Busting the Negative Myths of Argentine Spanish
Witter by Mercedes Rovir (Spanish Academic Director at VSA)
Argentina April 27 – 2017
For people interested in traveling to Central or South America and taking a Spanish immersion learning course, one of the biggest decisions to make is figuring out what country to go to. This decision usually boils down to finding a balance between having plenty of scenic tourism destinations, and picking a country where the accent and dialect are conducive to learning the language.
While Argentina definitely doesn’t lack for sights to see and things to do, the country actually gets a pretty bad rap when it comes to immersion learning. If you Google “learn Spanish in Argentina,” the very first result is an article titled “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Spanish in Argentina.” Not exactly the most promising start. And when you comb through discussion forums, you’ll find many people expressing concerns about whether learning Spanish in Argentina might be difficult due to the native accent, using “vos” instead of “tú,” slang, and other issues.
So, is it true that Argentina isn’t a good language learning destination? When you take a closer look at the popular anti-Argentina arguments, it becomes clear that this negative opinion of Argentine Spanish is built on myth, rather than truth. Here is a closer look at some of the most common myths about Argentina and the language spoken there, and the truth behind those myths.
1. People who speak Spanish in Argentina have a weird accent, which makes it harder to learn the language.
The Spanish language is spoken with a variety of wildly different accents. These differences don’t just crop up when you compare one country to another; some countries have multiple regional accents that are quite different from one another. And it is more than a little ironic that many North and South American native Spanish speakers have a difficult time getting used to the lisping accent used in Spain, the birthplace of Spanish.
There is actually an advantage in learning Spanish in a country that doesn’t have a seemingly “neutral” accent — though really, there’s no such thing as a truly neutral accent, as there are just too many variations to account for. Being exposed to an accent that differs from what you’re used to hearing in Spanish TV shows and movies means that you are training your senses to be more flexible and open to the verbal variations inherent in spoken Spanish. As a result, your comprehension skills will be much stronger and more adaptable. In the long run, you will more quickly and easily pick up new vocabulary, idioms, and expressions, no matter where you travel to in the future.
Incidentally, the Spanish in Argentina is commonly referred to as Castellano (Castilian in English), because it originates from the Castile region of Spain. But Castellano is just another term for the Spanish. People sometimes get confused when the term pops up, especially if the conversation involves the dialect spoken in Spain. The reason people sometimes use the term Castellano for Spanish is because there are a number of languages native to Spain other than Spanish, such as Basque and Catalan. Calling a language “Spanish” strikes many people familiar with the complex culture of Spain as essentially stepping on the toes of those other languages (and the cultures that speak them). As a result, many fluent Spanish speakers refer to their language as Castellano. So if someone asks you if you speak Castellano, don’t fret. Castellano = Spanish, just like sofa = couch, pancake = flapjack, or soda = pop.
2. Argentina’s Spanish uses “vos” instead of “tú,” which you’ll have to unlearn in order to talk to Spanish speakers from most countries.
There are very few grammatical differences that arise when using vos versus tú. In fact there are only two situations in which you get conjugation differences — using the present tense, and imperative mood. And even those differences are very minimal.
- “vos tenés” vs “tú tienes”
- “Vos cómo te llamás?” vs “Tú cómo te llamas?”
- “vos estudiá” vs “tú estudia”
- “Vos poné la mesa.” vs “Tú pon la mesa.”
As you can see, half of the time the only change is the addition or removal of stress on a syllable. When there are actual changes to a word, such as “tenés/tienes,” the changes are still very minimal (there are no stem changes for irregular verbs when using the “vos” pronoun). And for the 15 other tenses, word choice, spelling, and syllable stresses are exactly the same!
To argue that someone who learns Spanish in Argentina won’t be understood elsewhere would be similar to saying that someone who learns English in Britain won’t be understood in the United States or South Africa, someone who learns German in Germany will be lost in Austria. Yes, there are minor changes in spelling, grammar, word choice, and pronunciation, but you’ll most certainly be able to communicate fluently with someone who speaks a flavor of a language that differs slightly from the one you’re familiar with.
(Also, Spanish using the “voseo” pronoun is actually spoken in the majority of countries in Central and South America. The only countries where “vos” is rarely used are Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Peru, and the Dominican Republic.)
3. Argentine Spanish uses too much slang.
This supposed issue boils down to the same thing as accents: every population puts its own unique spin on the language they speak. Every country has its own colloquial expressions. It’s difficult to say if Argentina has more idioms than other Spanish-speaking countries.
Additionally, the “famous” (or “infamous,” depending on your perspective) Argentine slang people usually refer to is lunfardo, which is a slang commonly used in everyday conversations in the Rio de la Plata region, including the city of Buenos Aires. Lunfardo, just like the slang used in many other languages, evolved from a rich and complicated cultural history. Lunfardo isn’t any more special or different than the slang used in other countries and languages.
British English has a rich variety of slang lexicons, with perhaps the most well-known being the cockney rhyming slang from the East End of London. British English has quite a reputation for its innumerable accents and slang vocabularies, but it certainly doesn’t serve as a deterrent to learning British English, or create difficulties in speaking to other English speakers. Tourists from North America and Australia manage just fine when they are traveling in the United Kingdom.
No matter which language one tries to learn by immersion, encountering local slang is inevitable and is just part of the learning curve. These linguistic peculiarities are actually a great way to get a peek into a foreign culture — a sort of verbal tourism. And when you reach the point where you can pick up slang and use it appropriately, that’s cause for celebration, because that’s a clear indicator that you are speaking the language as a whole at an advanced level. Truly mastering a language means adapting to the cultural idiosyncrasies that come with various regional dialects.
4. All languages are fluid, and have innumerable nuances that shift and change depending on where you go.
For all Spanish speakers, regardless of whether they use ‘vos’, ‘tú’, ‘vosotros’ or not, what accent they have, or what slang they use, fluent speakers understand that these variations are just part of the inherent nature of the Spanish language. They are not better or worse: they just are.
Spanish is a very versatile language. It’s unusual for a single language to embrace so many influences and cultures — English is one of the few that can compare in this regard. The homogeneity of Spanish has always been a controversial issue, prompting many arguments amongst theorists and linguists. There is no “standard” or “neutral” Spanish. Yes, there are syntactical and grammatical ground rules that allow all Spanish-speakers to understand one another. However, as with any language, every Spanish-speaking country — and every region of those countries — has its own conventions of use. There are vast lexical, morphological, prosodical and idiomatic variations in the Spanish language, no matter where you decide to learn it. At the end of the day, pick the culture and the accent that appeal to you the most, and stick with that. As you get better at it, you’ll develop the knowledge and skill necessary to expand and modify your use of the Spanish language as you best see fit.