Learning Spanish Outside the Classroom

Living in a new place is hard. But learning a new language is a whole different ball game. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be. This is the second time I have set up shop in a foreign country. Two years ago I lived in Athens, Greece. Even though I was there for four months, I left the country with barely any understanding of the language. To make matters even worse, I had been taking Greek language classes at a school. You might be thinking, how could this happen? Who lives in a place, studies the language, and still does not learn anything? Well, I can tell you how: I was too scared to ever speak in public. As you can expect, my failure to learn Greek, came as a big disappointment. So this time around, when I finalized my plans to move to Buenos Aires, I promised myself that things would be different. I would learn from my past mistakes.

I have been here for a little bit over a month, and I can already see the difference speaking in public has made for my comprehension of the Spanish language. Where as in Greece I never opened my mouth, here in Buenos Aires I am sure to speak Spanish at any opportunity. When I go to the Supermercado or to the “verdulería” I try to make conversation with the workers. Even if we just talk for two minutes or I simply ask “¿cómo estás?” or “¿cuánto cuesta?” I feel accomplished after speaking en espanol. Just the other day, I stopped by my favorite Fruteria to pick up some mandarinas, and ended up talking to the store owner for ten minutes. We covered all the basics–¿de donde es? cuanto tiempo querés quedarte?–and he gave me the time I needed to respond effectively in Spanish.

Listen, I totally understand how frustrating or scary it can be to speak a new language. I too have received those blank stares and head nods. During my first two weeks most Porteños could not even understand me when I asked for a “Empanada de Verdura” (and let me tell you I eat many “Empanadas de Verdura”). To make matters worse, unlike my home city (New York) where everyone is used to different accents and poor English, in Buenos Aires it can sometimes feel as if Porteños only understand one accent or one pronunciation: that of a Porteño! While it can be daunting at times, try not to let miscommunications phase you. Maybe repeat what you said slower, or think of a different way to phrase it. Your listener is just as confused as you; he or she wants to understand you just as much as you want him/her to understand you. If you take your time and regroup, everyone can benefit from the situation.

I think that one of the hardest parts about learning Spanish is the discipline. I still catch myself falling back into some not so helpful habits. For example, I live with three gringos, two of whom are much better at Spanish than I am. While in the moment it feels easier to have my friends order for me when we are out or ask for directions, in the long run my reliance on others severely hurts the learning process. Even though it is hard not to use other people or your native tongue as a crutch, in my experiences, it is best to try to rely solely on yourself and your Spanish skills. (Of course if you are a beginner, you might need more help than others, but in general I think that this is a good alma mater to follow).

One of my favorite times to practice my Spanish is when I am out at night. You know the saying “you´re fluent when your drunk,” well I know I feel that way. I’m not suggesting that you should chug of cerveza every time you need to speak Spanish, but try and take advantage of your lack of inhibitions in a positive way. When Porteños talk to me at bars or discotheques, I always respond in Spanish. This way I can improve my Spanish and still enjoy the Porteño night life.

Lastly, if you are a determined learner, but need a break form conversational encounters, I recommend watching Spanish T.V.. As a beginner, I find it most helpful to watch children’s television. Typically the characters enunciate more clearly and slowly, and stick with a very basic vocabulary. Another good option is the Spanish soap opera. Though characters talk a bit faster, they communicate with much passion and shed light on some of the cultural accents of the language. If you want to kick it up a notch, for those who feel daring, try reading a newspaper (both “La Razon” or “El Argentino” are free).

While there is no one right way to learn Spanish, the singular MOST IMPORTANT tenet is to have faith in your self. It might take a week, a month, or a year, but if you are determined to learn Spanish, than you will! You just have to try!

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