Hablo castellano ahora!

I speak castellano now! Well enough to survive here anyway: enough to have a good friend who speaks only a few words of English, enough to speak on the phone, enough to chat with dance partners, shop keepers, taxi drivers…

If you come out to BA, a little castellano will go a long way. It will get you smiles, laughs, friends, and precious connections. Before I came out here I knew a little spanish, holiday spanish. My pronunciation was terrible and incorrect for Argentina. I had to relearn that fast. Also some key words are different. But I am now able to make myself understood, and to understand a great deal.

I have some observations about learning castellano, and some of them might apply to learning any language, based on my experiences. Realising these things has increased my confidence dramatically. Maybe you can use them if you are planning a trip in this direction…

  • It’s amazing how few words and phrases we actually use in conversation. At first I felt paralysed by my lack of vocabulary but then I noticed that I was saying the same things much of the time. If I learn how to speak these and pronounce them well, then I sound impressive and my confidence rockets!
  • I notice how many times I am frustrated at not being able to say one particular thing, so I ask someone how to say it. Usually this one key phrase links with many other words that I know. A whole new subject area or line of conversation opens up to me.
  • People always ask me the same questions. If I learn to answer them my confidence grows and I quickly begin to expand the answers.
  • Speech patterns are the same the world over and give structures for speaking which means I can build constructions in my head which stay with me and make putting sentences together very easy.
  • In English we have a different word for every tiny thing. In castellano not so. I can get away with using the same word for many different meanings. I do not need a massive vocabulary.
  • I was always bewildered at school by foreign verb conjugations and the sheer quantity of verbs that I had to learn by heart. If I learn the key verbs in the I, we and you forms I’m are pretty much sorted for conversation.
  • I can get away with speaking in the present tense most of the time! The future tense is easy because they say ‘Voy a…’ I am going to/I will. I know one past tense for the key verbs which seems sufficient for now.

So what will you need to dance tango in Buenos Aires? What can you learn before you come out here that will make things a whole lot easier? I’m not saying that these are the most perfect ways to speak, but I can be understood well if I use them and they are easy!

The basics:

Hola hi, muchas gracias many thanks, a vos to you (often in reply to muchas gracias), de nada it’s nothing/no problem, permiso excuse me (when trying to fight past people to get of the subway or onto the dance floor), perdon sorry (when stepping on someone’s foot), lo siento I’m sorry (when you know you have left your dancing brain at home)

The Milonga conversation:

 Queres bailar? Do you want to dance? (Some men ask you directly rather than using the eye contact routine, especially if you have danced with them before), Bailas? Do you dance?, De donde sos? Where are you from?, Soy Ingles(a) de Inglaterra. I’m English from England., Hablas castellano? Do you speak castellano?, Solo un poco. Te entiendo si hablas despacio. Only a little. I understand you if you speak slowly. (Be careful, once I said ‘mas despacio por favor’ and my partner thought I wanted him to dance more slowly!), Quedo/vivo en Buenos Aires por dos semanas/diez meses para apprender tango. I’m staying/living in BA for two weeks/ten months to learn tango.,  Me llamo Sally, y vos? I’m Sally, and you?, Bailas muy lindo(a). You dance very beautifully., Escuchas la musica muy bien You listen to the music very well., Me gusta esta milonga. I like this milonga., Me encanta Buenos Aires. I love Buenos Aires., Hay mucha gente aca este noche. No me gusta. Vamos a La Viruta. There are many people here tonight. I don’t like it. Let’s go to La Viruta. (Occasionally the milonga can be like a sardine can with NO room to dance. If I feel like I am at the dodgems I tend to leave early and try somewhere else.)

The Milonga practicalities:

Queria reservar una mesa para la milonga esta noche por favor, para cuatro personas. Mi nombre es Sally. I’d like to reserve a table for the milonga tonight please, for four people (Essential for most popular milongas. Men can get away with standing at the bar but it’s not the done thing for women)., Tengo una reservation en el nombre de Sally para cuatro. I have a reservation en the name of Sally for four (Always use the same name because the manager gets to know you and progressively gives you better tables)., Hola chicas. Hi girls.

And when you get closer (or not!):

Soy soltero(a).  I’m single., Estoy casado(a). I’m married., Tengo un novio en Inglaterra. I have a boyfriend in England(sometimes useful)., Te quiero. I love you (can confuse because literally translates to I want you!)., Queria ser amigos y bailar con vos, pero nada mas. I would like to be friends and dance with you, but nothing more.

And when you are deep in conversation:

Pienso que… I think that…, Creo que… I believe that…, Me parece… In my opinion…, pero… but, Yo tambien. Me too., Yo tampoco. Me neither.

And when you’ve had enough:

Estoy muy cansado(a) ahora. I’m very tired now., Necesito ir a mi casa y dormir. I need to go home and sleep., Hola, Santa Fe y Larrea por favor. Hi, Santa Fe and Larrea please (in the cab give the address by the intersection of streets – the city is laid out in a grid of blocks (cuadras)).

And finally the words I hear most in tango lyrics:

…mi corazon… …my heart…

So there you have it, the English dancer’s guide to surviving the tango scene in BA – well the language part anyway.

Today, I am in reflective mood. I have a bug – cough, headache, physical exhaustion. It must be bad because I have postponed my class with Ariel – unheard of. It’s raining outside. I want to dance tonight but truly don’t know if I will be able to. So maybe it will be TV and sofa for me and not Canning and La Viruta. Ah well, I guess there will be plenty more Friday nights…


8 Responses

  1. Oooo, very pleased with myself as I could understand nearly all of that Castellano before I read your translation! Think it would be a different matter if someone was actually speaking it to me though!

    Hope you are feeling better – don’t feel bad about not going out and dancing – you must rest sometimes! It’s good for you!

  2. Good tips! When I come next March, I hope that my Spanish will be a bit better. Just trying to speak the language always goes a long way in my opinion. Most folks respect that you are trying to fit into their culture…

    …then again, when all else fails, I usually report to pointing. “Yes, dos (holds up two fingers and points to the empanadas), por favor.” 🙂

  3. Bless you for that! I’m trying to learn Spanish at the moment for my own trip, and this is a big help! I’m especially grateful for the ‘I just want to be friends’ section, because I’ve been worrying about how to handle that!

    If you have time, could you answer a couple of questions for me?

    Do people use vos universally? Or do you still need to use usted to be polite? If so, when do you need to be polite?

    What is the difference between ‘perdon’ and ‘lo siento’ – which do you use when?

    “Hay mucha gente aca este noche.” – why not ‘aqui’?

  4. Oh! And also, does v sound like b? I keep hearing conflicting information about how to pronounce it.

  5. Kate, I will of course answer your questions but be warned that my experience is still somewhat limited! Anyway these are my thoughts:

    I mostly use ‘vos’ – certainly in social situations eg. milongas, among friends, in shops, taxis etc. for me this has seemed fine. My ‘Enjoy the tango of learning Spanish’ book suggests that ‘usted’ form is used in more formal situations, with someone much older or where you want to show respect.

    ‘Perdon’ is used for example if you bump into someone in the street or if you step on someone’s toe at a milonga! It’s kind of like the quick ‘sorry’. I use ‘lo siento’ if I am really trying to say sorry for something I have said or done that might have upset someone – kind of like a more heartfelt sorry. However I notice that my Argentine tends to say ‘perdoname’ to express similar sentiment as it is a bit like ‘forgive me’.

    As I understand it ‘aca’ is a word more commonly used in castellano instead of ‘aqui’ for ‘here’, but you will probably hear both and both will be understood.
    And I just noticed that it should be ‘esta noche’ because ‘noche’ is feminine – my mistake!

    And finally yes, ‘v’ is pronounced like a ‘b’.

    I will ask my Argentine if I have answered you correctly and post any updates here! Perhaps I will learn something too!

    Good luck with the preparations for your trip!


  6. Thank you! I always get confused about the v/b thing, because sometimes when I say something with a v as though it was a b my Argentine friends correct me and pronounce it with a v. Perhaps there’s a subtle difference that my ear can’t yet pick up.

  7. Just asked my Argentine about the v/b thing. V definitely is not pronounced like our v but more like a soft b. To me it sounds like somewhere inbetween v and b! Sometimes b is pronounced as a harder b, in the name of the barrio ‘Belgrano’ for example.
    I will be paying more attention from now on! SC

  8. Hola.

    Hello, I’m Raquel, from Spain
    It;s completely incorrect but we have lost the difference between B a V, of course there is a difference, we just don’t do it, but since I have been living abroad, I have started to do it a I try to correct all the my spanish friends to start doing the difference again (as for instance my grandparents do)

    ‘Vos’ used to be a very very polite way to address someone hundreds of years ago, (in spain)

    We use ‘TU’ for ‘you’ when you know the other person or is younger, informal
    or ‘USTED’ for ‘you’ too when is someone older, or formal conversations


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