A Guide To Buenos Aires: Hacking the Spanish language in 2 months – month 1
Achieving conversational fluency in a language is apparently easier than you think. The key focus for me on my upcoming trip to Buenos Aires is to get as far down the track of being conversationally fluent in Spanish as possible, and using a couple of resources (discussed below) and a bare-bones approach to grammar, I think I have a good chance of getting most of the way there.
The commonly held view is that achieving conversational fluency takes many, many hours of practise (up to 1,760 hours in fact, according to one source), when in reality a number of people have now shown that it is possible within 3 months of learning. Generally speaking the rule of thumb is around 4 hours of practise a day will get you there in 3 months, 6 months at the outside if you struggle to stick to a consistent learning schedule, or are juggling multiple interruptions such as work.
Hacking the Spanish language in 2 months
Choosing tutors and making friends
So let’s take a look at the approach that I have been using to prepare in the 4 weeks leading up to departing for Buenos Aires, noting daily language lessons are planned for the month that I am in Buenos Aires too.
Step one – find a great tutor. Let me pause here to stress this point – find a great tutor. It is obvious enough to say, but it is very important not to settle for second best on this step. This takes a bit of work. I approached the issue by posting a very specific advertisement on Gumtree along the lines of:
‘Argentinian Spanish tutor required for 5 days a week, Mon-Fri, 2 hours per day, preferably in the afternoon. Previous tutoring and language learning experience essential. Please be prepared to discuss lesson plans, and how you will optimise the tuition time to maximise preparing me for basic conversation given a short lead time in leaving for Buenos Aires (4 weeks). I will offer $20-25 per hour for tuition, candidate-dependent.’
If you’re anything like me you will very quickly receive 10-15 responses, from which I chose 5 to meet face-to-face over a coffee interview, or had a phone interview with. All the hard work paid off as there was one clear standout amongst everyone that got in touch, and my Spanish has ultimately benefitted no end from choosing this person as my tutor.
An added benefit of interviewing multiple tutors is the applicants are often backpackers or temporary holiday entrants into the country, and can be quite outgoing and open to meeting new people regardless of whether they are going to get a job with you or not. Although I said no to 4 potential tutors, each was very happy to stay in touch and offered to put me in touch with their friends in Buenos Aires, meaning I can hit the ground running on my Spanish and getting to know the local scene when I arrive.
A quick note on the nuances of Spanish spoken in different countries
The nuances of the Spanish language differ between Spain and the various South American countries (such as Chile, Colombia etc – see this Wikipedia post for a good run-through) in much the same way as Australian English differs to UK and US English with its sounds, dialects, pronunciations and colloquialisms. Therefore in travelling to Argentina it is best to seek an Argentinian Spanish tutor, or at least a tutor from a neighbouring South American country that has had reasonable in-country experience in Argentina. For myself I ended up choosing a tutor from Colombia who had spent a lot of time in Argentina. Note that if you have to settle for a non-Argentinian Spanish tutor for your trip to Argentina, this isn’t the end of the world. The Spanish you learn will still be very transferable, you just won’t have local pronunciation (a good example is the use of ‘ll’ such as in ‘paella’, which in Spain is pronounced ‘paeya’ and in Argentina is pronounced ‘paesha’).
Getting down to business – separate your grammar from your conversational learning
Step two – making quick strides by ignoring grammar. Spanish is one of those terrific (read: ball-breaking) languages where every verb has its own modifier for every pronoun (I/you/he/she/we/they) in the past, present and future tense. What this means is that to be able to use the verb ‘to try’ (probar, for those taking notes) in every conceivable way (I try/I tried/I am trying/you try/ you tried…you get the picture) you need to learn ~20 different 2-word phrases. If you’re memorizing new words at a rate of say 50 per day, that’s 2 new verbs you can learn a day. Therefore to learn all ~12,300 verbs in Spanish in this way would take you, give or take, 17 years! That’s going to eat into a lot of tango time.
So, a far better approach is to ignore grammar all together to begin with. Instead, make sure your tutor focuses on teaching you simple sentences that are going to allow you to navigate common situations in daily life while you are in Buenos Aires, and practise, practise, practise these conversational one-liners back and forth with your tutor.
By way of examples, we have been structuring my 2-hour one-on-one classes as follows:
- 30-45 minutes prior to the class starting: take this time to revise by yourself everything that you have learnt the day prior. Set yourself the challenge of not letting the tutor catch you out on any of the new vocabulary or sentences that you have learnt the day before.
- First 20-30 minutes: revision of yesterday’s (or further, once the tutoring has been ongoing for more than one day) teachings. Get your tutor to randomly test you on vocabulary, the key sentences you have learned, and try and make small modifications as you go to test yourself. For example, if you learnt how to ask where the park is (‘Donde esta el parque?’), what other vocabulary have you learnt that you can use in the place of ‘parque’? Can you talk about the park being next to or near something else? Write down again any vocabulary or sentences that you can’t remember on the first try.
- Next 60 minutes: learning the new topic for the day. This could be transport/commuting, numbers, shopping, the home etc., and should be broken down first into key new vocabulary, and secondly useful sentences worth memorising. Get the tutor to pronounce everything to you first, then pronounce it yourself seeking correction, then write it down and move on. This is the fastest way to learn.
- Last 30 minutes: drill the new vocabulary and sentences that you have learnt. If you have been learning directions, take a walk outside with your tutor and put the learnings into practise. Point to objects you have learnt as you say the word, and get the tutor to help you use the words in new sentences.
Here is an example of the topics covered in my first week of Spanish tuition:
- Day 1: basic vocabulary – hello; my name is; days of the week; months of the year; morning, afternoon, night; today/yesterday etc.
- Day 2: revision of day 1, plus transport/commuting vocabulary and key sentences (‘When is the next train?’; ‘Does this bus stop on _______ street?’)
- Day 3: revision of days 1 and 2, plus customs/airport arrival and the kitchen vocabulary and common sentences
- Day 4: revision of all prior days, plus key sentences for seeking understanding (‘Could you repeat more slowly please?’; ‘I don’t understand’; ‘Do you speak English’) and the living room vocabulary and key sentences
- Day 5: revision of all prior days, plus numbers (0-100) and key vocabulary and sentences for telling and talking about the time
…and so on. If you continue on this way, regularly reinforcing as you go, in a matter of only 2 weeks you will have covered an immense amount of material and memorised 300-500 new words alone. Considering the average American adult speaks with a vocabulary of up to 20,000 words (according to a cursory Google search), covering approximately 2.5% of a new language with near-total recall in 10 days is pretty good going!
If you want, towards the end of the second week you can look to start to introduce some grammar around key verbs if tuition has been proceeding smoothly, otherwise I would recommend just continuing to concentrate on memorising important sentences and key vocabulary. When you get in-country the grammar will come automatically from listening, much the same as how a baby learns the rules of grammar.
Step 3 – supplementing class: Speaking Spanish is only half – or I would argue 40% – of the battle. The other 60% is learning to understand spoken Spanish, by a native, at the speed a native speaker would naturally speak in. No amount of drilling vocabulary and sentences will equip you to hit the ground communicating if you haven’t practised your listening comprehension.
Once you have around 2 weeks of tuition under your belt I recommend beginning to watch Spanish language movies (preferably Argentinian movies if you are travelling to Argentina) with English subtitles every night in the lead-up to your departure. I found it useful to substitute the odd night with English movies with Spanish subtitles, which helps greatly with broadening your vocabulary, but make the majority of your movie-viewing time spoken Spanish movies to practise your comprehension. Here are a couple of movies to get you started – although be warned, La Mala Educacion explores in graphic detail issues such as child abuse and sexuality:
And this is where I am currently up to. I will continue Spanish lessons here until leaving for Buenos Aires Tuesday-week, and commence Spanish lessons in Buenos Aires the day after arriving. Look for the second post in this series – ‘A Guide To Buenos Aires: Hacking the Spanish language in 2 months – month 2’ part way through my trip to Argentina.