Obviously one of my reasons for studying abroad was to learn Spanish. I’m not sure what the point of majoring in a language is in college if you don’t also visit the place where it is spoken, learn about its people and culture, and prove you can function in another country. My last Spanish conversation and grammar class before coming here was in fall 2011, and since then, the Spanish classes I have taken have been very academic looks at culture, literature, and linguistics. Though I learned a great deal in these classes, I was not practicing my conversation abilities; I was instead analyzing the stanza-structure of twentieth-century Spanish poetry (obviously this skill helps tremendously in my everyday life). I would even venture to say that at the end of my sophomore year at college, I had an easier time speaking Portuguese conversationally than Spanish.
I have pretty high standards for myself academically (who knew?), and so I do get discouraged when I mess up. The people in my life in Buenos Aires all speak English, so while I do talk in Spanish a good portion of the time, I always have the “Can I ask you what word I should be saying in English” crutch. My struggles with Spanish are pretty notable, so much so that yesterday, at my tutoring session for one of my classes, my tutor actually complimented me on my correct use of the past tense. It doesn’t help that Spanish has two past tenses and the subjunctive (used for “the worlds of mystery, desire, and doubt,” as explained to me by my friend’s father), making hard sentences even harder to express. I know I use the wrong gender for words all the time or say things in the wrong verb tense. I feel just as frustrated today as I did during my first days here.
So the question I ask myself every day is, has my Spanish actually improved since coming to Argentina?
I would have to say yes, just by the fact that I end up practicing hours and hours every day. I know that my accent is still a little off, that I can’t say my rs, ts, or ds correctly, and that I still use words that are from Spain or Mexico instead of Argentina. However, I got the double-l makes the sh sound down perfectly, and with some words, I can fake the right musicality of a native speaker. I can at least hold my own in a conversation with strangers about where the bus stop is, why the line is taking so long at the grocery, or about the visa process in the elevator at the Brazilian consulate. I try as hard as possible to remind myself of the positive strides I have made in speaker and to shake off my frequent errors.
My realization that my Spanish isn’t as bad as I think it is (and the inspiration for this blog post) was a funny situation from my Latin America in International Politics Class. A professor from Miami (Ohio) University was visiting the Catholic University where I take this class to give a presentation, and a young man from the State Department accompanied him. The guy from the State Department has been tasked with giving a brief introduction the speaker. He appeared to be in his early 20s, maybe in his first or second job.
He begins to speak—oh man, his Spanish is awful! His accent is terrible, as he is pronouncing the letter h(silent in Spanish), referring to the region as latino America (América latina), and throwing in English phrases that are easily translated to Spanish. He looks cool and calm, despite the fact that he is embarrassing himself in front of this professor, the faculty of the International Relations department, and a room full of students who all speak at least some English. It was unclear to me how this kid was hired at the State Department, especially considering how many good Spanish-speakers live in the United States. I was sitting with some other exchange students, and we realized that we probably could have given a more fluid and understandable introduction than this guy. And upon seeing the fact that this fumbling guy was able to land a Spanish-speaking job for the U.S. government, I felt a lot better about my own abilities.