I went into my abroad experience feeling completely ready. I felt confident in my Spanish, confident in my election of my foreign city and confident in my readiness to leave home. All of that stayed true until I arrived in Buenos Aires.
The moment I landed on the ground in the city, I started whipping out my Spanish left and right to everyone I passed. I had taken Spanish for my entire life (from third grade onwards) and my family speaks it at home, so there was no reason for me to feel ashamed of my Spanish level. I had no qualms and didn’t think I needed to have any.
So maybe Duke language classes didn't entirely prepare me for such an immersive experience, but a lifetime of Spanish classes surely would, right? Wrong.
Argentines, I’ve come to learn, are a very particular type of people. They share many odd characteristics that include interesting eating habits, preferred beverages and speaking a completely different language than the rest of the Spanish speaking world. I was woefully humbled and shut down from ever speaking Spanish when I found out how Argentine’s speak.
Here’s a quick Argentine Spanish Lesson:
1) For anything that is spelled with a “y” or “ll," they pronounce as “sh.”
2) They don’t ever finish pronouncing a word, they drop syllables at the end of each word and don’t finish sentences.
3) No vocabulary words I learned in high school Spanish classes apply here. Not one. They have their own words for everything. For example in Mexican Spanish, avocado is “el aguacate” but in Argentine Spanish, that would be “la palta.” I was taught that a bus was “el autobus,” but here it is “el colectivo.”
So picture this: me, a pale blonde American girl sitting outside on the stoop an apartment, in a foreign city, awaiting the owner of the Airbnb I had rented for the semester, completely and utterly incapable of communicating with the people around me (more because of the lack of confident that the city punched into her). As I sat and waited, I feared that people were scouting the foreign girl with trail of bags waiting to move into the very apartment of which I was standing outside. I waited there for an hour and a half, then two hours and had no way of communicating.
I was lost for words because in reality Buenos Aires felt as unwelcoming as Paris to a nonnative speaker. I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach, or rather chewed up and spit out again by the city that was supposed to be my home for the next five months. I sat there and cried. I didn’t have a phone to use nor could I ask a local on the street for help in their native tongue because their native tongue was absolutely not what I had acquired throughout my entire life. Those first days truly broke me down to my humblest and smallest self.
Throughout my experience in Buenos Aires, and during those first few days and week, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Duke hadn’t prepared me for it. How I was extremely unaware of the loneliness that comes from an abroad experience and just how drastic a shift one has to make when entering a country that speaks a different language. Duke didn’t tell me I needed to learn a new language nor did they prepare me for an experience that would strip me of my confidence in my "global education."
Leah Abrams touched on this in her criticism of pre-DukeEngage programming in her Sept. 1 column. There too needs to be a form of preparation before Duke students go to study abroad that goes beyond an online form, else we are forced to resort to miscommunication and missed opportunities. Students need to understand the country or city they intend to go to before they are tossed into it without any Duke support.
I am writing this column after having been here for six weeks. And it's gotten immensely better; the combination of this city and the need to adapt quickly has made me feel quite comfortable. However, I'm shocked at the rarity of conversations about how difficult studying abroad is—and I mean, studying abroad, not spending weekends visiting friends all across Europe and disregarding the circumstance of being in a foreign country (practically) alone. For those of us looking for the real thing, there must be a level of preparation for what to expect, other than being told that it will be "the time of our lives."
It's important to understand, before going away, that it's okay to struggle as part of a major adjustment, that it's almost a given that there will be low moments and that the language we use when it comes to "study abroad" doesn't always transition into the real world.
Lizi Byrnes-Mandelbaum is a Trinity junior, studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her column, "spanglish" runs on alternate Tuesdays.