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Readers Respond: Would I Offend by Initiating Conversation in Spanish?

Responses: 72

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Don't assume by appearances

In Los Angeles, there are many Spanish-speaking people, but I am careful to use Spanish only after hearing them speak Spanish. One can not assume a person is Spanish-speaking by appearance, and it could be insulting. Even after hearing them speak Spanish, I inform them that I am studying Spanish and "me gusta practicarlo." Usually, they are very nice about it.
—Guest lizsussman

Just do it

My Spanish is awful: I get the wrong endings and my verb ending are likely incorrect, but I smile, and really mean well, and I've never had anyone act upset or put upon because I've tried out what little I know. Just smile and say "Hola" and good morning, good afternoon or good evening. It gets a bit limited after that, but my reply always is that I was in a previous life, or will be in the next, Latin, or at least able to speak good Spanish. If I've ever insulted anyone, I did not realize it, but they should have realized I was trying to use some of the language they were privileged to learn growing up and I wasn't so blessed.
—Guest Don R. Shaw Jr

I'm offended

I personally find it very offensive when people expect that I speak anything but English. its not anyone's responsibility to speak any language other than English in the United States. Just because I'm Hispanic does not mean I speak Spanish. This is the United States and the national language here is English. No other country caters to other languages the way we do. I just figure people leave their countries for a reason. if you want a better life in the USA learn English. I personally find it very rude and a slap in the face as an American when people work, buy property, get free educations and benefits, but don't have enough respect to learn our national language.
—Guest lpadilla

Sometimes offended by other Latinos!

I am a native speaker, born in Tampa, of grandparents from Spain. I am light-skinned, fairly tall for a Latino, and have brown hair. Having lived in New Mexico for 37 years, I have often been offended by locals who assume I am not Hispanic because I don't look Mexican (i.e., I don't have Native American blood) and who sometimes have been rude to me on the assumption that I am a pushy gringo invading their intimate space by speaking their language. So far, I have avoided saying, "¡Mira, yo soy más español que tú!" but I have certainly been tempted. I think that speaking Spanish is considered more intimate than using English among U.S. native speakers, perhaps because Spanish is used within the family and English with outsiders. Also, since speaking Spanish was punished in school, many U.S. native speakers have become sensitive about using Spanish with outsiders. Interestingly, since my beard has gone white, I am now often addressed in Spanish, and even called "primo"! Go figure.
—Guest esteban

Speaking Spanish will gain you respect

Hello, everyone. I am Spanish, and work in a tourist area where there are many Englishmen on vacation, and I can say that absolutely it's always good to try to speak some Spanish even if it is to greet a simple hello in Spanish as a symbol of respect for the country where you are. A simple gesture like learning four basic phrases will have the full collaborative response by the Spanish. When a tourist comes to Spain and doesn't bother to learn a single word, it is seen as an insult to our beloved country, and you may not get the help and courtesy you need and expect.
—Guest juanico

Only if you know they speak Spanish

If you're in a Spanish-speaking country, of course you can start a conversation in Spanish, it's the local language. If you're in the United States, absolutely do not address anyone in a language other than English unless you have solid evidence that they speak it (e.g., having heard them speaking Spanish!). Speaking Spanish to a stranger because you've decided they "look" Hispanic is offensive -- dare I say racist, because it amounts to judging someone by their skin color and treating them differently because of it. You're likely to totally embarrass yourself when the person demonstrates that they speak English with the same native accent you do ... or tells you they're actually from a non-Latin American country!
—maduixa

Learning experiences

I have been studying Spanish for about 15 years and still don't feel comfortable with starting a conversation with someone I don't know. However, after about 2 or less years of studying I could tell if a person couldn't speak English by their looking confused and I would use what little Spanish I knew to help them to ask or answer a question, and they seemed overjoyed that someone could help them. I got involved in a Spanish-speaking church and made friends with some of them. When I would speak Spanish to them, sometimes I would ask, "Is that correct?"and they would say, "Sí, muy bien," even though I knew my accent was terrible they were always nice about not saying anything about it. Find a friend or two to help you. You'll find that it's better to say things the way they say them instead of the way we're taught in books. However you still have to learn from the right sources like the Internet, books, etc. About.com is a real good source, as you probably already know.
—Guest Dalton Gream

Ask first

When I lived in Paris, I was offended when people automatically assumed that I couldn't speak French and wouldn't give me an opportunity to try (since after all, one of the reasons I was in Paris was to learn how to speak French). So in this country, I ask if people prefer me to speak in my language or theirs.
—Guest cm138

Usually good vibes

I have had about 98% good vibes when initiating "conversaciones" from the Caribbean to Mexico, to Brazil, to Argentina, to any city in the ol' U.S. of A. People who are observed to be positive, good people prove to be positive, good people. Well, there was that one time when the musician assumed I didn't want to pay an extra peso ... or when the barber in the islands ranked me with the ... well, I told them that I am a civilian. People enjoy people.
—Guest John E. LaGrone

Negative responses

This may be a somewhat unusual situation, but every semester I have several Hispanic students in my college math class. Initially, I tried speaking to them occasionally in Spanish, but I can't remember one time when I got a positive response. The body language, especially the facial expressions, sent a clear message that they did not want to speak in Spanish even though some of them had such heavy accents in their English that I often had difficulty understanding them. Puzzling?
—Guest Frank

Surprising and fun

I ask if person is Latino ... and then throw out a few sentences. I wait on my customers in Spanish. Many of my fellow employees are Latino ... seems everyone enjoys speaking and helping me. Lots of surprised customers, lots of fun ... and learn from different Latinos ... Dominican, Mexican, Peru, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Columbia, Cuba, etc. It helps with oral abilities. Saludos.
—my2divots

Eventually, no fear

This forum is a lesson in itself, with so many different experiences in initiating that first conversation. It really is a bit like learning to ride a bike, isn't it? The fear of falling off ... then the first few feet ... and eventually no fear at all. My own experience is that most people are friendly, helpful and patient when approached by a "foreigner" speaking their language. Wouldn't you be?
—anthonymhart

Wonderful experience

I heard a Hispanic family speaking in a supermarket as we waited for an item to be brought out. I excused myself and asked in Spanish if I might converse with them to help my learning the language. They seemed happy to do so, and I encouraged them to correct my grammar, etc. I had such a wonderful 10 or 15 minutes speaking with them. I think Hispanic people like to hear we appreciate their language enough to study or use it.
—Guest F2pin

Depends on the situation

I've been learning Spanish for about three years now. I was learning it at a Venezuelan institute in Guyana. I would speak to the native Venezuelans in Spanish and they were all amazed on how I spoke it so fluently. However, I would make the change from Spanish to English because I felt that English is very important. I liked conversing bilingually. Another thing is to consider is how you would feel if a Spanish person wished to talk English with you. For me, I would be as formal as possible and pronounce my words properly to make them feel the gist of the language. So, I would imagine that native Spanish speakers would have the same approach. It also depends on the person's personality. For example, if you try to converse with a shy Spanish person in an English country, they would just blush and get on with the conversation. In conclusion, from experience they would not be offended, they would mostly try to be as formal as possible.
—Guest Oladele Manifold

Misunderstood intentions

I work in Puerto Rico, a wonderful place to work. I do find that, usually, among the professional class, when I initiate a conversation in Spanish, the reponse is almost invariably in English. Some of my client-friends have told me that many professionals, when they are spoken to in Spanish, believe that the initiator is implying they do not speak English, the language of business. I tell them that is not true, that the reason they switch back to English is beacuse my Spanish is so terrible that we need to speak in English!
—JTrocino

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