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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Learning the Language

Its been more than a year since I've been living in Argentina and I wanted to respond to this question about how long it takes to learn the language and what my experience has been.

Reader's Question

I'm thinking about moving to Argentina, but my Spanish isn't that great. I read some of your early articles and saw that you, too, moved there without being fluent in Spanish. How easy/difficult has it been? Do you enjoy it? Do most Argentines know English? How long did it take until you could have meaningful conversations with people?

Having Fun Learning Spanish

For a lot of us, this is a very relevant question. Moving overseas is stressful enough, but learning a foreign language can be a scary prospect. I can tell you that from my experience, it hasn't been easy. However, it can be really fun as long as you surround yourself with people who don't mind giving you a helping hand.

Over the last year, I've laughed a lot with my friends over the mistakes I've made and they've been more than willing to correct me and teach me things. People who are used to hearing you speak in English also find it really funny when you start using some of the local slang with them. All this makes learning the language more fun.

Speaking in English

Although many Argentines do speak English, I've found that, at least in a social setting, you'll have a hard time getting them to speak it. Most are very embarrassed about their level of English. They have this idea that if they are going to speak a foreign language, they should speak it perfectly or else not at all. Two crazy examples...

I've been dating a girl for 2 months now and the entire time she's said perhaps 10 sentences to me in English. It isn't due to a lack of ability either. She can watch a movie in English without subtitles, read an English book, and even go to an English-language theater. During the day she occasionally speaks to English speakers in her job. However, outside of a work context, she just won't speak it.

In fact, when we starting dating, she went and enrolled in an English class. It sounds crazy, you have the opportunity to learn and improve your English for free, but instead you go and enroll in a class and pay someone to talk with them. Yet, that's the attitude you'll find here.

Another example happened at a party about a month ago. I met a girl there who worked as an English teacher. She was Argentine. However, with all her friends there, she wouldn't speak English with me. My guess is that she thought I would critique her English in front of her friends or something. Due to these experiences, I think expats shouldn't hold out much hope for people to speak English with them outside of a business setting.

Making The Effort

Since the beginning, I never lived with a host family here (always had my own apartment) and I spend most of my day working in an office where everyone speaks English. In addition, there's an English-language newspaper here, there are movies and TV in English, and even expat bars. Once you get yourself a secretary who can take care of all the daily chores like paying bills, translate when needed, etc., it actually is possible to live in Buenos Aires without learning Spanish.

For my first 6 months or so, I was like many of the Argentines I described above -- I was embarrassed about my level of Spanish and didn't like using it. I felt like everyone would think I was an idiot for speaking incorrectly. I wasted a lot of time by not practicing when I had the opportunity to do so. I told myself I wasn't doing anything wrong, since I kept up with my Spanish classes. However, I could have been doing a lot more to immerse myself.

No Light-bulb Moment

I used to think that one day, after x-number of Spanish classes or after speaking for so long, that I'd wake up and suddenly be able to start understanding things. Well, learning a language is not like that. It is a very gradual process and sometimes you won't even realize that you're actually learning.

There's no magic moment where you just understand everything. Each day you pick up a few more words, improve your accent a little, improve your grammar, get more confident speaking, etc. In fact, the only time I realized how much I'd advanced is when I started speaking to people I hadn't seen in a few months. They would be the ones who would tell me that my Spanish skills improved quite a bit.

Opening Up New Possibilities

Once of the greatest things about learning the language is that you open up a lot of new possibilities. I have friends now who don't speak English. I'm able to communicate directly with business partners, whereas before I needed a translator. I only recently realized just how funny some people are.

However, perhaps the best benefit is that I'm able to date much more successfully. People say that love is a universal language and men and women from anywhere can communicate without words -- bull! If you can't talk to the person sitting across from you, unless you're Brad Pitt, you have about a 0% chance of anything happening.

So, I wish all you language learners out there plenty of good luck and keep practicing! It'll make your time in Argentina a whole lot more enjoyable.


Friday, September 01, 2006

My First Argentina Protest

Yesterday I went to Plaza de Mayo to listen to Juan Carlos Blumberg speak about crime and security in Argentina. It was my first time at a protest here and, for me, it was a very interesting experience. According to media outlets and unofficial police estimates, there were between 40 and 60 thousand people in attendance.

Blumberg has called for Argentina to toughen its laws against criminals. The government, however, has refused to do so, harking back to the tough approach to crime and punishment that was used during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, in which thousands of people were made to disappear. In fact, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have denounced Blumberg and compared him, quite unjustifiably in my opinion, with the military dictators that ruled the country back in the 70s and 80s.

If you don't know the story of Blumberg, a little background is in order. Blumberg was a textile engineer whose son was killed by kidnappers. Although Blumberg paid the ransom in the designated drop-off point, a corrupt cop with knowledge of the operation informed a different criminal gang, who stole the money. When the kidnappers were not paid, they killed Blumberg's son. Since his son's death in 2004, Blumberg has been an anti-crime crusader.

The government dislikes Blumberg so much that they staged a pathetic counter-protest at the obelisk, which gathered only about 5,000 people. In fact, there would have been more people at the Blumberg march, but many people were scared away by the rantings of the leader of the counter-protest, Luis D'Elía, who spoke of marching his counter-protest to the Plaza de Mayo to cause trouble.

Unlike most protests, which are filled with the unemployed, the Blumberg march was filled with middle-class taxpaying families, who were asking their government to fulfill one of its most basic duties - the protection of its citizens. While the piqueteros, the poor, and the leftists here are protesting every other day, it isn't easy to get a middle-class person who has a good job and a family to go and join a protest march. Usually middle-class people are content. Whenever a government starts to see its middle-class rise up and protest, they should pay attention.

The newspapers today were filled with articles at how the government had made a major miscalculation by staging a counter-protest and dismissing Blumberg as an extremist or a right-wing politician. In fact, he made no political statements at the march last night (some expected him to launch a candidacy for governor of Buenos Aires province) - he only called on the present government to improve the security situation.

Unless Kirchner is content to lose middle-class votes, I expect him to address Blumberg's concerns or he just may turn Blumberg into a political foe. We'll see what happens in the coming months.

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