Making a good first impression can be the difference between whether or not someone makes the effort to continue chatting with you or hang out with you again. And when you arrive in a foreign country, you’ll want to make friends as quickly as possible.
Naturally, when you’re new to a language it’s more difficult to do this well. You’re not as relaxed and you don’t have as many ice-breakers to call upon. But there are some simple things you can do make a good first impression in Spanish, even if your speaking abilities are limited.
1. Don’t pretend you understand.
Sometimes it’s just easier to nod and smile because you’re desperate not to break rapport by putting the brakes on a conversation. This is particularly tough if someone just told a joke that you didn’t get. But all you’re doing by faking laughter or agreement with someone is setting expectations that you can’t possibly live up to. And when you get exposed later, your new acquaintance might consider you to be unauthentic or a bad listener.
If you care about making a connection with somebody it’s much better to admit that you didn’t understand what they just said – even if it’s happening a lot and you’re getting increasingly embarrassed. The only way you’ll get better is by accepting what you don’t know and trying to fill those gaps. And honestly, people are charmed at the idea of someone trying to learn their language. They’ll gradually get a better feel for your level of comprehension and will adjust to it. This makes the conversation easier for everyone.
2. Learn to speak well about your passions.
Traditional language teaching can be mundanely rigid. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a new friend about what time I get up in the morning or what I have for breakfast. And yet, these always seem to be the first subjects we’re taught. Take some of your biggest passions, whether it be running, sci-fi movies or electronic music, and learn every piece of vocabulary you can think of. You can even rehearse a few stories or opinions until you’re able to deliver them flawlessly.
Restricting yourself to small-talk just because you’re new to a language is a huge mistake. Talking about your passions instead allows you to break through that barrier and connect deeply with people faster. This is particularly useful if you’ll be meeting people through practising these passions, such as attending cooking classes or going to music festivals.
They say you start to feel competent in a language when you know 1,000 words. Make sure at least half of those words are ones you’ll actually need to use.
3. Know when to be formal and when to be informal.
Romantic languages like French and Spanish have formal and informal expressions, and by identifying where the line is you can make a great first impression. Wherever you’re going, research the local culture and look for expressions that people use to be polite and respectful. Using these expressions at the beginning and end of a conversation will help you to make a good first impression. In the middle, speaking casually and informally can actually help to demonstrate maturity. They’ll see you as someone who’s on their level, instead of just a tourist with a phrase book.
4. Be confident but humble.
If this sounds like a contradiction, it really isn’t. Being confident means speaking without a fear of making mistakes. Being humble means preparing people for said mistakes by being honest about your level. You don’t want to be too apologetic. But saying something like “perdón por mis errores, estoy aprendiendo” and then moving on without fear puts you in a really strong position. More than likely people will tell you that you’re doing really well, which is a confidence booster for you and a good indication that you’re making new friends.
You can also thank people for the experience. If you’re hanging out with fellow English speakers, it would seem a bit over-the-top to thank them for their time. But the reality is that, for you as a learner, every social interaction with a native speaker is invaluable to you. By telling them this, they feel good about helping you and they see how important it is to you that you improve.
5. Get comfortable asking questions.
A general rule when meeting anyone for the first time is to take an interest in them – after all, nobody likes the guy who rambles on and on about himself. But it more easily slips your mind when you’re speaking a foreign language. If you’ve been taking one-to-one lessons with your Spanish teacher, you’re probably used to having to answer questions about yourself. You’d probably admit that you find it easiest to conjugate verbs in the “je” or “yo” form. However, when you get out there and start to approach people in bars, classes or in the canteen at work, you’re going to wish you’d practised those “tu” conjugations.