The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in the culture. VICKY BAKER takes a four-day Spanish course in Buenos Aires.
Does anyone want to learn Spanish in Buenos Aires? Yes? Good choice. Argentina’s capital is one of the liveliest cities in the world right now, with cutting-edge clothing stores, ultra-trendy restaurants and nightlife that never stops before dawn. Plus, thanks to the ridiculously favorable exchange rate, joining a language school here can cost the price of a few CDs and a course book in the UK.
But the question is, do you really want to fly halfway around the world to sit inside and recite verb tables? Twenty-six-year-old Paula Capodistrias wasn’t convinced that this was what visitors to her town really wanted, so she founded Español Andando. Translated as “Spanish on the move”, it does exactly what it says on the box.
The basic principle of the four-day course is to move on to more practical use of the language. Why play shaky role-playing games with other students if you can go out and ask directions from one of the three million Spanish speakers outside? It seems so obvious to do a four day course for just £35.
I meet Paula’s business partner, Julieta, on a street corner in San Telmo, a neighborhood famous for its vast Sunday antiques market. Within minutes, we are joined by a mix of college students: middle-aged Americans, an Irish gay couple, and two Londoners eager to make an effort for their Chilean stepdaughter.
So it’s time to get down to business, and what better venue than one of the area’s bric-a-brac style bars? After going through a few introductory sentences, Julieta moves on to basic verbs – a recap for some group members and a crash course for others. Then, armed with a photo of the Argentine football team, we learn the prepositions. “Where’s González?” she asks. “Gonzalez is near Crespo and next to Heinze,” we recite.
By the time we’ve finished our drinks, we’ve covered all the vocabulary we need to understand directions. Then, with a shout of “Vamos!”, Julieta leads us onto the cobblestone sidewalk outside to introduce task number one: ask for the nearest bus stop. One of the Irish contingents intervenes.
“If you don’t understand a word, say ‘Más despacio, por favor’. It means “slower,” encourages Julieta. “Or, you could do what I do,” adds American George, “and nod your head in the right places, say ‘gracias’, then ask someone else as soon as they’re out of sight. “
But it seems our briefing at the bar paid off. The bus stop mission is completed without a hitch and now all we have to do is get on the bus itself. The other big advantage of this route is that it allows you to access the interior of the city in more ways than one. None of the group had yet taken the city bus and all welcomed Julieta’s advice: “You need 80 centavos [13p] in change and you put it in the funnel-shaped machine next to the driver”.
Our destination is the Retiro bus station, which is a rather intimidating place. (Think of the number of lines Maradona traveled in his lifetime and convert them to bus companies: they are countless, row after row after row.) Fortunately, we all got into the spirit of things and we are happy to be set free on a quest to find the best ticket prices.
Again, we find ourselves not only learning the language, but also getting along in a new country. ‘Whoa, didn’t know long distance buses were so good here,’ says Brian as we note a great fare (around £20 to cross the country including seats like a first class airline and a meal hot ). “If I had taken this course first, I would not have booked domestic flights in advance.”
The first day ends with an introduction to the Subte, the city’s underground system, and a debriefing at a trendy Cuban bar, where we drink mojitos at happy hour until we’re convinced we’re fluent.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t trip over the tongue so easily the next day. With directions and transportation covered (or at least to a workable level), day two tackles shopping in trendy Palermo. This is followed on the third day by a trip to the theater district, with Julieta slipping in some reading practice using local newspapers.
For the final session, there is an early evening hour and we settle into Acabar, a very popular restaurant known for its kitsch decor and extensive collection of board games. Too cool for a regular menu, Acabar prefers to offer diners a set of colorful memory cards with a dish written on each. These are such perfect accessories for a language course that everyone assumes Julieta made them herself.
“Que rico!” How delicious! I exclaim as I dip into my gnocchi. I confess that I don’t really think so (Acabar is more about the atmosphere than the quality of the food), but I want to practice my new vocabulary. Everyone agrees that the course has been a great confidence builder and we all want to keep it going. “I’ve tried to learn from books before, but I never remember them when I go out,” says Sue from Twickenham. “It was much more beneficial.” And, as we kiss glasses, with a chorus of “salud!”, we all wish language lessons at school were half the fun. •
• Courses cost £35 for three afternoons and one evening. See www.espanol-andando.com.ar or call Julieta at +54 911-6539-8866 (or 15-6539-8866 if calling from Buenos Aires).
• Vicky Baker traveled to Buenos Aires with Global Village