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The Struggles and Triumphs of Learning Spanish in Buenos Aires

Save yourself some frustration next time you travel by learning from this experience.

For seasoned travelers or multilingual folk this information will likely be old hat. But for those of you who are a little naive like I was and come to a foreign country expecting people to speak your language, think twice. I found this out the hard way in Buenos Aires as I fumbled through my first 24 hours, wanting to interact with people but failing miserably.

Arriving at Jorge Newbery Airport on a Sunday night, I realized the cab I had booked in the crazy rush before leaving was not coming. With no smartphone to check my email or contact the greeting company, I had to deduce the best priced alternative, racking my brain for the Australian Dollar to Argentine Peso conversion rate.

Before I could pay for a cab though, I had to find an ATM. I therefore had to rely on the airport staff speaking English to find one quickly, as I wanted to get to my apartment as soon as possible. It’s a cliché I have heard many times in the weeks before and after I arrived, but the Argentinian women are truly beautiful and as I asked one of the pretty female staff for ATM directions, I instantly regretted not being able to speak Spanish.

I then felt like a jerk when I couldn’t say a word to the cab driver as he only spoke Spanish and I only spoke English. Arriving in a new city, I could ask nothing of my new surroundings as they passed by the passenger window.

The next day was even more revealing. Taking my little European Spanish phrasebook to a cafe I tried learning a few phrases unaware that my pronunciation was all wrong and I had no notion of the differences between Spainish Spanish, Latin Spanish, and even the quirks of Porteño Spanish (porteños refer to the people from Buenos Aires city).

While I initially romanticized learning Spanish, I soon begun realizing how little I could and would be able to communicate. When I ordered food I had to compromise in the sense that I couldn’t understand much of the menu and understood even less of how to ask for what I wanted. Cue the humiliation of the point and order.

I tried to memorize certain phrases before and after I ordered at cafes. I have used very few of these since commencing Spanish lessons with a local tutor, and I was aggravated that I could not fully express myself and connect with my new and exciting environment.

That said, a good piece of advice I got on the plane ride over was to always have a go at speaking the local language no matter how silly you feel or how little you know. Most people will appreciate the effort and it’s not worth getting upset at those who don’t because it will only discourage you from further learning and limit your experience.

The Argentinians that I have gone out with have all encouraged me to speak what Spanish I know, have taught me certain linguistic nuances and slang, and it has always been a lot of fun. In return, I have been able to reciprocate to some small degree when they have questions about English. It has been enjoyable trying to order a drink at a bar, even when I know my pronunciation is wrong, or go to a party with one more phrase or verb to use in conversation than the night before.

However, another problem I had in my first 24 hours involved paying for things, as I didn’t know the words for many numbers and couldn’t keep up with regular conversation pace even if I did. In one instance, I didn’t realize I was being asked for smaller change in a supermarket until nearly having to accept lollies as a replacement for change. So learn your numbers!

More on Vagabond Journey: 11 Most Important Things to Learn to Say in Any Language

Throughout my first day trekking up and down Avenida Santa Fe I said “perdón, no entiendo” more times than I care to remember. Except I was not saying “perdón, no entiendo”, I was saying “perdón, no estiado” (which is something that after “sorry, no”, WordReference.com can’t even translate).

With the addition of a foreign language to my consciousness also came a different way of doing things. While shopping, I realized when buying fruit and vegetables in one of the major supermarkets that they had to be weighed at a stand alone counter before being taken to the main cashier for payment. As I’m sure you can imagine by now, on my first attempt I gave the wrong items for weighing, had to rely on visual recognition in other parts of the supermarket to determine my dinner and nearly left the check out queue because I wasn’t sure if I could pay by card and lacked both the knowledge and strength to ask.

Other classic moments of confusion in my first few days included me repeatedly telling the launderette operator that I did not have a name when dropping off my washing (name = nombre, I thought she was asking for a phone number which I hadn’t yet acquired) as well as telling a supermarket cashier “two” when he asked me how I was, as I was anticipating to be asked how many bags I would like.

Furthermore, porteños and porteñas use their hands a lot in conversation. When showing my Spanish tutor some of the hand signals I had learnt on a walking tour (specifically the montoncito which means ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ or ‘what’s your problem?’), in doing the signal too low and too vigorously I came closer to depicting the international symbol for masturbation, much to the amusement of us both.

Following the trivial struggles of not knowing how much to pay for my lunch and not knowing whether I could enter the bank I was completely tired of saying sorry, tired of using my hands, tired of giving up on things, and tired of feeling self-conscious. Simple tasks were a huge process and I couldn’t properly plug into the awesome, hectic city that is Buenos Aires. On top of feeling self-conscious, I felt ignorant that I stuck out as a tourist. However, if you have been a little naive like I have and find yourself in this situation as you begin a new journey in a foreign country, don’t be deterred!

My initial experience and urgent need for basic communication skills has served as great motivation to learn Spanish, and with the moments of confusion and embarrassment there have been little moments of joy and accomplishment. It can be overwhelming trying to both learn and live a new language and it may feel easier to retreat back into your comfort zone. However, your trip will be so much more rewarding and take on a new dimension if you challenge yourself to learn the language — anywhere from basic phrases to a deeper understanding — and push yourself into situations were you have to try and speak it on a daily basis. Learning the language will help you connect with the people and, through them, the place itself.

Two weeks on, after some intensive Spanish lessons I am grateful to understand just how little I knew when I arrived. I have ironed out my pronunciation a little, began building my vocabulary, and have a basic understanding of the grammatical structure of the language. I have embarrassed myself and have felt rewarded in real life situations in (almost) equal measure, but I am growing in confidence every day and with every situation I get to speak or listen — so much so that I look forward to forcing myself into the next situation, whether I comprehend it or not.

Filed under: Argentina, Language Learning

About the Author:

David Fegan is a freelance journalist from Melbourne currently travelling through South America, reporting what he discovers for Vagabond Journey. has written 19 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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