Learning Castellano

As we said before, part of the reason Jesse and I made our way to South America is to learn the language. By the end of this year we hope to be fluent… or as fluent as two people can become in one year. Jesse is much more advanced than I am – he took Spanish in high school and in college and has been continuing studying on his own since then using books focused on conversation, listening to music, and speaking as much as he can. He understands and can use the subjunctive. That’s how you know he’s good. ūüėȬ†I, on the other hand, took 2 years of Spanish in high school, did a little work on my own after college, and for the last year or so have been taking private classes on and off with a teacher in New York in preparation for our little adventure here. I can use one form of the past tense and understand some of the other forms. But I can get by. Years of French have given me a pretty good ear and an ok understanding of how to listen in other languages.

So we’re not coming here empty handed, which is an advantage. But the dialect and accent¬†, referred to by most as “castellano”¬†is taking some getting used to. “Y”s and “ll”s are pronounced like “j”s. So calle is not pronounced¬†cayay¬†as it is in all/most other countries, but is pronounced¬†cajay. My¬†weak speaking skills are even shakier as as I forget about the pronunciation, which leads to strange looks from people who are trying to figure out what I’m saying. Our first day here, I got a sandwich from a little cafe and asked for mayonesa and got quite an odd look from the waitress. Silly me… it’s maJonesa! In Buenos Aires (and a few other countries), there are also other forms of “you” and verb conjugations that we’re not used to, because they’re not used in many other (if not any other, I’m not sure) spanish speaking countries. Adding to these difficulties, Argentinian culture and the language is heavily influenced by a strong Italian presence. A little history: The 1880s saw a couple large waves of Italian immigration lasting throughout the early 20th century. Along with the cultural influences, this influx of Italians also brought changes to the intonation of everyday speech, particularly in Buenos Aires, which is very reminiscent¬†of italian. I learned a phrase today that people use a lot in Argentina¬†para chuparse los dedos, which means essentially finger licking good. But the accompanying gesture is one that is purely Italian: imagine an old Italian grandmother kissing the tips of her fingers on one hand after tasting something delicious. Anyway, back to the point, we’re both having a little difficulty understanding everything people are saying, particularly the fast/mumbling speakers. But it gets a bit easier every day. “It can’t get any harder” is something we recently reminded ourselves of.

We are both starting to take language classes. With so many expats and european and american tourists, there are a plethora of options for those inclined to learn the language.

Universidad de Buenos Aires Education, like health care, is considered a right in Argentina and university is free for Argentine citizens. (You can see why we dig this place.) Even if you are not an Argentine citizen, you can still take language classes for a nominal fee at the university including spanish as a foreign language.

Language Institutes There are many many language institutes down here that are strictly for teaching languages. These institutes specialize in teaching foreign travelers Spanish. They offer group or private lessons, which range from quick intense classes for busy travelers to intensive part-time lessons for students. The institutes usually also offer help finding a home stay for those younger or those focused on a complete immersion and have workshops and excursions for students.

Private lessons Private lessons are taught usually by experienced teachers with a background in language teaching or literature. They can range from beginner to more advanced lessons and, like my classes back in New York, seem to be primarily taught, especially if the student is more advanced, through conversation.

I chose to go the route of the language institute, for now. I am still lacking on grammar which is holding me back from having complete conversations. I just started with a group called VamosSpanish. They teach group classes 20 hours a week to groups of 6 or less. The group is ongoing so when new students are enrolled, they are placed into the group that fits them. Right now I’m taking classes 930-130 everyday with 3 other students. They also have workshops and movie nights I might check out. ¬†I’ll do this for a month and then see where I’m at. At that point I may be able to take the private lessons and go more towards the conversation route or maybe take a literature course at the university. But we’ll see…

Jesse is opting, as he should, for the private lessons route. He found a woman who was a university instructor for a while. She now teaches private or group (groups of 2) lessons to students. They meet sometimes at her office or at a coffee shop and have structured conversations. Though he’s only been to one class so far, he seems to like it a lot. He’s going to start out meeting her about 3 times a week for 1.5 hours each time. She assigned him a play to read (Los Arboles Mueren de Pie), which I’m going to try to find him later. It seems like a good set up for him with the flexibility and level that he needs.

So hopefully when some of you see us at the end of October for Allison and Paul’s lovely wedding (so excited!!), we may be a bit more fluent.

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