That whole Spanish language thing

That whole Spanish language thing

“You’re hot then you’re cold
You’re yes then you’re no
You’re in then you’re out
You’re up then you’re down
You’re wrong when it’s right
It’s black and it’s white
We fight, we break up
We kiss, we make up”

Hot n Cold – Katy Perry

Warning: Lots of words, few pictures (but I am in the process of loading pictures to the “Pictures” page).

Hearing music that I can understand is somewhat of a relief. I didn’t realize how exhausting it is to listen to a language I don’t understand. Up until now I took for granted the fact that when I speak and listen to English I don’t have to think about it at all. It almost reminds me of reading Shakespeare in high school, where there were so many words I didn’t know the meaning of so I was constantly looking them up, or the sentence structure was very strange because of the poetic style it was written in, making it difficult to read smoothly. The only difference between Shakespeare and Spanish is that I only had to read those dramatic plays for a few hours each week in class, Spanish is 24 hours a day, every day, for the next three months.

I have no fear, though, because I can already tell that my understanding of the language is improving, slightly. When I first arrived, I had a very difficult time even understanding the words people were speaking, let alone the meaning of those words. To my ears, everyone might as well have been mumbling.


Now I am at a point where I can differentiate most of the words in a sentence, but am just struggling with the meaning of those words. Most of what I said/asked the first few days was “¿Como?” “¿Como?” “¿Como?” (“What?”) Now it is more along the lines of telling people that I don’t understand and then they try to reword the sentence for me (many times I still don’t understand, but this is progress!).

I can also tell that something is starting to click somewhere in my skull as I am getting random thoughts in Spanish and I am starting to think and write in Spanglish. This is annoying but humorous at the same time. I have found myself struggling to find words in English, as if my brain is trying to move into this Spanish mode and sometimes can’t get back for a second. And every once in a while when I am typing these blogs a word of Spanish will slip in. I also don’t speak English nearly a quickly as I used to, again, I think my brain is in language limbo.

Also, when I first arrived I would default to the present tense of verbs when I spoke, regardless of the tense I was supposed to be speaking in (saying something like, “yesterday I go to the college and meet other foreign students”). Speaking in the past tense or future tense sometimes requires a change to the words themselves, many of which I can’t remember off the top of my head.

I am slowly getting better. For very common verbs, such as ‘go’ or ‘do’ or ‘have,’ I am becoming better at using their proper form to match the tense I am intending to speak in. I still make a ton of mistakes, though, and I definitely stick out as a foreigner the second I open my mouth to speak.

I am also constantly uncomfortable right now because I cannot understand the world around me. Signs, people talking, the TV, the newspaper, they are all trying to give me information, but most of it stops right at my ears. A good thing, though, is that the language doesn’t sound strange anymore, actually, it has become so normal to my ears that hearing English when I’m not expecting it freaks me out a little.

One night, I was watching TV with my host family and they changed it to a channel showing “X Factor” out of the UK. I felt a little weird because for the first time I understood the program better than anyone else in the room. After a while, though, it was almost relaxing; for this small bit of time I didn’t have to think about what was being said or the meaning of anything. I simply sat there and understood everything!

I am also still getting used to the accent here, where they swallow or cut off the endings to a lot of words. For example, one day I bought a giant muffin for 38 pesos. I paid with a $100 note. To make change easier the cashier asked if I had “doce más” ($12 more) but I heard something more along the lines of “dos más” ($2 more). No harm is really done with the accent, only having to ask people to repeat themselves (maybe a couple of times…). This accent just adds to the struggle of understanding the language, but if I can figure out how to speak Spanish here, I am not sure there is any other accent I wouldn’t understand (I’m probably wrong with this statement, but I’m trying to find a silver lining here).

Before coming to Argentina I read somewhere, or was maybe told by someone, that Argentinians are rude and impatient with foreigners who can’t speak Spanish. So far, I have not experienced any negative sentiment due to my lack of Spanish knowledge, but I have noticed that people are very quick to switch the conversation to English. This might be impatient-ness, or it could simply be them trying to help a gringo out.

Most young people here know a decent amount of English as well. This is helpful for navigating the university and for simply talking to people. Getting to know someone, even on a very basic level, is extremely difficult when all you can ask is where they are from and what they are studying. I know it isn’t helping my Spanish, but I’m hoping that by making more friends using English I can eventually start using Spanish with them (recently, one decided they were going to text me in English anymore).

English is also more prevalent than I expected. A lot of the foreign exchange students got together one weekend at a house some of them are living in; there were students from France, Italy, Germany, Colombia, Mexico and maybe one or two other countries. I was expecting most of the conversation that night to be in Spanish, since we are all here to learn it and that would be a common language among all.

Every conversation I had that night was in my native tongue! I don’t want to speak for anyone besides myself, but besides the Mexicans and Colombians, I think everyone’s English was better than their Spanish, so that is what everyone defaulted to (which totally makes sense, we are down here to learn Spanish). In fact, at some point that night we actually did talk about why none of us were using Spanish.

In short, nobody wanted to talk like a robot.

It is one thing to know which words to string together to ask or give information. It is another thing to speak the language, which involves actually knowing the meanings of words and applying them properly, such as using ‘Cuál’ instead of ‘Qué’ when asking “What is your name?” (Both words can be used as for the English ‘what’ but there is a difference between the two). I am almost at this point; I can – kind of – speak the language, but only with my very limited vocabulary.

Then there is the difference between speaking the language with someone, and actually knowing the language, which is much, much different. Not only do I speak English, but I truly do know the English language. I can say this because I know different ways to manipulate the language and still make sense. I know words that can be applied in different situations and I can actually change the structure of the language to convey different ideas and unspoken feelings. Nobody preemptively announces they are about to tell a joke, what they say is funny due to what they say and how they say it.


Supposedly I’m in a “Spanish-speaking country”

Slang and colloquialisms also play a large role in language that I took for granted in English. I didn’t realize how much of my daily speech uses these informal bits of language until trying to use them in daily speech here and they make absolutely no sense at all. I remember another U.S. student commenting on the nice weather one day; he jokingly said, “¡Qué un día!” (directly translated to “What a day!”) which I immediately understood perfectly; the same cannot be said for the Mexican student walking with us who both understands and speaks English very well.


After thinking about that phrase, “what a day,” I realized it really doesn’t make sense at all. And now I am constantly thinking about all the things we have in our language that cannot be understood simply by knowing words in the language. So much of common speech is done with these things because it is more casual, otherwise we would all sound like robots when we talk.

And this is why we all defaulted to English that night. Even though everyone’s English may not have been as good as their own native language, it was better than their Spanish (save for the Mexicans and Colombians again…). By speaking English we could actually talk with each other and convey ideas beyond basic information. In essence, we could converse as friends. We could tell and understand jokes, we could laugh and show personality. We could be humans! So much fun!

(Either this, or everyone there felt sorry for the two guys from the States and knew they spoke nothing but English…)

For a few years now, I have had a fascination with language itself. When I was in the Dominican Republic and I knew nearly zero Spanish but I was still able to communicate very basic ideas with physical gestures. There’re board games based entirely on this phenomenon, using gestures and acting out things for others to hopefully understand. Personally, I don’t consider this language, as there is no agreed upon way of doing things (and this is exactly what makes those board games so entertaining).

Hopefully everyone knows what “Push Bar/ Pull Handle” means. . .

There is a language based around gestures and movements, that’s called sign language. There are different forms of sign language, but within each form, there is an agreed upon way to communicate specific ideas. That is the essence of language, conveying ideas. This is the exact same as spoken languages. Everyone who speaks the same form of English agrees that certain words carry certain meanings. Like the word ‘jump’ typically implies the general action of quickly elevating yourself in space using only your legs.

“What a day” only makes sense because we have agreed on a general meaning for that combination of those three specific words. It is the exact same thing as agreeing that when we put the letters J, U, M, and P together, and in that order, they carry a specific meaning.

So, without totally geeking out and talking on and on about language, I am super excited that I am getting the opportunity to learn a different language, and everything that’s involved with this process. I am learning the meanings that people here agree upon, and I am learning that even though some words might mean one thing, it can be completely different when paired with other words.

Another interesting thing I have noticed with language here is the prevalence of mixing languages – Spanglish. I was walking through the city with an Argentinian student and we saw someone wearing a shirt that read “Dope/Swag” with an artsy design in the middle (I lol’d when I saw it 😊). She explained to me that, here, it is sort of trendy or cool to use English words. But she also said a lot of people will wear t-shirts printed with English words and not even know their meaning.

The food at Mr. Dog is cheap for a reason

Businesses try to use English as well. There’s a hotdog restaurant here called “Mr. Dog” (tried it, not a fan…). The menu is filled with different options, but never does it mention the English word ‘hotdog’ (“pancho,” their word for ‘hotdog,’ is all over the menu).


Bits of English like this are all over the city. And to me that is very interesting. If more and more English is incorporated into Spanish, then people will start knowing more and more of English. I have also noticed the rise of Spanish in English-speaking culture (any pop songs come to mind?). I am wondering, if in hundreds of years, there will just be one mega-language that everyone in the world speaks and is a combination of many different languages. I suppose with its prevalence, English is slowly becoming that language, but I feel like in order for people to fully incorporate English, it would need to incorporate their own languages as well – this would take a very long time. .


For now, though, Spanish is enough of a mega-language for me. Every day I feel like something is a little easier. Part of that is probably because I am finally feeling settled here, and the shock of everything being different is slowly wearing off as things are becoming my new normal. I don’t want to say that it is easy, just easier than the very start.

Example: Yesterday my host family made a big meal (the traditional ‘asado’) and had a lot of family over to visit. I sat at that table listening to nine Argentinians talk (the word ‘talk’ doesn’t exactly describe their energetic/physical form of verbal communication) for more than two hours straight. That night, I was having trouble understanding the most basic Spanish words. My brain had simply given up for the day!


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