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Language as a Barrier to Integration: Focus Living in Argentina

In the final part of our mini-series about expatriate integration, and how hard it can be to settle in and settle down abroad, we’re going to see how language can be a true barrier at times – often with hilarious consequences!

If you read any article, book or forum dedicated to expatriate advice, one of the most important points so often discussed is getting a grip on the local language in order to have any chance of true acceptance in your new country.  After all, it makes sense that to be able to make proper friends you need to be able to communicate with them!  What’s more, to be able to get the most out of your new nation with the least amount of stress, it really does help if you can understand all those and everything around you.

However, as anyone who has ever attempted to learn a second language knows, it’s not always that easy!  Today we hear from an expat living in Argentina who stumbled in her attempts to learn Spanish – and who learned some valuable lessons thanks to the mistakes she made!

Learning the language of your adopted nation is ultimately a very freeing and liberating experience; it allows you to achieve complete integration and to truly feel as though you belong in your new homeland.  Until fluency is achieved there will always be an inevitable underlying stress for many expats, because situations can potentially arise where they cannot make themselves understood.

Learning a second language can seem like nothing but an uphill struggle, but from all those expats I have spoken to who have achieved a certain level of linguistic success, I have learned that there comes a time when suddenly it all clicks into place.  It is almost an overnight awakening when you realise that actually, you’ve mastered enough of the language to feel fully comfortable in every situation in your new nation.  However, the path to reach this place is often littered with embarrassing anecdotes…

Double Entendres and Embarrassing Moments in Argentina

When I found myself unexpectedly living in Argentina, (I’d been on a round the world trip which had stalled in this stunning nation when I fell in love with it!), I really needed to get to grips with the local language as soon as possible, because the number of people who spoke English in my new hometown could be counted on the fingers of one hand!

I threw myself into my Spanish lessons with gusto, and after 3 months of intense language learning I felt really confident to go out there and practice.  After all, the best thing about learning a new language when you’re living abroad is that you’re surrounded by it in everyday life, so it is very easy to find situations where you can practice.

As the tyres on my car were getting a bit bald I asked my Spanish teacher to recommend somewhere where I could go and get them checked, and possibly replaced.  She kindly suggested a suitable somewhere on the main street in town, and so on my way to my next lesson I decided to stop and get the job done.

I pulled in to the tyre place only to be greeted quite enthusiastically by two young men in their early 20s.  I was a little flustered by their obvious attention, but I did not want to be put off practicing my language skills.  The conversation went something like this: –
“Buenos Tardes” (good afternoon) “Quiero cambiar mis gomas en frente” ( I want to change my two front tyres)

Note: this elicited a sideways glance or two between the young men and a very clear and obvious smirk…then one of them said: –
“Que paso con tuyos”?  (What’s wrong with yours?)  Followed by more smirking and sniggering which confused me a bit – I guessed they were finding my poor accent funny, or perhaps my grammar made me really stand out as a foreigner in town.

I was not to be deterred however and so I replied: –

“Son muy lisos entonces que no agarran” (they are very smooth and so they don’t grip) followed by “quieren a verlos”?  (do you want to see them?)

At this point the two mechanics were actually laughing uncontrollably and so I figured my Spanish or my accent (or both) were just horribly bad.  Anyway, an older guy wandered over at this point and fortunately he took over and organised two new tyres to be fitted to my car.

Arriving at my Spanish lesson somewhat disillusioned by my language attempts, I recounted the mechanics’ reaction to my teacher.  She said: “tell me exactly what you said.”  And so I recounted the conversation verbatim because I really wanted to understand where I had gone so horribly wrong.

“Oh God” she said, with a look of mortification and horror on her face: “you should have said ‘pneumaticas’ instead of ‘gomas’.”

“But ‘gomas’ is the word for tyres right, I looked it up?”  I protested…

“Well yes…” she said “…but young guys here use the word gomas for breasts – so effectively you told them that your breasts were very smooth, did not grip and then you invited them to take a look!”

There was no getting away from the fact that I was completely mortified!  However, I really did learn a very valuable lesson at that point in time, and it’s one I’m very happy to share with expats everywhere…you need to learn the local language if you want to fit in abroad.  I.e., you need to learn the slang, the colloquialisms and the funny ways of saying things in your local hometown if you want to truly fit in!

Learning some sort of school or text book language lessons will only get you so far – getting to grips with the local way of speaking will stand you in the best stead in terms of true and complete integration.

Needless to say the rest of my lesson on that day was in learning the local slang words that I must never confuse!  I have since gone on to achieve complete fluency, but I’ve never gone back to the same garage!

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