In June 2015, I packed my bags, bid my farewells and set off looking for an adventure with a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires.
Two years later, I can confidently say that it was a life-changing decision and the experience of living here has taught me a lot – both about myself as a person and the world we all live in. Not only have I become fluent in Spanish and fallen in love with Argentine culture, I’ve also learned to appreciate home much more as well.
Why move to Argentina?
As I came to the end of my time in university, I felt I needed a change. I wanted to see the world, experience something different and get away an unfulfilling job and a mundane routine in Dublin.
I settled on South America as my destination and decided to learn Spanish. The decision to go to Argentina specifically came later, after I met my now girlfriend while travelling in Spain. Once that relationship developed, it seemed the obvious choice to start my South American adventure in her home city – Buenos Aires.
The unexpected language barrier
Before I moved to Argentina, I thought I spoke Spanish pretty well. Sure, I was far from fluent but in my online language exchanges and during brief conversations in Spain, I’d always been able to communicate effectively even if I didn’t speak or understand everything perfectly.
When I arrived in Argentina, the language barrier hit me like a freight train. The way people speak in Argentina is different from any other Spanish speaking country and it took me some time to adapt. The first couple of months, I really struggled to get used to the Argentine accent and understand people.
There are a couple of obvious differences that make Argentine Spanish stand out – the letter ‘ll’ is pronounced like ‘sh’ instead of the ‘y’ pronunciation more commonly used in Spain. There’s also a unique way of conjugating verbs for the second person singular (you), which takes a little getting used to, for example, instead of saying “tú haces”, people will say “vos hacés”.
When I arrived in Argentina, the language barrier hit me like a freight train. The way people speak in Argentina is different from any other Spanish speaking country and it took me some time to adapt.
But it wasn’t these big differences that were the problem for me; it was all the smaller things – from the subtle sounds of the accent to the amount of vocabulary that’s different. For example, if you’ve ever learnt Spanish, you’ll probably have come across the word mantequilla, which means “butter”. Not so in Argentina – the word is manteca. In a Spanish supermarket, you might buy melocotones (peaches); but in Argentina the word is duraznos.
And this is before getting into the swear words, che’s and other colourful language that Argentines use on a daily basis. All of this meant that perfecting my Spanish was a steep learning curve. I learned to communicate quite quickly, but it was much longer before I became able to truly express my thoughts and opinions in group conversations.
When the homesickness hits
I said back at the beginning of this post, that living abroad has made me appreciate home even more. The little things you take for granted at home – like being able to chat with your parents anytime you like or go for a walk to your favourite quiet places – all become a big deal when you can’t have them anymore.
In that sense, I’ve developed a kind of love-hate relationship with Buenos Aires. I love the people and the culture, but at the same time, I’m constantly frustrated by how much more difficult simple things often are than they would be at home.
How much Spanish did I end up speaking every day?
In relation to language-learning, the biggest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is that just being in another country doesn’t mean you’re immersed in its language.
You might think that while living in Buenos Aires, I was immersed in Spanish all day and that I’d inevitably become fluent, but that wasn’t the reality.
For the most part, I was fully immersed in Spanish one day a week – on Sundays when we’d often spend the day with my girlfriend’s family.
But during the week, I was working as an English teacher and speaking English in the classroom. When I came home, I spoke more English with my girlfriend than Spanish (relationships have a habit of staying in the language they start in!). And since we didn’t have a TV, most of the shows we watched were US or British productions on Netflix.
You can easily see how I didn’t really use that much more Spanish in my daily routine that I would have if I was living at home in Ireland.
So, what does this all mean for you?
It means that immersion isn’t about living in a country where your target language is spoken.
Immersion is something you choose to do in your daily life, and nowadays, you can do it anywhere. Ironically, I’ve done a much better job immersing myself in Russian while learning it than I ever did with Spanish, even though I’ve never spent a single day in a Russian speaking country!
As I embark upon my next challenge living abroad – 3 months in Rio de Janeiro later this year – I’ve been reflecting upon what it means to live abroad. In many ways, I think it’s about people more than anything. The people you meet and the people you miss. The way life is the very same, but yet so different.
James Granahan is a language blogger and coach from Ireland. He is fascinated by language learning and he speaks English, Spanish, French and Russian. He is also the founder of Lingua Materna.
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