Spanglish is like speed dating, but for people wanting to pick up a new language rather than a new partner. We gathered, a gaggle of eager beaver foreign students and calmer, more sophisticated locals, in a dark basement bar during happy hour on Friday night (‘after office’ as after-work drinks to celebrate the beginning of the weekend are known here). The lights were low, the music was high: not an auspicious start. With our names tagged to our chests with little sticky badges, we were assigned to our tables and hesitantly introduced ourselves to our first conversation partners.
The format is simple. Each table has a mixture of Spanish speakers and English speakers. You chat for 5-10 minutes in one language, then the organisers swoop round, barking ‘change languages’ and you switch to the other. It´s a neat idea: everyone gets to practice their language skills with native speakers, always the holy grail in developing your talking and listening abilities. Then you move tables and repeat the process with a new group.
On Friday there were some fascinating people on the merry-go-round of chat. A very poised, petite, middle-aged woman called Ester, who spoke English beautifully, told my first table how she’d originally learned the language through her passion for Elvis songs. We also discussed the Argentinian penchant for late dining and socialising, with Ester regaling us with the tale of a New Year she’d spent in the US as the guest of an American friend. They’d eaten inexplicably (to Ester) early, gone to the cinema and by midnight were home in pyjamas waiting for the clock to strike 12 on TV. She marvelled at the difference with her home town, where no one would eat before 10, and where they chat at the table for hours afterwards.
Then it was on to Monica, who described how to enjoy mate, the bitter local tea made from herbs, which is the focus of an almost ritualised practice here. On a weekend stroll along the promenade edging the Rio Plata, I witnessed the flasks, the squat gourd-type mugs with perforated silver straws, the special leather bags to carry all the mate-making paraphernalia, like bigger versions of old camera cases. According to Monica, the key is to drink your mate tepid, not hot, and to add plenty of sugar. And never refuse it if you’re offered it, as it’s an overture of friendship, welcome and courtesy. At the next table was Leandro, who had spent 18 months working in Ibiza, and despite having a steady job in Buenos Aires as a tour operator, was missing the glittering night club spectacles he’d got used to on the most raucous Balearic isle. He urged me to go there as soon as I could. I still haven’t been, and though I do hanker after it occasionally, I fear I’m in the wrong age bracket these days.
On the English-speaking side, there was Laura, a university language student from the south of England, who had a year to ‘just go abroad and speak Spanish’ and who’d decided that the best way to practice would be to go to as many night clubs as possible. And Demming, the wonderfully fervent Californian was staying with a welcoming young local couple, who the previous night had invited to him to an intimate birthday dinner party. Then there was Su-Ming from Singapore, who worked on a cruise ship and had a month in Buenos Aires before heading off to her next ocean-side stop.
At times it was hard to hear anyone in any language above the ‘after office’ melee on the other side of the bar, and I left with a head full of half-formed impressions, a dribble of new words and a handful of conversations cut short by the ‘move table’ rhythm. But I’ll definitely be giving Spanglish another go, if only in the hope of hearing more from Ester about how to learn English from Elvis!
If you liked this, you might also enjoy:
- Some commentary on Buenos Aires
- Some of my opinions on the Argentinian lifestyle
- A glimpse into the tougher side of travelling – being robbed in Buenos Aires
- My introductory post on my 100 Countries Project
- And some of my ‘travel tips’ on Argentina – with the caveat that these recommendations are several years old now
- This list of bloggers who write about language learning