Learning, and now Celebrating Argentinian Spanish

When I landed in November, I knew very little Spanish (the alphabet (which isn’t that hard!) some present tense verbs, and a smattering of vocabulary I picked up on my numerous trips to Spain). I was very excited to try it on someone, but it took me a good forty-five minutes from when I landed until I had my first conversation in Spanish. Sadly, the immigration and customs officers chose to English me on my way out of the terminal, so it was left to the delightful Taxi driver to help me on my Hispanic way:

Taxista: “¿A donde vás?”

Me: “¡Hola! ¡Que tal! Yo soy Vinny. ¡Soy de la India! ¡Mucho gusto!”

Taxista: “Sí sí, me encanta conocerte. ¿Pero, a donde vás capo?”

Me: “¡Muy bien! Por favor, yo quiero ir a Calle Olleros, esquina Libertador” (In my best gallego)

Taxista: “¿Qué? ¿Caie Oieros? No conozco ese lugar. Repitíme el nobre del lugar”

Me: “¡Calle Olleros! ¡En Las Cañitas, en la Capital Federal!”

Taxista: “Escucháme señor, no te entiendo. No hay ese lugar en Las Cañitas, ni en Belgrano, ni en Palermo. Podés escribir la dirección, y yo la voy a poner en mi navegadora (GPS)”

Me: “¡Vale! Yo escribo la ‘direction’ ”

I quickly write down the address and give it to the Taxista. He puts on his reading glasses, clears his throat and nose, and unfurls the piece of paper.

Taxista: “¡Cashe Osheros! ¡Cashe Olleros! Ahora sho entiendo. Disculpáme… sho te shevo. ¡Bienvenido a Argentina, tierra de los boludos! ¿Sos de la India? ¡Bienvenido capo, bienvenido! ¡Que lindo país, la India, y que loco también!”

The rest of the conversation was pretty much one-sided. I understood about 1% of it, mostly because I didn’t even get a chance to identify the few words I knew. The Taxista was bombarding me at a rate of a few hundred words per minute, and I had no clue what he was saying. I just politely nodded my head, and said a quick prayer that I wasn’t signing on for a guided city tour, or an excellent hotel option.

Six months down the line, and a lot has changed. It seems like it has been a billion hours of classes and countless conversations with taxistas, colectiveros, garbage men, waiters, old ladies waiting at the bus stop, shop keepers, hotel owners, automated prompt systems on the telephone both voluntary (“Para español, oprima 5″) and involuntary (“Bienvendios a Premium Taxi, servicio de alta calidad!”), and verdulería owners. In addition, traveling across different parts of the country and Chile has helped me understand different accents and variations.

There are a lot of people who argue that the Rioplatense region (broadly, Buenos Aires + Rosario + Uruguay) isn’t the ideal destination for someone looking to learn Spanish. The main basis is that Rioplatense Spanish is voseo and yeismo based, and that the simple future tense and perfect past tense are more or less non-existent in daily spoken use (though both continue to live happily in the written form). Yes, here in Argentina, I live on Cashe Olleros, not Caye Oyeros… and you ask someone whether they tenés spare change, not tienes. I the movie, though as an English speaker would prefer to say I he visto the movie. And Doris Day, singing Que Será Será would find a tough crowd here, because they want to hear her sing Que va a ser, va a ser. But hey, isn’t that what part of learning a language is about – appreciating the differences and beauty in its variations? Even though my first lessons in Spanish were from a Madridleño, they were too few and too long ago for it to have had any influence on my Spanish now, which is 100% Rioplatense (well, more like 30%, because 70% of the time I construct sentences the way a native English speaker would). However, sometimes I ask my Spanish teacher if we can spend the day practicing Gallego so that I won’t feel too embarrassed should I ever have to change dialects in a professional situation. To me, the switch is not very difficult, particularly if you want to speak with a reasonably neutral Latin American accent and register. The only really tough part about learning Spanish in Argentina, is equally difficult anywhere else in Latin America to pick up: ceceo. That is, my shoes are “sapatos”, and not “thapatos”. If you want to learn Spanish with ceceo, then there’s pretty much only one place you can do that: Spain.

On the contrary, Buenos Aires, and Argentina in general offers a student of Spanish one big advantage that may be hard to beat: A complete and utter devotion to extraversion. If you can keep a reasonably content Argentinian quiet for more than 1 minute, you can bet your underwear that they’re faking their nationality. The more and more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the only way I was able to pick up as much of the language as I have over the last six months, is because, well, Argentina wanted to talk to me. It really did. Now, I’m an extrovert too, but my exteroversion pales in comparison to that of this country as a whole. People aren’t afraid to stop on the street and ask me who I am, where I come from, and break into a detailed conversation about crossing the Ganges.

To me, this is a very compelling technical reason to choose BA to learn Spanish, and honestly, I think it trumps having to adjust to voseo and yeismo. A true extrovert can find anyone to talk to anywhere in the world. What’s nice about BA is that you don’t have to be one — BA will make the first move and try to talk to you. Maybe I’m making a big deal of this, but to me the warmth and willingness of Porteños to help me better my Spanish has transformed me from an illiterate to a (more or less) fluent Spanish speaker in six months. That, and some fantastic Spanish teachers (which I will save for another post). I started classes in November, and by January, I could more or get by in most daily life situations. By March, I was able to engage in discussions, and now, I am able to initiate and discuss most topics, although my vocabulary (both technical and quite often basic words that I should know at this level of grammar use) is still a very, very large construction site. I plan to write a bit more about my experiences learning a foreign language, starting from choice of school to learning techniques and ways to speed things up, in a series of future posts.

As my time here in Buenos Aires slowly comes to an end, I decided that the time has come to celebrate Argentinian Spanish with full gusto. Today, in class, I started working on Argentine journalist and poet José Hernandez’s epic works about the trials, travails and triumphs of the fictional Gaucho, Martin Fierro. First, the  2,316 line poem, “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” and then its 2,578 line follow-up, “La Vuelta de Martín Fierro”. I don’t think Estefí, my Spanish teacher (and good friend), had planned to do too much of this poem in class, but after reading the first few pages (and falling in love with them), I’ve decided to make a project of reading them in full (in my spare time) and writing about my progress. Hopefully, the next time I go to an estancia, I can contribute usefully at the bonfire without looking like a vegetarian city brat!

My second, and on a personal level, more exciting celebration of Argentine Spanish, will be to watch the Hispanoamerican equivalent of Monty Python, the Argentinian group Les Luthiers live in Buenos Aires at the Teatro Gran Rex. I first discovered them thanks to a class Estefí, when we listened to El Rey Enamorado, a parody about a King and his Jester trying to woo a beautiful commoner. Ever since that time, I’ve been hooked, especially because this great site from José María Gonzáles, which has all the lyrics and transcriptions, which lets me understand what’s going on a lot better! I’m absolutely obsessed with Les Luthiers, and the incredible sense of wit and humor that every one of their performances has. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at something! Watching them live is going to be a great treat, even if I don’t understand everything right away (I’ll make sure to take my handy unabridged dictionary with me)!

Un padre que da consejos
Más que padre es un amigo,
Ansí como tal les digo
Que vivan con precaución-
Naides sabe en qué rincón
Se oculta el que es su enemigo.

¡Viva Argentina!

The Wandering V