Given that Washington, D.C. is such an international city, there’s a lot of opportunity to work on your language skills. For speech and listening practice I’ve been using Meetup.com, where I’ve found two Spanish groups that I can fumble through conversation with and learn about other cultures.
The first group I discovered was the bi-weekly Español/English Intercambio-Language Exchange (http://www.meetup.com/intercambiodc/). This group usually meets at Panera Bread in Chinatown on Saturday afternoon, and every time I’ve gone, it’s been filled with about 30 people. The purpose of the group is for English and Spanish speakers to trade language skills. The first hour of the meetup is spent speaking Spanish, and then we switch to English for an hour. At least that’s the intention, but each time I’ve gone it’s been a mix for the entire two hours, and for whatever reason, it’s been mostly Spanish. Most of the native speakers I’ve met are more interested in socializing than improving their English, as many of them are perfectly capable communicators in both languages. The suggested donation for this group is two dollars — well worth the price for two hours of speaking, listening and socializing.
I would consider the Exchange group pretty advanced, as most of the attendees are fluent. However, some of the visitors, like me, are absolute beginners, and get lost in conversation. The first time I went, the person I was paired up with was also a beginner, which made for fun, but excruciating, conversation. You’re not limited to the first person you’re paired up with, though, which was fortunate for the both of us that day. Instead, the group leader walks around the room and occasionally asks attendees to switch tables. This keeps things interesting because you’re constantly learning about people from different parts of the world.
As far as Spanish goes, I can speak and understand the basics pretty well, and can fumble through more intermediate conversation with native speakers. But I get completely lost trying to follow more than one speaker, especially if they’re native. There are also many non-native speakers looking to knock off the rust. Everyone I’ve met has been pretty patient, and each has his or her reasons for attending, whether it’s because they enjoy traveling, socializing or just helping others progress as they have in the past. With this group, I’ve met people from all over, including Spain, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and El Salvador. The group also varies widely in age, but I would say most attendees are between their late 20s and early 40s.
The second group I found on Meetup.com is the weekly Spanish Language D.C. Meetup Group. They meet every Monday at the California Tortilla near the Cleveland Park Metro Station. This group is semi-bi-weekly because it rotates each Monday between beginner and intermediate lessons. The price to attend is $5 in advance and $7 in person. I’ve only gone to the beginner meetup, which is led by a Spanish teacher, who has creative exercises and conversation starters to get everyone involved. No one from this group that I’ve met has been a native speaker, so it’s much easier to follow, and most of the attendees that I’ve met are learning for professional reasons.
My interest in re-learning Spanish grew out of the six weeks I spent in Europe this past summer, mostly in Spain. I came back wishing I had taken the language seriously in school, and instead of wasting more time, I found resources online and began teaching myself. I’m far from fluent eight months later, but I’ve made a lot of progress in a short amount of time and have established what should be a good foundation if I ever want to stay in a Spanish-speaking country for an extended period of time. It’s also given me a good framework and understanding of how to approach learning other languages in the future, should I need to do so.
Meetup is certainly not just limited to Spanish, either. In fact, I’ve come across German, French and Russian groups all over Washington, D.C. But for right now, learning one foreign language keeps me busy enough.