Do you have any recommendations about holding elementary level conversations with native speakers? Should we decide a topic and then try to learn a lot of vocabulary before the conversation takes place? How long do you recommend that a conversation such as this last ... half an hour ... an hour? Should there be a structure to the conversation, such as a review of what you talked about the previous time, going over new vocabulary, etc?
Answer 1: Your idea of making conversation with native speakers is right on, but it will work much better if you can manage to make friends and socialize with them rather than use such a structured approach. Such an approach is simply too artificial and classroomy. Of course, you can't just say aha, there's a Spanish speaker, I'll make friends with him. But if you can develop some kind of real social relationship, the whole thing will flow more naturally and the results will be better. Go out for a beer and find out what interests him and talk about it ... school, politics, families, whatever comes up. And don't pay him.
Answer 2: I don't know how large a city you are in, but in Denver there are (or used to be) clubs that existed for the purpose of conversation in French and in Spanish. When I visited the Spanish club, I found a mix of beginners like me up to native speakers. I think the reason that it worked was that when the competent speakers got bored with talking to me, they could turn to someone more fluent; and, meanwhile, some medium-level speaker who had just been turning mental cartwheels trying to keep up with someone fluent could take a break with me, and salve his ego as well, reassuring himself that there was at least one person in the room less fluent than he.
Answer 3: I would have to disagree slightly with the other posters about just making a friend and talking. This is fine to add to vocabulary ,but if you want to practice saying things that are grammatically correct rather than just being understood, you need to let your friend know that you want correction when making errors in grammar. I am living in Puerto Rico and trying to improve my Spanish speaking and comprehension. I have many local friends and often they are just too polite to correct me as long as my meaning is understood. I've explained that in order for me to learn I want them to tell me when I say something wrong but they are far too polite to do that!
So, what I've done is have a friend come over and we have a discussion on a specific topic. They know that this is a lesson and the purpose of the discussion is for me to learn so they feel comfortable making corrections which they don't do in a larger group. In the beginning I offered to pay someone for this hour but of course being a friend they didn't take the money. However, if you need to pay someone for their time I don't see anything wrong with this. Buena suerte.
Answer 4: If your French good enough for teaching a beginner you could try and find a person who can speak Spanish pretty perfectly but also wants to learn French.
Here in Spain we have intercambio at no cost. Two people who want to learn each other's language meet up and practise the respective languages with each other. We usually take 30 minutes for each language but you can vary that according to your liking.
I am teaching German to a Spanish lady here and get Spanish conversation in return. Has helped my Spanish no end! I finally was able to put into practise what I had learned in theory. I highly recommend intercambio!
Works pretty well.
Answer 5: I am with those who suggested getting to know someone socially and then building on that. I used to work for a restaurant doing office work and one day we hired two Mexicans to wash dishes. They were extremely shy at first and spoke no English. I was a Spanish major in college so anytime communication with them was necessary, I was the one called in to handle it. Of course, we quickly became friends because I was the only one who could speak to them and therefore they were more than willing to repeat and offer corrections.
In the beginning, I had great difficulty understanding them and had to frequently ask for them to repeat themselves. However, over time this became less and less necessary until one day I realized that I could speak with them on just about any general topic and had little or no difficulty maintaining my end of the conversation. Speed and accuracy increased as well.
To this day I am rarely intimidated when speaking with natives and I credit those two Mexicans (who are some of my closest friends today) as a major force in my education ... incredibly more valuable than all those years of college!