19 Feb On Learning Spanish in Buenos Aires


Past rulers of Castilia include Ferdinand, Isabella, and Alfonso the Wise.

“I am off to Argentina to learn Spanish,” I say.

“Spanish is easy,” they say, “you’ll pick it up in no time. Have fun.”

Those people are wrong. Spanish hasa remarkably low barrier to entry, it is true. The first few steps up the mountain begin on a gentle slope. But, once past the foothills, Spanish, in many ways, is more complex than English.

Spelling and pronunciation are much more straightforward – a gift to the newcomer. Words sound like they are written and are written exactly as they sound. They do not mess about, on these shores, with double consonants or silent letters.

On the other hand, ortografía – accent marks, to you – matter. For instance:

el vino -> the wine
él vino -> he came

Worse still, keyboards were not invented until after Spain exported her dialect via conquest to half the world, and even the best system for typing with accent marks is still a compromise.

My main problem with Spanish (it is for the best that I confess at the outset) is that I do not like the way it feels in my mouth. Hear me out…

Every language has a feel. French, to me, is like smooth river stones. At other times, French is smooth and soft and cool, like fresh yogurt. It is my best language, after English, despite my relative lack of training, because I speak it at every opportunity. Je m’amuse.

Some languages are more physical, others are more cerebral. Japanese – I picked up a smidge before a trip – is like riding in a sturdy cart over cobblestones on a sunny afternoon. Czech is like performing a circus act while watching yourself in a mirror, in reverse, i.e. fun yet practically impossible. Indonesian is for wizards – even simple sentences, or counting, sound like a spell being conjured. Thai is spicy popcorn. Hebrew is a bale of hay with a boulder in the middle. Danish is good times. German is not.

I am still referring to the experience of speaking a language, not listening, which can be wholly different. Cantonese, of which I still possess a small amount from a previous life as an expat in Hong Kong, is the strangest of all. I move into a different part of my brain, one which I never knew existed, and has only one function: speaking Cantonese. Listening for the tonal variations, and mapping them to thoughts, is so absorbing that I have to double back at the end of each sentence to figure out what I’ve just heard. It is physical, using facial muscles otherwise reserved for expressions of skepticism or pain. Being understood is difficult and, when it happens, incredibly satisfying.

Spanish, desafortunadamente, feels, to my mouth, like small cubes of die-cut wood. This is an improvement over my arrival, when it felt liked weathered triangles of plywood, with ripped, flaked edges as if cut by a rusty dull saw. This sensation is not optimal when one has committed to a language.

Spanish does possess admirable qualities of flexibilty and succinctness. Coming from French, where you can never go wrong by sprinkling a few more prepositions around the infield, Spanish can be austere. Information packs down into as few syllables as possible, but always holds out the possibility of a sudden pivot into poetry, a la Octavio Paz. It lilts, but, for me, it does not sing. My sentences have the kind of clunky forward motion that makes you want to get out and check the tie rods one more time.

Consequently, my accent is not what it might be. French speakers are constantly complimenting me on my accent, which makes sense, since I am attuned to their rhythm. I am not yet attuned to Spanish. I am generally conversational, my fluency increases each day, but my accent is still American Midwest via the Mission District.

What Spanish does have is strength. Discourse is structured, syllables are pronounced, there are rules. Many, many rules. Compared to English, or Hindi, Spanish stays under tight rein.

This is particularly true for pronunciation, including the tonal expressions. I’ll bet you did not even know that there was a tonal aspect. Nobody told me, either, before I climbed aboard this caballo. Hablo is a word, as is habló. They differ in both person and tense. [I speak / He spoke] You have to listen for it.

Locals do not call it Spanish. They think that they speak castellano, the language of Castile that traces its roots to King Alfonso X in the 13th C., and Ferdinand and Isabella, famous patrons of Columbus, conquerors of Moors and haters of Jews, in the 15th C. It is the same language, more or less, that is called Español in España, but names have power, and the repercussions of colonialism still ripple outward.

Of course, this country has effected so many changes upon the idiom that many Castilians would disagree that castellano is spoken anywhere in the vicinity. It is a fact that, for life, I will have ‘Hecho en Argentina’ stamped all over me. The local dialect is either beautiful, or barbaric, depending upon your outlook, but could never be mistaken.

Long ago, Argentinians chose to pronounce the ‘ll’ as ‘zh’. Thus, ‘calle’ becomes ‘cazhe’ and ‘ella’ is ‘ezha’. They did the same for ‘y’, so that ‘yo’ is ‘zho’, ‘kayak’ is ‘kazhak’, and to stay limber, one practices ‘zhoga’. Say that in Madrid and you will see some chuckles.

Several tenses in common usage elsewhere are barely taught, much less used, here. Certain vocabulary has changed to the point that the Spanish (from Spain) dictionary I brought is only partially helpful. These are features that I appreciate – the world has grown too similar to itself, regional variations should be celebrated.

But is it truly difficult to learn? Especially when compared to English, with its profusion of irregulars and colloquialisms? I say sí. Castellano has its own harvest of irregulars, and expressions, and I would argue that some forms that first appear merely different are actually more complex, since they depart further from the norm. Se me hizo tarde (It made late to me) rather than the simpler I am late, which follows the common subject-verb-adjective model.

Mature languages are naturally idiosyncratic, admittedly, and those examples may be found in any idiom. More interesting, because they lead to larger questions, are the key areas where castellano adds a layer of inference over and above that found in English. Two examples are hereby given. (Non-language geeks should feel free to skip to the good stuff six paragraphs below.)

ser v. estar – Any first-year student knows that castellano has two verbs for ‘to be’, rather than the single ‘is’ which suffices to answer all needs in English. In English, I use the same verb for: I am a man & I am in the house. Not so in Espanol.

The same is true for I am a man & I am sick. One word in English, two in Español, since one is a permanent condition (manhood) and the other is transitory. (I may be sick today, but I will not always be sick.)

And this is child’s play compared to the real dragon in the back of the cave: the subjunctive. El Subjunctivo changes, literally, everything. Even some Spanish-speakers, I’m told, go out of their linguistic way to avoid it. In English, the subjunctive is a shy cat, and passes nearly unnoticed. In Spanish, it is the quicksand covering the back half of the property – you learn the way through or stay on the porch with the young’uns.

Many of my Spanish-speaking gringo friends have, quite reasonably, never tackled the topic. To them, I posit that you may not be doing what you think that you are doing. I’ve heard it before: “People understand what I am saying.” That could be, but without understanding señor subjunctivo, when the verb endings change, how do you know what they are saying? You do not, entirely. Wikipedia is on my side on this one.[1]

Then there are the various forms of the imperative that depend upon affirmative vs. negative and familiar vs. formal, another shade of ink flung into the pot.

My question: Do refinements such as offering multiple forms of the verb ‘to be’, or modifying the verb based upon whether the statement is a fact or a hypothetical, add anything to the conversation?

Does increased complexity convey greater nuance, or subtlety, or a layer of useful information? Or is it strictly a pain in the culo for language learners?

I do not ask rhetorically. I have not yet found a good discussion of this question and my castellano is still too rudimentary to form an opinion. If these complicated elocutions enhance communication, muy bien. If not, however, and they are mere form perpetuated by custom, then wow, wow, wow what a pain in the tuchas.

On the positive side, my study has paid off. I can now express thoughts such as, “If I had been there, I would have done the same.”

Or, “If I go to the store later, I will buy it for you.” The second one sounds simple but it is fiendishly composed. Why, you ask? Subjunctive & Conditional & Pronouns, oh my.

Here, in Buenos Aires, I do not speak nearly enough. Many of my friends speak very good English, or are expats themselves. Repeated exposure and use have sanded the roughest edges off the phonemes so that they tumble in my mouth, poking less and less frequently. Soon, I anticipate, they will transform. I suspect that the wood will become bronze, but it is too soon to tell. And then, sliding over each other, one ting-ing lightly against the next, just possibly, they will begin to sing.

[1] “Comfort with the subjunctive form and the degree to which a second-language speaker attempts to avoid using it is a good way to gauge his or her fluency in the language. Complex use of the subjunctive is a constant pattern of everyday speech among natives but difficult to interiorize even by relatively proficient Spanish learners…”
– From Wikipedia article: Subjunctive Mood