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My First Spanish Lesson in Buenos Aires

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How bad is it? I wonder as I sit there talking to Betina while she observes me, and in a few seconds her furrowed brow and shaking head reveal the answer before she even says it. Bad news.

“To be honest, Amy, I’m not sure I can help you.”

I knew it. I’m a hopeless case.

Ave de 9 Julio Evita building in Buenos Aires

I met Betina on the Buenos Aires Craigslist. She is supposed to be my Spanish tutor, but apparently she overestimated just how much Spanish knowledge I had coming into this meeting.

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    “You said you studied Spanish for one year,” she says accusatorially.

    Well, it depends on what you mean by “studied.” I took the required one year of Spanish classes in high school, and if you count singing along to Juanes’ “La Camisa Negra” and the “Que Tiempo Hace Hoy?” song, then yes, I “studied” Spanish for one year.

    Betina exhales through pursed lips and picks up her flashcards. “Let’s try this anyway,” she says. “We’ll start easy.”

    The next hour can only be described as one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I am a writer. I got a Bachelor’s degree in Telecommunication. Communicating is kind of my thing. I relish in the nuances of the English language; I pride myself in being able to select my words as carefully as a jeweler selects diamonds to set in a ring. To come from the U.S. with proficiency in the English language, and then to be thrown into a country whose language is Spanish and to have no more knowledge of it than my Peruvian host Manuel’s 1-year-old son is…degrading. Embarrassing. Humiliating. I feel like a baby, slobbering all over myself and squirming around on the floor on my stomach, while everyone else is a sophisticated adult, striding effortlessly past me.

    What compounds the problem is Betina’s darn Argentinean accent! It’s very, very different from Peruvian or any other Spanish accent I’ve ever heard. It sounds more Italian, less clear, and very rapid. Argentines pronounce the “ll” and “y”—which usually have a “yuh” sound—as a “sh” sound. So things like “yo” and “llamo” are “sho” and “sha-mo.” It sounds terrible to me.

    Betina is ruthless. When she asks me a question in Spanish and I respond in English, she demands, “Say it in Spanish.” That’s kind of like leading me to the edge a cliff and saying, “Okay, now fly,” when I DON’T EVEN HAVE WINGS.

    When I try to answer with what few Spanish words I know, she demands, “In complete sentences, Amy.”

    Well, that’s impossible. I am flustered and feel like giving up.

    “Don’t worry,” she tells me, “I tell this to my little kids too.”

    Great, so now I’m a child. I’m reminded of when I was four years old and tried desperately to write my first name. Three letters: A-m-y. Seems easy, right? But that pesky “y” with its long tail is so hard to master when you lack the motor skills.

    Halfway through our meeting, I am struggling, rifling through the shelves of my brain and dusting off words I haven’t used in the six years since Spanish class.

    At the end of the hour, Betina looks physically exhausted. She sighs again as she tidies up all the sheets and flashcards splayed out on the café table.

    “It will get better,” she assures me. “The first few classes are always tough.”

    At least the first class was free.

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