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.
Anyone fancy learning Spanish in Buenos Aires? Sí? Good choice. The Argentinian capital is one of the most happening cities in the world right now, with its cutting-edge clothes stores, über-hip restaurants and nightlife that never stops before dawn. Plus, thanks to the ridiculously favourable 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 round the world to sit inside and recite verb tables? Twenty-six-year-old Paula Capodistrias wasn’t convinced this is what visitors to her city really wanted, and so she founded Español Andando. Translating as ‘Spanish on the move’, it does exactly what it says on the tin.
The basic premise of the four-day course is to get down to some more practical language usage. Why act out faltering roleplays with fellow students if you can get out there and ask directions from one of the three million Spanish speakers outside? It seems like such glaringly obvious common sense to do a four-day course at just £35.
I meet Paula’s business partner, Julieta, on a street corner in San Telmo, a district famous for its sprawling Sunday antiques market. Within a few minutes, we’re joined by a mixed bag of students: middle-aged Americans, a gay Irish couple and two Londoners keen to make an effort for their Chilean daughter-in-law.
So, time to get down to business, and what better venue than one of the area’s bric-a-brac-style bars? After working our way through some introductory phrases, Julieta moves on to basic verbs – a recap for some members of the group, and a crash course for others. Then, armed with a picture of the Argentinian football team we learn prepositions. “Where is Gonzalez?” 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 cry of “Vamos!”, Julieta leads us out on to the cobbled pavement outside to introduce task number one: asking for the nearest bus stop. One of the Irish contingency steps up.
“If you don’t understand a word, say ‘Más despacio, por favor’. It means ‘more slowly’,” Julieta encourages. “Or, you could do what I do,” adds American George, “and nod in all the right places, say ‘gracias’, then ask someone else as soon as they’re out of sight.”
But it seems our bar room briefing has paid off. Bus stop mission is accomplished without a hitch and now all we have to do is catch the bus itself. The other great advantage of this course is it gets you on the city’s inside track in more ways than one. None of the group had yet taken a city bus and all welcomed Julieta’s guidance: “You need 80 centavos [13p] in change and you put it in the funnel-like machine next to the driver”.
Our destination is Retiro bus terminal, which is a rather intimidating place. (Think of the amount of lines Maradona’s done in a lifetime and convert them to bus companies: they’re countless, in row after row after row.) Fortunately, by now we’ve all got into the spirit of things and we’re happy to be set loose on a quest to find the best ticket prices.
Again we find ourselves not just learning the language but also how to get by in a new country. “Whoa, I didn’t know long-distance buses were so good here,” says Brian as we jot down a bargain fare (about £20 to get right across the country, including seats like a first-class airline and a hot meal). “If I had done this course first, I wouldn’t have pre-booked internal flights.”
Day one ends with an introduction to the Subte, the city’s underground system, and a debrief in a funky Cuban bar, where we drink happy-hour mojitos until we’re convinced we’re fluent.
Sadly, it’s not tripping off the tongue quite so easily the next day. With directions and transport covered (or a least to a workable level), day two tackles shopping in the trendier-than-thou Palermo district. This is followed on day three by a trip to the theatre district, with Julieta slipping in a bit of reading practice using the local papers.
For the final session, there’s an evening start time and we base ourselves in Acabar, a hugely popular restaurant known for its kitsch decor and huge collection of board games. Too cool for a regular menu, Acabar prefers to offer diners a batch of coloured flashcards with one dish written on each. They’re such perfect props for a language lesson that everyone presumes Julieta made them herself.
“Qué rico!” How delicious! I exclaim, digging into my gnocchi. I confess I don’t actually mean it (Acabar’s more about atmosphere than the quality of the food), but I’m keen to practice my new vocab. Everyone agrees the course has been a great confidence builder and we all want to keep it up. “I’ve tried learning before from books, but I never remember it when I’m out and about,” says Sue from Twickenham. “This has been far more beneficial.” And, as we *** glasses, with a chorus of “salud!”, we all wish school language lessons could have been half as much fun. •
• Classes cost £35 for three afternoons and one evening. See www.espanol-andando.com.ar or call Julieta on +54 911-6539-8866 (or 15-6539-8866 if calling from Buenos Aires).
• Vicky Baker travelled to Buenos Aires with Global Village