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Spanish tutoring lessons, Buenos Aires Spanish language schools
By: Ian Mount & Cintra Scott (justin) 2012.01.04

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After three and a half years together and six months of solo and separate Spanish tutoring lessons we moved to Buenos Aires to learn a new culture and answer pressing questions like Who invented the Soccer Mullet, and, more important, why? We've always been one of those happy couples that's both independent and romantic at the same time. But we pushed that happiness to the edge by taking the same language class. Now, with 200 class hours and countless time with solo tutors between us, we know better.

Ella dijo;Vamos a Aprender Juntos?

Shall We Learn Together?

They say the best way to learn a language is to have an affair with a native speaker. But I think that'd be bad for a relationship. So our choice was: Spanish classes together or separately. I hoped we could split the difference by learning in separate classrooms at the same school, the Centro Universitario de Idiomas, recommended by an Argentine friend.

When we arrived at CUI for our placement tests, I think we both felt instantly comfortable. I know I did. Diego, the jovial program administrator, took down our info while sipping mate (yerba mate tea) from a hollowed bone. During a class break, all the students seemed to be smoking two cigarettes at once while gesticulating dangerously. A mural on the wall depicted the founding of Argentina; or maybe it was some wild gaucho parade in the pampas. Most importantly, the cafe; con leche and medialunas (croissants) were top-notch.

Let me admit up front: Ian speaks Spanish much better than I do. When Diego asked us a question, Ian was well into a response before I'd decided whether to address him as Usted, or vos (the variation on the informal tu; here in Argentina). So I was shocked when we were both placed in the same class.

It turned out, there were a grand total of three advanced intermediate students that month at CUI;and we were two of them. So, Diego assured us we could drive the course content based on what we wanted to learn. I couldn't believe it: Paying less than $6 an hour for semi-private tutoring seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. Problem was, we both wanted to steer the class based on our very distinct learning styles.

He said: Can You Imitate Dr. Evil?
Podes Imitar a Dr. Evil?

Like Cintra said, our brains work in different ways. To simplify it, I ask "How?"; and try to parrot what people say, while Cintra says "Why?"; to learn the rules for future reference. My theory is that if you can do a passable impersonation of Austin Powers, you can pronounce a foreign language correctly, especially if it's one as over-the-top as Argentine Spanish. Of course, if you imitate too well when you still have the vocabulary of a pea, people will start answering you at Mach 3 and you'll be left standing silent with your mouth open like a stunned goldfish. Admittedly, it's cool when this happens, but it's also sad that your only response is "Que?";

The class we took at CUI had grammar lessons and unstructured conversation, so it fed both our needs. We talked about current events to work on day-to-day speech, read stories to learn vocab, and studied grammar to put it all together. But events conspired against us. Our teacher was muy timida; very timid; and the only other student, a Korean girl, never spoke Spanish outside of class. So Cintra and I;who don't suffer those problems;butted heads as we both tried to run the show. That's not good for love or learning. When you're still learning how to say, "The cat climbed the tree,"; you really shouldn't be directing the class. Interview the teacher first, to make sure she is both pushy and smart. And if you're planning to take a class together, make sure it's a bigger one;but no more than, say, 10 people;where you can learn from the other kids.

Ella dijo: Pero Mas Pequeno Puede Ser Mejor
But Smaller Can Be Better

On the bright side, our teacher knew from the get-go that we both flubbed the subjunctive and misused gerunds in our placement tests, so majority rules we studied those two grammar subjects first. I was happy to have the opportunity to ask the teacher why the subjunctive is used to express wishes and desires. Meanwhile, Ian didn't ask why; he simply used the subjunctive to express his wish to move on to more practical matters like how to buy tickets to next weekend's soccer match.

The truth was that the classroom size was much better for me than for Ian because it forced me to speak even when I didn't know the answer. I hate making mistakes and sounding dumb. I'm blushing just thinking about some of the things I've said in Spanish (hint: embarazada does not mean embarrassed). In theory, I know I can't learn a foreign language without making a lot of mistakes. In practice, I tend to spend too much time learning the rules of grammar and not enough time applying them.

(As an aside, I think it was definitely odd and probably annoying for the third student to be in a tiny classroom with a couple. She dropped out after a few weeks. Lo siento, chica.)

He said: Falling Down in Front of Those You Love
Fracasar Ante las Personas que Amos

In the end, I think Cintra and I learned amazing amounts more because of than in spite of the fact that we were together. When I'd want to say, "Yeah, yeah, move on, I know enough about the subjunctive"; Cintra would make our prof explain it one more and that's when it would finally make sense. And when Cintra felt insecure about speaking, I was there to say, in a helpful (er, sorta) way, "Just say it what are they going to do, kill you for using the wrong tense?"; We were like one of those couples who drive each other nuts but really are in love. Think When Harry Met Sally (or, well, Cuando Harry Conocio; a Sally).

Still, it's not an experience I'd replicate. It's less harrowing to stutter and flail in front of strangers. Plus, if you take classes apart you have better stories to tell over steak and wine.

Ella dijo: Es la Hora para Lecciones Privadas
Time for Private Lessons

CUI had supplied us with a grammar text, a collection of short stories and a cultural activity workbook. In any one of the books, there was more to do than the course time allowed. So when the course ended after two months of commuting 30 minutes each way to sit in a classroom with the same guy I had just had breakfast with at home, I decided to carry on on my own. I asked fellow expats and found Lorena (more on that in the sidebar), an experienced tutor who shares my interests in journalism, literary theory, and pop culture. Lorena charges me 25 pesos an hour (about $8.33 an hour) for private lessons. We work from my grammar text and from photocopies she assembles. With Lorena, I can steer the class to cover what I want to know, without Ian rolling his eyes or hurrying a subject along. And the one-on-one situation means I have to talk even when I don't know the answer.

He said: Maradona and Malbec Hair
Maradona y Pelo de Color Malbec

A few months later, I took a second class, this time at Instituto de Enseanza Superior en Lenguas Vivas ;Juan Ramon Fernandez; thankfully known merely as Lenguas Vivas (living languages), which is famous for the fact that Jorge Luis Borges's dad taught there.

It was better, more fun; and a third of CUI's price. Set in one of Buenos Aires's bazillion beautiful and decaying French-style mansions, the class was run by an outgoing and no-nonsense teacher, Noemi, who'd dyed her hair that weird iridescent burgundy that seems indigenous to this place (I call the color "malbec" after the local wine). She not only pushed us through grammar work and comprehension exercises (learning via videos of contemporary TV shows really works) but she also made time each four-hour class (thank God for breaks) to discuss pressing issues like why Argentines are so obsessed with soccer-legend-*****-cokehead-*****-TV-star Diego Maradona. And, also important, the class was nine people from around the world: With students from France and Japan in your class, you can't fall back on English. The only downside was that the class was 12 hours a week, which is about as much as I can stand. Still, the other students and I have stayed friends, and only speak Spanish to each other, and that's what it's all about.

Photos by Ande Wanderer

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