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Hablas Castellano? Standard and Creative Ways of Learning Spanish in Buenos Aires

Intensive Spanish class; Adonis (left), Paula (teacher, middle) and me (right)
Intensive Spanish class; Adonis (left), Paula (teacher, middle) and me (right)
Hablas castellano? Yeah, me either. Or I should really say “un poquito” now. During a three month language vacation I took from April-July 2005, I experimented with many different ways to learn Spanish. I must admit right away that I am NOT one of those linguistically talented people. In high school, at university and later while traveling in various locations around the world I tried and tried again to learn languages such as German (I liked the sound of it in my teens), Spanish (fulfilling my uni language requirement), Italian (my genetic heritage, so I thought it might be easier to learn. HA!) and Mandarin Chinese (while working in Taiwan in 2003-4).

I must also admit that nowhere else have I been as intrigued, drawn in, and downright entranced by a language as with Castellano (the term used for BA’s unique Italian twist to Spanish) in Buenos Aires. It simply had a mesmerizing affect on me. I can’t explain it, but I am delighted that for once the frustration of trying to learn a new tongue did not stop me. There were far more moments there when I was willing to sound like a monosyllabic two-year-old than anywhere, at any other time in my life.

Once I decided to at least TRY and learn Castellano, I researched many options. I was living on a meager savings account during this 3 month period, so this meant by adding studying Spanish to the already full plate of writing a book, doing volunteer work, and doing research on yet another book about this culture, I was going to have to do it cheaply!

Thus when I heard that the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) had semester long classes for about $200 US (570 pesos) I thought “excellente”! But I was one month away from the next session. On to plan B. I started to search for both private/intensive language schools and private tutors. I watched a few classes at some private schools around the city and met with even more private tutors. The combination of cost and length of instruction were ultimately the final deciding factors. I found an intensive class in the Congresso neighborhood, at the Ibero Language School, that I personally clicked with. And to be fair, they were the cheapest, a winter time special of $120 US per week for 20 hours of class versus the more common $200 US per week for the same amount of time in class. I decided to take one week of class to get some of the vocabulary and accent down and self study until UBA started. BUT, my teacher was so wonderful (Thanks Paula!) and with just one other student in the classroom, the personal attention was spoiling, to say the least! By the end of the first week I felt so much better about my Spanish, I signed up for a 2nd week with no hesitation!

The second week went just as well if not better, but then the reality of my budget came into play and I was free from Spanish classes during a long 10 day gap between this intensive program and the UBA university program. This is when I played with alternative ways to learn Spanish. There are people who can just sit down in a café and start chatting with someone and learn a language. I am not that person. So I knew right away that I would need a situation more intentional and personal. This is when I posted a few ads for language exchanges.

First, I posted a few ads in my neighborhood on physical billboards. Then I was also referred to a local student travel website, Asatej, where they have an “Intercambio” bulletin board. Immediately the emails came rolling in. It was not easy with scheduling, personality differences, geographic variances (Buenos Aires is as spread out as Los Angeles, if not moreso), and weeding out the occasional man using this method as a dating tool, but I successfully teamed up with two semi-consistent language exchange partners during this time. It went so well, that we continued to meet weekly even while I was studying at UBA.

“But what about UBA?” you ask. I have to admit that after the energy of my Ibero teacher and the personal aspect of being in such a small class, UBA was a shock. We had about 12 people in our class and the physical environment was not ideal, to say the least. UBA’s language school is located on 25 de Mayo, 2 short blocks from Plaza de Mayo. This is THE central area where near daily LOUD protests either start, finish or exist in their entirety. It was not uncommon during class, no matter which classroom we were in, for the noise from such events to reach such a level that hearing anything was impossible. One day, during one such moment, our teacher gave up on us trying to out scream the protest and gave us a written assignment to work on until the noise had ceased. This took about 10 minutes.

Eccentric and front of a Buenos Aires storefront in the Palermo Hollywood barrio
Eccentric and front of a Buenos Aires storefront in the Palermo Hollywood barrio
Having different room assignments and teacher changes each week was also a bit odd and disruptive. We only had class 4 days a week, from 4-6 at night. Yet the classes were split up between one teacher who was there 3 of these nights, and one teacher who was there only one night. Confused yet? I almost was, even after a few weeks of this. There were moments when things like this come up and I just had to laugh. This is WHY I was studying there, to get the Buenos Aires experience. But then there were moments when I wondered how anyone concentrates at all in this atmosphere.

All in all, considering the price and the quality of the class I have to say that it WAS still the best buy in town for learning Castellano.

I have toyed with other ways of learning Spanish on top of intensive/semester language classes and language exchanges.

Some ideas were:

  • reading the local newspaper with Spanish/English dictionary in hand
  • trying to figure out Castellano song lyrics
  • acquiring a local boyfriend who doesn’t speak any English (although I would never date anyone just for this reason alone!)
  • switching my housing situation to a home stay with a non-English speaking
  • attending Spanish live theatre (this one was more than I could handle. It was hard to see my dictionary and the physical aspect of the play was so interesting to watch that even if the lamination aspect was not existent, I didnt want my eyes to leave the stage anyway!)

Someday soon I will get back on the Spanish learning bandwagon. But for now, I am back in San Francisco for a bit working on publishing a few books of my own and collecting funds for my next traveling adventure.

Ways to learn Spanish in Buenos Aires; Summary
1. Intensive language schools;
Ibero, $120 US per week for 20 hours of classes

2. UBA, $570 pesos for an 8 week, 8 hour a week class

3. Private tutors; $20-30 pesos per hour, some teachers give discounts for large time blocks per week. Can be found in the Buenos Aires Herald, on physical bulletin boards all over the city, referrals from other foreigners, or from these expat websites

No such thing as a regular cup of coffee in Buenos Aires
No such thing as a regular cup of coffee in Buenos Aires
4. Chatting with local friends (free!)

5. Language Exchanges
Asatej or physical bulletin boards in grocery stores, other shops

6. Local girlfriend/boyfriend

7. Live with a local family where Spanish is the only language spoken in the home (most language schools place you in such “homestays” with no charge, but rent, of course. Also, the Buenos Aires Herald lists many locals offering such a living environment.)

8. Reading a local newspaper with dictionary

9. Listening to Castellano/Spanish music and figuring out the lyrics

10. Paying way too close attention to movies and/or TV show subtitles and taking notes on important phrases. Note: a lot of the subtitles here are translated into Peninsula Spanish, so double check with a local before putting these new phrases into use.