Just a couple of days into my new life as an expat in Uruguay, I was having lunch on the patio of a restaurant in Punta del Este. I had ordered by pointing to an item on the menu that I imagined was a large Italian-style salad… Ten minutes later, however, the waiter set a large glass serving bowl of sliced beets in front of me.
“Okay,” I thought to myself, “time to get serious about learning Spanish…”
Learning Spanish in Uruguay has helped me to learn about Uruguay’s culture. For example, Uruguay has more social formalities than in the U.S. Linguistically they maintain the formal form of “you” and familiar forms of “you” for friends and family.
People usually don’t greet strangers on the street. If one does approach a stranger, say, to ask street directions, they will first indicate they have a question to ask, or request a consultation before stating the question.
At the same time, once a relationship develops, such as becoming a regular customer, neighbor, or friend, Uruguayans are very warm. They stand close together, touch a lot, and greet their friends and coworkers with a kiss on the cheek.
My study of Spanish has not been steady or followed a logical progression. I have studied a book for a few weeks here, and audio lessons for a few weeks there.
One of my most productive bursts of learning was three weeks I spent attending a Spanish language school in Montevideo. I had four hours of class a day: two hours of formal lessons and two hours of conversation.
Besides helping to improve my Spanish, I made friends with a variety of interesting people. In my Spanish conversation class there was a French scientist, a German cello player, a Norwegian graduate student, a Brazilian secretary, and an American who was working for a local IT company.
The owner of the school, who was from Spain, had a farm just outside of town. One afternoon she invited us out for an afternoon of horseback riding. Another evening, I went out with a few of my fellow students for my first tango lesson.
My Spanish still has a long way to go, and I have gotten lax in my studies. But I know enough Spanish to get by and have several bilingual friends.
However, I am discovering a new drive to push forward in my Spanish studies, for the interesting people and situations I have ahead of me in this precious little country called Uruguay.
Editor’s note: A whole new world opens up to you when you speak the local language. And if you follow these tips, you’ll be speaking Spanish in 20 minutes.