• Wed, Apr 6 2011

Chasing Thirty: Learning Spanish

Andrea Dunlop is on a quest to accomplish a bucket list of items in this, her 29th year. You can read more about Andrea’s adventures at her personal blog, thirty-things.

Item #2: Learn Spanish

I felt a little like I was cheating when I put this item on the list. After all, I’d taken two whole years of Spanish when I was in college. Didn’t I sort of already speak it?

No. I realized after a couple of days in Buenos Aires that no, I definitely did not speak Spanish. I couldn’t get more than a couple words into a conversation without panicking and waving the white flag of ‘No hablo espanol muy bien!’

I bristle with jealously when I meet people who were raised bi-lingual. Maybe it’s because I, like so many of us who grew up in the States, was never actually required to learn a second language, so I tend to think of it as something exotic and fun. I double majored in French in college and spent a semester in a city called Nantes. I struggled with the language when I first arrived and then, after about a month, things suddenly started making sense, it was as though I had finally found the proper frequency on my radio dial. I hoped that one month in Argentina would be enough time to have a similar experience with Spanish.

I had classes each day in a classroom on the third floor of an arcade just off Florida Street in the central district. Florida is sort of the Time Square of Buenos Aires: noisy, dirty and packed with people twenty-four seven. I’d originally planned to stay in el centro during my trip but fortunately I chose Palermo instead; if you were to spend the majority of your time in the central district, you’d likely find the moniker ‘Paris of the South’ pretty dubious. But it gave me a nice feeling of industry to travel there each day from the quiet neighborhood where I was spending my evenings and weekends.

My first week of classes I had a teacher called Paula, a pretty, dark-haired woman about my age. She was friendly but seemed jaded and complained each class about how exhausted she was ‘muy cansada,’ she said to me every time I sat down with her. I wondered what was going on in her life that she was so tired every day. I knew it wasn’t a boyfriend because we discussed this topic with frequency. In fact, she seemed to prefer these digressions (half in English) to the lessons in the workbook. She couldn’t find any good men in Buenos Aires she told me, and she wanted to get married and have some kids already, you know? It was amusing that she thought dating must be better in the US, just as I thought the Argentines must have love all figured out with their tango and their good wine and gorgeous people. These discussions were far afield from verb conjugations but I did get to learn some fun new adjectives in Spanish to describe some of the men I’d recently dated.

From my second week of classes on, I was with Patricia. She was quiet and kind and seemed more dedicated to helping me learn the language. She brought in flashcards and photos for charades and other word games. With her I made much better progress and slowly the fog of confusion I felt dissipated. Out of the din around me in the subway rose intelligible conversations and I was able to conduct whole exchanges with people without ever feeling the deer-in-the-headlights sense of mounting incomprehension. I’m pretty outgoing, but it’s intimidating to speak to people in a language you are just learning: you aren’t certain what will come out of your mouth when you open it. And yet, it feels like such a triumph the first time you can have even a simple conversation without having to slow down or backtrack. For the most part, people were patient and I felt good about being able to talk to those I met in their language instead of having to resort to my own.

When I was in Ushuaia I went on a day-long lake excursion with a couple and a guide. The woman was an Argentine engineer and the man was an American glassblower who lived in a cabin in Colorado with no running water. At first I assumed that they both spoke both languages as they sad they didn’t mind if the guide did the tour in Spanish or English, but as the day went on it became clear that she spoke only Spanish and he only English. When I was sitting next to her in the forest after lunch talking to our cook about poetry, I finally asked her how she and her boyfriend talked to each other. “We don’t talk,’ she said and we both laughed. Maybe the Argentines have love figured out after all.

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