Language Barriers: June 14, 2013


With my two years of high school Spanish (yes, you may snort with derision) and Bjorn’s proficiency in it, I foolishly thought I would be fine in Buenos Aires. But oddly, knowing a little bit of a language seems to be worse than knowing nothing about it. The phonemes and structures of Spanish feel familiar to me, which makes me more frustrated that I don’t understand it better. With Thai, I was blissfully ignorant about everything and could casually shrug off my non-knowledge — though my pan-Asian face had everyone around me assuming I was a native and did know the language. 

In Buenos Aires, no one thinks I am a native — and yet they still assume I know the language. Part of the confusion stems from Bjorn. He proudly tells everyone he is Swedish and then launches into a stream of fluid and accomplished Spanish, cracking jokes and making nuanced observations about Argentine politics. Surprised and delighted, they turn expectant eyes toward me — if this sueco can do it, of course the chinita can! For you see, the other part of the problem is that there are Asians living in Buenos Aires (oddly, they all seem to run grocery stores), and though they are few, it is not uncommon for them to speak Spanish fluently.


I just can’t win.


I understand a lot of what is being said. Or at least, I think I do. I tend to pick up the gist from the words I do know from within the  clouds of language I do not; plus, I have a pretty good “listening face” that can usually fool people. (Now that I think about it, this probably compounds the problem as I spend more time going, “Mmhmm,” and “Si,” when I should be saying, “Como?”)

What with the various conjugations, articles and masculine/feminine forms, I find it hard to keep everything straight in my head. I have said, “Can you use the bathroom?” (Puedes usar el bano?) and “My wife, Bjorn” (Mi esposa, Bjorn) more times than I really should. Very recently, a street parilla vendor asked me, “Do you like spicy food?” (Te gusta la comida picante?) as he watched me ladle chimichurri thickly onto my burger.  To which I bobbed my head up and down vigorously, and replied with much enthusiasm, “Nice to meet you!” (Mucho gusto!)


Still, I muddled along fairly well, I think — as long as the extent of the conversation ranged from Me gustaria… (I would like) to Cuanto cuesta? (How much does this cost?) But things came to a head one day when the apartment cleaner (she came included with the rent) started berating me in a shrill torrent of Spanish. She proceeded to search our apartment top to bottom, even looked through our clothes. With Bjorn away, I could only flutter haplessly after her, trying to make sure she wasn’t trying to steal anything. She finally stopped her rampage after finding extra bedsheets.


I know, right?

After this bullying in Spanish, I finally decided it might be time to get better acquainted with the language. Fortunately, my friend B came to the rescue. She knew another music teacher at her school who was looking to practice his English. We met at the cafe, Esquina de Homero Manzi, literally “Corner of Homero Manzi,” after the famed Argentine tango lyricist. It is so named because it sits at the famous corner of the streets San Juan and Boedo, which is mentioned in the lyrics of the even more famous tango, “Sur.”


I learned all these facts in Spanish from A, my language buddy — himself an accomplished tango musician. (You can hear some of his music here.) But I learned all of it slooowly, with a lot of clarification and simplification from A. I had naively thought all I would need at our first meeting would be a notebook, a pen and a smile. I was further disarmed by the fact that A already knew a lot of English and the first half of our session flowed fairly smoothly.


Then it was my turn — and I went blank. I couldn’t remember even basic words. It literally felt like a bare, white wall had come crashing down in my mind. All I could do was throw feeble “de… de… de’s”  and “eh’s” at it, which, of course, bounced off harmlessly. My language buddy was very patient, but my ‘pits could have watered half a dozen houseplants and my ears burned bright red from the mental strain and embarrassment of it all.


Apparently, I needed a little more help than I thought.


My husband, a longtime convert of Tim Ferriss (whom I resist following as a matter of course), suggested I use Ferriss’ tips for hacking languages, which follows Pareto’s Principle of 80/20: 80% of results come from 20% of the input, material, or effort. (You can read the post for yourself to get a more in-depth explanation.) Begrudgingly, I read through a list of the 100 most frequently used Spanish words, and then another list of the 100 most frequently used Spanish verbs. To be on the safe side, I brought the iPad and opened up Google Translate as well (you’d do it, too.)


And reader(s), it seemed to work. (Touché , Tim Ferriss, touché.)  I recalled words more easily, the conversation flowed better, jokes were actually made (!). Of course, I’m sure that having a previously thought-out topic list, greater familiarity with my language buddy, and the security of a safety net also contributed greatly.


However, I have less than a month left in Argentina. Will I ever become fluent in Spanish? No se — pero me gusta aprender.


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