I was talking to a colleague today who had been on a trip to Mexico with a group that included a Spanish student of mine. I had taught this young lady, now a high school senior, for three consecutive years and seen her progress from a complete beginner to an avid student of the Spanish language. My colleague was remarking at what a pleasure it was to watch my student, Emily, use her acquired Spanish to communicate with the people of Oahaca state in southern Mexico. The first day, Emily was not exactly encouraged by her communication skills. But knowing she was going to be there another ten days or so, she figured she had no choice but to persevere with the hopes that it would come more easily with each passing day.
That is exactly what happened. By the end of this life-shaping trip, Emily was conversing with the locals, not only opening but walking through the doors her limited knowledge of Spanish opened into the lives of the people she had come to serve -- and to learn from.
This was not going to happen by simply taking a weekly class from yours truly, no matter how good a teacher I may be. Emily had to seek and find an opportunity -- a real-life situation -- in which to put into practice what she had learned in the classroom.
If we're talking about opportunities to practice Spanish, they abound in this country without your ever leaving it. If you live in a city of any size at all, there is likely a Hispanic population. It takes the initial decision to establish contact -- whether that means frequenting Mexican restaurants, buying from Hispanic businesses, visiting a Spanish-speaking church. Granted, it takes more effort to find opportunities to practice languages other than Spanish, but it's probably easier than you think. In my medium-sized city of Nashville, over 100 major languages are spoken, with one person in six being foreign-born.
This principle of practice, needless to say, carries over into every area that involves developing a skill. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwellasserts that most practitioners are not considered experts until they have 10,000 hours of practice under their belts. This obviously varies with the particular field, and 10,000 hours of practice is no guarantee of greatness, but the point is well taken: practice maybe doesn't make perfect, but it makes much, much better.