Work Abroad but earn in USD

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.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

Heh. I'm the same way with Spanish.

9/07/2006 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger Juan said...

You say tomato, yo digo tomate. Anyway good post as usual. Thanks!
P.S./P.D. Take your time in the near future to compare dating here vs. your country. Sounds fun.

9/08/2006 02:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad taught himself English by buying the same book in Romanian and in English, and reading one page at a time in both languages (he was a genius, btw). For the rest of us, the best thing you can do is start by reading the funnies in Spanish (short, easy grammar and you can see what the hero is doing). Then graduate to newspapers (start with the sports section) and discuss the River vs. Boca with friends using what you think you understood from the article (it helps if your friend is not a fan of either of the two teams). Sure, you'll say howlers such as "coger el subte", but you can't beat "I'll knock up your sister" as a Brit friend of mine said when he wanted to meet her.

Best luck and don't be afraid,

9/15/2006 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger Perpetual_Traveller said...

Great post. I'm a Brit in Buenos Aires learning the language the cheap way (via a native GF). Amongst my howlers:

I once told a waiter in BA that I wanted 'penis' shaped pasta.
My GF here once laughed til she cried when during a passionate evening together I commented: "yeah baby suck my tickets"!

Look forward to reading more here.

9/21/2006 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger Noelia Zaballa said...

Hello all

One of the many reasons why I don't move to another country is because I have a hard time finding the courage to speak another language. I can speak English and some French but I'm usually very shy and won't come out easily. Anyway,if I can give you guys a hand here in Buenos Aires, let me know, if you have paperwork to be done or anything that requires fluency in Spanish, feel free to contact me. I am also a Spanish teacher - no publicity meant here - so I can give you a hand in that field too.

10/30/2006 10:55:00 PM  
Blogger Sofía said...

What you said about Argentines refusing to speak English is so true!! What is up with that??!! I'm Argentine myself and I don't get it. I used to have an American BF who didn't speak a word of Spanish, and even though my friends are all fluent in English, only a few of them would talk to him... It's crazy what fear of embarrassment can do to some people!

12/18/2006 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I arrived in argentina at 15 I spoke a very limited and basic Spanish with a heavy accent. But I signed up for high school anyway and spent my free hours (muchos) hanging out with the neighborhood kids. They immediately adopted me into their group(s) and in fact gave me the nickname 'El Americano'. I was also known as 'Chesterfield' (el americano mas famoso), 'el yanqui' and 'Williams' (due to a Brit soccer player).

I met very few Americans in my first years in Argentina and instead immersed myself completely into the local language and culture. In a surprisingly short time (months) my Spanish improved tenfold. I'm also an avid reader and I enjoyed reading the local authors like Horacio Quiroga, Borges, Roberto Arlt, Ricardo Guiraldes and Jose Hernandez (to name just a few) in the original Spanish. I mean, you really CAN'T translate the Martin Fierro and get the same effect. Good shit.

Anyway my expatriate & angloid friends; I recommend TOTAL submersion into the language & culture if you REALLY wanna learn it inside out. But be careful, you may become somebody different in the process!.

Or not.

2/09/2007 12:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


2/14/2007 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to post my question here, since I don't know where a better place would be.

I am 59 year old woman and a disabled American veteran. My whole income is only a hair over $900 a month USD. It should be obvious that I can't very well live on that kind of money in America. I've been living with relatives, but the time is coming that they are going to be moving and there will not be a place for me. The waiting list for public housing is more than two years long. I've been looking at "casas de familias" in BA, and there are quite a few that I think I could afford. But from what I've read here, I'm now wondering if the Argentine government will even give me a visa if my income is so low. I am unable to work, and have been trying to supplement my income here by house/pet-sitting for people who go on vacation and don't have anyone to care for their pets while they're away.

I've been studying Spanish for 2-6 hours a day for several months now, and can read it fairly well, and I'm getting to where I can understand it when it is spoken. I attend a Spanish-speaking church in my town and can usually understand most of what the pastor is saying.

I am working on getting down to Argentina to help our church missionaries near Pilar.

Am I nuts to think that I could live on slightly over $900 a month down there? I'm a very frugal person who doesn't need much to be happy. Can I even GET a visa? I understand I might not need one for just 3 months, but I'd hate to have to come all the way back to the US every 3 months and then have to try to save up the money again for air fare back to BA.

What do you think?

Jan Jacobs

4/09/2007 03:51:00 AM  
Blogger Ezzzzzzzzzz said...

Jan. I hope this is useful.
i think that you can get to live with 900 bucks a month here, not glamourously, but still the income many middle class small families have around.
regarding your visa, you can try it out, but remember that argentine law allows you to enter for 3 months as many times as you want. meaning this: if every 3 months you just cross the border to uruguay (which may only cost 50 dollars) and come back, even in the same day, you can pretty much stay as long as you want.
believe many people do. for example mexicans (who are required heavy terms to get a resident visa here)

11/08/2007 02:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey regarding income and living in Argentina I moved here a year ago into Rosario so you can ask any further questions about stuff.


1/30/2008 01:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hy !! Im a spanish teacher and I am convinced that the best way of learning something is by enjoying it. So it´s o.k what you are doing: dating argentine girls, going to bars etc. That´s what I call learning on the field.
On the other hand remember that learing is a individual process and each personas needs to take his own time. So, take your time, enjoy our beautiful argentine spanish and don´t give up !! Virginia

3/24/2008 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I came across your blog while trying to find information on how I too can become an expat in Argentina. I am a recent college grad with a major in International Business and a minor in Management from Texas State University. I have searched the internet looking for information regarding jobs in Argentina for expats but have had no luck so far. I was hoping someone on this blog might be able to guide me. Any help would be much appreciated. My email address is Hope to hear from someone soon!

6/19/2008 02:32:00 PM  

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