Studying abroad in Buenos Aires was a challenge for me. Moving to another country, even temporarily, always is. Adapting to a completely different set rules and customs can overwhelm anyone. Something that always makes it easier, though, is the ability to talk to people. I did not have this. I don't mean to say that I had forgotten all of my high-school Spanish before going, like most of the non-hispanaphonic Americans I met there. I had never studied it. My deepest interaction with Spanish before this year was Dora the Explorer; I took Japanese in high school.
To be fair, upon arrival, I was somewhat familiar with Spanish beyond my experiences with Dora. Specifically, I had studied it on Duolingo over winter break (which was two and a half months for me because of the hemisphere-change) with the intention of not being completely lost when I landed in Argentina. This worked, and turned out to be invaluable. I was able to greet people, construct copular sentences, and refer to simple concepts with locals. Two months on Duolingo, however, is no basis to claim proficiency in a language, no matter what percentage of fluency it claims you have (I was at 68%). The result was by far the most challenging living situation I have ever had. A lot of people in Buenos Aires do speak English, but most not very well. I couldn't buy things in stores. I couldn't understand anything that was happening around me. I could barely even communicate with my host family. Every time I went outside, I was terrified that someone would try to talk to me.
Upon learning of my lack of a Spanish background, most of the other American students I met asked me why I would ever do something like that to myself. The answer is simple: to learn Spanish. I could have studied in Japan or an English-speaking country and retained the ability to communicate, but I didn't want to improve my Japanese for a semester -- I wanted to learn something new. Spanish seemed like the perfect choice. It's widely spoken, not too challenging for Anglophones, and the national language of Argentina, which I had already selected for other statistics. And learn Spanish I did. By the end of the semester, not only was I capable of getting a haircut and giving directions in Spanish, but when the new American students arrived for API's summer (winter) program and I introduced myself and conversed with them in Spanish, they couldn't tell that I lacked a background. They were quite surprised later to find out that I had only been studying it for six months.
Thus, despite the inital challenge, immersing myself in an unknown tongue turned out to be quite productive. I'm particularly glad I did so in Buenos Aires. I didn't realize this before I went, but Argentines speak a particular dialect of Spanish called Rioplatense. They pronounce their "y"s and "ll"s as [ʃ] rather than [ʝ] or [d͡ʒ], pronounce "s" as [h] when before a consonant, and use a special second person singular pronoun, "vos", rather than the "tú" used elsewhere, along with a unique conjugation pattern to go with it ("vos tenés" rather than "tú tienes"). Thus, I got to learn not only the Spanish language, but also of the phonological variety and history of it. In a way, it worked out that I didn't speak it beforehand. Many of the American students I met reported difficulty adapting to the new dialect, but I had no experience with the standard dialect, so I faced no additional difficulty at all. Learning Spanish was such fun that not only does it make me want to keep learning it, and Japanese, in the future, but it has encouraged me to start learning new languages. I'm working on Toki Pona and Esperanto now, and thinking of doing Elefen next.
It is with mixed feelings that I return to the United States. On the one hand, it's great that not every interpersonal interaction has to be a mental exercise anymore, but life is also somewhat more boring in English for that same reason. I also have to readapt to freedom units, illogical city layouts, and excluded sales tax (the fact that vendors actually carry change here almost makes up for that one). Overall, though, I'm glad to be back, and I can't wait to get back to Olin. I got to learn a language, live in a big city, study economics, and stand over a giant waterfall, but now I'm ready to see my friends and build some robots again. It was an unforgettable experience, and I think everyone should do it if they can, even if they don't learn a new language. The most important thing is to go try something new and to do so with an open mind. Studying abroad can challenge your assumptions about everything from the value of tile in urban planning to the shape of the Earth.