Category Archives: Language learning

Chau, Bariloche

Nora, our landlord, and her husband Pocho

Nora, our landlord, and her husband Pocho.

We met some exceptionally nice people in Bariloche. They made us feel welcome, they made us feel more secure, and they helped us experience Argentine culture more deeply.

We saw beautiful scenery from on foot every single day, and we spent more time outdoors than we ever do at home.

These things you may already know from reading the blog. So, how’s our Spanish, right?

IMG_1635After 15 weeks in Argentina, Lou effortlessly switches back and forth between English and Spanish. His solitary play is often in Spanish. In the middle of the night or first thing in the morning, when he’s still groggy, he uses Spanish if he’s talking to Pete and English with me (someone should tell that kid I graduated with a B2 level in Spanish!). He has an American accent, most notably with Rs, but he chooses constructions that are more native-like than we would come up with. He doesn’t make mistakes between ser and estar, the two verbs that both mean to be.

Pete had a stand-out final week and left Bariloche on a high note. He would like to go to Chicago in May to take an internationally-recognized exam called the DELE that is designed to measure proficiency. He’s hoping to qualify as “advanced.”

We had a goodbye dinner at Alto el fuego, a really good parrilla restaurant where even I--the 22-year vegetarian--ate steak.

We had a goodbye dinner at Alto el fuego, a really good parrilla restaurant where even I–the 22-year vegetarian–ate steak.

And then there’s me. All along it was difficult not to measure myself against Pete—who is charming and funny in any language—even though he has 10 years of study and practice behind him. And it was difficult to be a perfectionist who loves language and also says things like “I’m going to revolver” and “She lost her bank card” (talking about myself). But I can say that I made a respectable amount of progress and have a good foundation to build on. To keep me motivated I’ve got two books waiting for me at home: a novel written in Spanish and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir translated into Spanish.

Lo que necesitamos…deshacernos de estos americanos

Matias, my teacher for the last several weeks.

Matias, my teacher for the last several weeks.

Halfway through our sabbatical, Pete and I are a little frustrated and disappointed with how much progress we’ve made learning Spanish. In my case, I had unrealistic expectations. My background in French allowed me to understand a lot relative to how much Spanish I knew. I tried to speak and realized I couldn’t say anything. And when I started to speak, I realized how confusing and confused I sounded. Two days ago I thought I did well speaking in class, and later told Pete that if I could just get the verb conjugations down I could probably have some decent conversations. Then we went to tae kwon do and I made ridiculous errors talking to Valeria. Yesterday in class I was acutely aware of how haltingly I spoke and how often I screwed up verb conjugations and tenses. It’s painful for everyone.

Because he is already conversational and can find a way to say whatever he is thinking, Pete’s language goals were to clean up his Spanish: to eliminate silly errors that have dogged him for years and to perfect his use of “por” and “para” (both mean “for” or “by”) and “ser” and “estar” (both mean “to be”). He’s at a point where the distinctions in usage are stylistic and can’t necessarily be explained by rules, which makes it difficult at times for a teacher to help him. And now it’s hard to find a teacher. He lost the first one to a ski vacation in Europe and the second to an extended visit to Buenos Aires, and others are on vacation until the new year.

Both of us wish, at times, that we weren’t living with each other. It’s too easy to come home from school and speak English for the rest of the day. At the same time, being here together with Lou has led to interactions and created opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have: daycare, tae kwon do, play dates.

Lou is our rock star. He’s una esponja (a sponge) and comes home using new words like “squat down” and “super scary plants” (from Ciro, who told Lou there are man-eating plants next to La Montaña). Lou speaks confidently and correctly, and he offers me gentle corrections. I think he truly likes being able to speak two different languages.

For me, the only way to advance is to spend less time using English and more time using Spanish. So from now on, this blog will be in Spanish. Thanks for understanding.



Argentines refer to the language they speak as castellano, not español. (In Argentina that’s “ka-stay-ZHA-no,” not “ka-stay-YA-no.”) My favorite online dictionary has this to say: the term “español” is often avoided because of its associations with the former colonizing country. The term castellano is also supposed to be more respectful of the other languages still spoken in Spain, including Basque and Catalan.

I have had a whole month of language classes (80 hours!), and yet I still refer to myself in the third person, still stop overly long mid-sentence to visualize the page of my notebook where I wrote down past tense endings, still break down completely because I don’t know how to say simple things like “try” or “leave” or “still.” I also have huge gaps. After saying “Por favor, quiero” (Please, I want…), it finally occurred to me that I sound like a barbarian.

The only solution, of course, is to keep talking and making mistakes and figuring out—after the fact—how to say things correctly.

Thank goodness for the mother of seven-year-old Otilio, a smiling, mile-a-minute talker in Lou’s tae kwan do class. Pete and I met Otilio’s mom Valeria on Lou’s second night in class, when Pete used a request for parenting advice as an excuse to vent about Lou’s tantrums. I could tell that Valeria was a generous and thoughtful person, and when Pete walked away she engaged me in conversation. And I managed. The next week we talked about our plans for Christmas and she told me about wanting to instill Christian values in her children, in part by reading them stories from the Bible, even though she doesn’t identify with any organized religion.

Valeria doesn’t speak any English, and knowing that I will see her on Wednesday and Friday nights is motivating me to try harder and spend more time on my Spanish.

Paka Paka

We have all become fans of Paka Paka, a TV channel programmed by the Argentine Ministry of Education. Lou has memorized the phrase “de lunes a viernes, temprano en la mañana y despues de comer” (Monday through Friday, at 8am and at 1:45pm), and he has several favorite shows including: Cocoricó, with Muppet-style farm animals and people; a cartoon called Ema y Gui in which everything is drawn to look like it was made of fabric; a cartoon called Zapa Zapa, starring a pair of shoes; and Los Mundos de Uli. If I had to choose a favorite—and it’s not easy—I would pick Uli.

Uli is a real, six or seven year old boy who lives with his nine year old sister Amanda, his dad and extremely pregnant mom, and a teddy bear in Buenos Aires. In every episode, Uli and his bear, and sometimes Amanda too, change into cartoon characters as they step into a secret world of adventures. Yesterday, Amanda, Uli and the bear took a trip inside their mom’s cartoon belly where they floated around in amniotic fluid with their new brother.

Cartoons are interspersed with short episodes called Así soy yo (this is how I am), showing young children from different places around Argentina at the playground, at school, dancing, cooking with a parent, or building stuff.

Earlier I was dismissive of cartoons, but that’s when we were watching the Cartoon Network and Disney. Paka Paka was created to socialize Argentine kids and teach them language and culture, and now it’s teaching all three of us.


It’s a good thing we had a fat morning watching cartoons and were rested up before our two fiestas today.


First we took a colectivo to a campground at kilometer 13,5. (When you’re heading out of town on one of the two main streets, the streets running perpendicular start to be named by their distance from the city, for example, a woman we met yesterday said “I live in the forest, at kilometer 5.”) Pete had signed us up for a party hosted by Vertice 7, the gym we just joined. Several people were already at the campground when we arrived—a mix of gym staff and members—and Pete made small talk until delicious pizzas started to appear along with bottles of soft drinks and Quilmes. I tried to answer the question “Where are you from?,” got tongue-tied, and completely lost my confidence. So then I listened to the conversation in my head that went back and forth between “These people are SO nice! You have to try!” and “I can’t say anything! I need more time!”

One of the people Pete talked with was the gym owner, a Japanese-Argentine originally from Buenos Aires. (I have seen exactly four Asians since we got to Bariloche, all tourists and two from the U.S.) Pete joked that what Bariloche needs is a Japanese restaurant, and the owner said he’d already tried that and people just aren’t interested in sushi here.

The campground had a lovely beach on Nahuel Huapi, and a gym member named Fredy took groups out on his boat for short tours of the lake. It was a beautiful day and, again, we felt really fortunate to be treated so kindly and to have an opportunity like this.

We left the gym party well before it was going to wind down in order to make our next party, the end-of-year fiesta for Primeros Pasos.

Last Thursday, Pete accompanied Lou on a surprise (to us) field trip to Gymnasio 3, a city gym that is driving distance from school, to practice for the end-of-year celebration. But that sneak-peek in no way prepared him for what we experienced tonight.

DSC_0120The unpaved parking lot was jammed with cars, and I assumed that there was more than one event happening. When we walked into the gym, I saw Seño. Pato (the school owner and director) talking into a microphone in front of a professional video camera, and bleachers on both sides of the gym were crowded with people as well as the gym floor in front of the performance area. It must be the end-of-year celebration for multiple schools, I said to Pete.

No. It was just Primeros Pasos and its hundred or so children and their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

We were witness to a production requiring the vision, planning, coordination and expense of a professional theater performance. One involving a hundred children ages 2 through 5.

Lou's teacher Seño. Andre has a big heart and an even bigger smile.

Lou’s teacher, Seño. Andre, has a big heart and a big  smile.

There was Seño. Pato, a powerful and dramatic force, acting as ringleader for the Primeros Pasos Circo. There were hired acrobats and clowns, along with a DJ and videographer. Each class of children had coordinated costumes—animals, flowers, butterflies, ballerinas, mimes, and clowns—and choreographed movements to perform. It was something to behold.

Doy un suspiro

It’s been two weeks since I started Spanish classes. The initial jubilation—I can make a sentence! my pronunciation isn’t that bad!—has given way to a more realistic assessment of my abilities and how very far I have to go.

Our class has covered so much material: present tense; simple past; gerunds; imperfect; plus-que-parfait (I only know what it’s called in French); simple future; replacing direct and indirect objects with articles and pronouns; a variety of prepositions; and of course, a long list of vocabulary. I feel my head about to go under water, and I think my classmates Alex and Ramon are in the same place.

On Tuesday I went on the outing organized by the school to I could get in some practice speaking. A young teacher named Matías, just back from a year of travel in northern Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, took Ramon and me to Lago Gutierrez in the afternoon to enjoy the scenery and drink mate. Pete was in his private lesson so I brought Lou, too. Matías was patient with my fractured, error-filled Spanish, and I surprised myself with what I was able to say.

There’s something about the classroom dynamic—maybe because I suspect the teacher is constantly evaluating—that can make it harder for me to perform well there. Language learning as an adult is such a head game!