to get a job that required Spanish skills back in New York.
My first mistake was to rely on a native spanish speaker
10 pm on day 1: We arrived in Lima, Peru at 10pm on a Tuesday evening in early July.
I was excited to use some of the Spanish skills that I had practiced with my language exchange partners back in New York.
Before I could even open my mouth, my friend (a native Spanish speaker) had already told the cab driver where to go and had negotiated a price.
I thought to myself, "Ok, well I guess I can start practicing my Spanish tomorrow."
12 midnight on day 1: We arrived at the hostel very late and I was feeling tired.
As we approached the front desk to check in, I remembered that I had role-played this situation many times during my Spanish classes. I was ready. But again, my friend had checked us in and we had the keys in our hands before I could even open my mouth.
8 am on day 2: I woke up to a beautiful morning in Lima.
We went down to the hostel dining room to order some breakfast. Here was another situation that I had practiced.
I knew a lot of the vocabulary words that I needed to order food in a restaurant and I was feeling well-rested and ready to try. But I didn't have the chance. My friend quickly ordered our breakfast and coffee for both of us and I sat quiety surprised and a bit disappointed.
Would a year traveling in Latin America with a native Spanish speaker really be the best way to learn Spanish? I started to have second thoughts.
My decision to travel alone changed everything
The trip went on like this for months and my Spanish didn't get any better.
Finally in November, we arrived in Buenos Aires and I made the decision to live in a Spanish-only home where I would have to speak for myself. I couldn't hide behind my friend because she was living on the other side of the city.
After that I traveled by myself to Uruguay and Guatemala and in those places I had no choice but to rely on my own Spanish and I was able to start to gain some confidence in my Spanish.
By the time I left Latin America I had finally reached a good level of fluency in Spanish, but it took longer than I expected to reach that level.
Why did it take so long? I let someone else's priorities become more important than my own.
Don't do this when you try to learn a new language. Don't hide behind a native speaker!
What can you learn from my mistake? Here are 5 things you should remember when you are learning English in the US.
Don't let this happen to you!
1) Get clear on your English goals
In order to accomplish a goal, you must be clear on exactly what you want to accomplish and by when.
Use the SMART method for setting goals and then set up conditions in your life that will allow for you to reach that goal.
Keep thinking about your goals if you aren't sure exactly what they are yet.
2) Always honor your goals
The real mistake that I made was that I did not HONOR my goal.
When my friend told me that she was concerned that we might get a higher taxi fare if the cab driver heard my American accent when I spoke Spanish, I said "oh yeah, that makes sense, I'll be quiet."
Looking back on it 7 years later, I know that my Spanish improvement was MUCH more important than saving 1 or 2 dollars on a taxi ride. But at the time, I put someone else's priorities ahead of my priority of learning Spanish. This was devastating for my Spanish and my confidence.
If you are living in the United States with someone who speaks English at a higher level than you, let that person know that you need opportunities to practice when the two of you are out in public interacting with locals.
Your friend or partner might always try to speak English for you because he or she wants to take care of you and make things easier for you. However, if you have a goal to become fluent in English, this will not help you reach that goal. Make sure he or she understands that.
3) Participate in activities by yourself
What's your favorite hobby?
Whatever it is, I can guarantee you there is a meetup group for it if you live in a big city like New York or Boston.
Take one night a week and join one of these groups, but leave your family and friends from your home country behind.
Join a photography club where the main language of the group is English. You will not be able to rely on someone else to speak for you and you will make new friends at the same time.
4) Share an apartment or neighborhood with native English speakers
A major turning point for me and my Spanish happened when I moved into a "spanish-only" house in the neighborhood of Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires.
For the first time, I was living in a place where I could not say something in English and have someone else translate it into Spanish.
My roommates were from Italy, France, and the U.S. but our only house rule was that we had to speak Spanish all of the time and everyone's Spanish was better than mine when I moved in.
Guess what happened after 3 months?
I became AWESOME at Spanish! The key to my success was self-reliance. No one else could translate for me. I had to show up at dinner and speak.
I did that for three months and everything changed.
5) Don't lose confidence in yourself
I had trouble with my Spanish while traveling with my friend in Latin America because I didn't feel empowered.
I lost my self confidence.
Although at first I had the intention to use my Spanish, as soon as she started speaking for both of us every day and in every situation, I started to feel weak and disempowered.This went on for months. It became a downward spiral.
I felt like even if I did try to speak, I would surely make a mistake and it would be a waste of time for both of us. So I stopped trying. If I had been traveling by myself, I would have had no choice but to speak and I would have improved much more quickly.
Are you hiding behind native English speakers?
It's ok to have someone help you in a situation where you are really confused, but if you want to really see improvement with your English, you need to honor your goal.
Get out there and speak. Rely on yourself only.
Find situations where your friend or partner cannot speak for you. Take some risks and you will see a dramatic improvment. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!