When I chose to study abroad in Buenos Aires, practicing and improving my Spanish was one of my main reasons why, and yet it was also one of the things I dreaded most.
Whenever I had practiced Spanish at home, I could always rely on English as a back-up—my teachers, fellow students, and language exchange partners would understand me either way. However, that would not be the case in Argentina. If I didn’t understand the Argentine accent or if someone else didn’t understand me, I wouldn’t have my English training wheels to catch me before I fell.
And it was kind of terrifying upon arriving in Buenos Aires. During the first few weeks, other people could usually understand me, but I had a very hard time understanding them. The conjugations of “voseo” were unfamiliar to me, and the Argentines used completely different words to refer to everyday things. For example, instead of the typical “mascarilla” or “máscara” for the work “mask”, I saw “tapaboca” and “barbijo”. Strawberries were “frutilla” instead of “fresa”, and pineapple was “ananá” instead of “peña”. I essentially had to relearn a quarter of my basic vocabulary.
To make it all even more difficult, I had just moved to a completely new country and I was in the middle of the exploration phase. I was trying to get to know my new home, establish a daily routine, find a gym, grocery stores, a laundromat, my go-to coffee shops, etc. All this means talking with shop owners and gathering information, and I had to do it all in Spanish.
In this regard, setting up my gym membership was the hardest thing to figure out. The employees we talked to didn't know much English, and the sign-up process was rather complicated. Their prices differed depending on if we paid with cash or card and what length of time we wanted to pay for at once. When we finally chose our price, our credit cards refused to process the payment without first texting us security codes to confirm our identities, so we had to come back the next day with our U.S. SIM cards. Then, the gym employees only charged us for two months instead of the four months they had promised, and we had trouble logging into their app so that we could reserve workout times.
The whole thing was about a 2-week affair, but we eventually got everything figured out. If you ever find yourself facing a situation like this, I recommend bringing along a friend or two. Chances are that one of you will understand what is being said in Spanish, and one of you will know how to respond. It puts less pressure on you to comprehend everything that is going on in your second language within just a week of arriving in Buenos Aires. Personally, I find that it serves as a great back up for those inevitable moments of panic when all your Spanish knowledge just drops right out of your head!
The “panic phase” lasted about a few weeks, but after that I found myself speaking Spanish without thinking much of it. It had become a daily part of life. Don’t get me wrong, I still had my ups and downs and didn’t understand as much of what was being said to me as I would’ve liked, but I no longer had to plan what I was going to say before I said it. I also had more endurance for the language. During the IES Abroad orientation in our first week abroad, we had 3-hour tours completely in Spanish and I couldn’t stay engaged for more than two hours at a time. A few weeks into the program, however, I could go through six hours of class in Spanish without thinking anything of it.
It wasn’t until about three months in that I started noticing significant improvements. When I presented at the IES Abroad research symposium, I was able to elaborate on my slides in Spanish without using notes – something that I could not do during my presentation a month and a half ago! My language exchange partner from Peru also said he’s noticed that I speak more fluently and with more confidence. I don't have an Argentine accent yet, but according to him I do use a lot of Argentine vocabulary!
Now, I realize that I’ve made leaps and bounds in my Spanish skills within just a few months, equivalent to what took me years to accomplish in school at home. The difference is that instead of memorizing grammar and vocabulary in class, I’m having daily experiences with everything I learn. This way, it’s a lot easier to remember it all. For example, I learned that “palta” means “avocado” really quickly because I was always buying them at supermarkets. The word “tipo” is used as a filler word, similar to “like” in English – my friend in my class at the Universidad Católica Argentina uses it a lot. I also learned that “dolor de panza” means “stomach ache” in order to describe that very symptom during multiple doctor’s visits. (“Panza” is usually a more crude word in Spanish. Most other countries use “estómago.”)
It’s incredibly gratifying to realize that I’ve made such vast improvements. If you’re looking to improve in a second language, I encourage you to study abroad. Take the leap! There is simply no other practice method that compares to living and breathing Spanish all day long! If you plan on studying abroad with IES Abroad in Buenos Aires, here are some tips on the best ways to take advantage of your Spanish-language resources here:
- Take a facultad class at UCA - A “facultad” class is one designed for Argentine students, as opposed to the PEL courses that are designed for study abroad students. You get to meet Argentine students and perhaps even befriend some of them so that you can hang out outside of class. In the facultad, the professors also speak to the class like they are speaking to native Spanish-speakers. You don't get special treatment as a study abroad student, therefore you are more challenged to keep up. This is a good option for students who have more advanced levels of Spanish when they first arrive.
- Find someone on the Mixxer website from Argentina - Mixxer is a social platform designed to connect language exchange partners. If all goes well, perhaps you can meet up with your new friend and hang out when you arrive in Buenos Aires!
- Sign up for weekly tutoring sessions at IES Abroad - This year, the Spanish tutor is Ana Principi, and she has been incredibly helpful for me. She will work with you on whatever you feel like you need more practice on, answer your questions, and correct you along the way. I've just been doing casual conversations with her, but my friend has also done practice interviews.
- Participate in the IES Abroad language partners program - IES Abroad connects you with an Argentine student who is learning English, and the two of you meet up once a week over lunch, merienda or dinner to spend an hour or more talking in both languages. It’s great practice for both of you!
- Read a book in Spanish for pleasure – El Ateneo Splendid is a beautiful opera house turned bookstore on Ave. Santa Fe. I’m currently reading a book I bought from there called Violeta by Isabel Allende
- Take all your IES Abroad classes in Spanish – The more Spanish exposure you can get the better!
Click here if you’d like to take your own adventure abroad with IES Abroad!
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<p>I’m studying for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I hope to improve my Spanish language skills and learn more about the country’s women’s rights movement. I’m from the U.S. state of Minnesota, where I also attend college and study Spanish, Political Science, and English. I’m on a pre-law track and hope to pursue a career in immigration law.</p>