One of the absolute best decisions I have made during my year abroad in Argentina was signing up for an extra-curricular, weekly theater improvisation class. In early March, I had a meeting with my program director, Mario, to discuss the differences between the semester and the year-long study abroad experiences, and during the meeting he asked me about my specific goals for the semester. My answer was simple: 1. Continue improving my Spanish and 2. Make more Argentine friends.
Upon hearing these goals, Mario asked me if I had ever considered participating in theater, which is a very popular activity in the city of Buenos Aires. While I used to love theater when I was little (you should have seen me in the 5th grade musical!), it had been almost 12 years since I had participated in any sort of formal theater arts. Mario suggested to me that signing up for a theater class would be a great way not only to play with the Spanish language in a more engaging and challenging manner, but also to connect on a different level with locals. Although I was nervous about the idea and had some doubts about my ability to function in Spanish in a theater setting, I left the meeting feeling so motivated that the next day I went to the Centro Cultural Rojas and registered for a beginners’ theater class before I could change my mind and chicken out. I wasn’t entirely sure what kinds of activities we would be doing in the class I selected, but I decided to take the leap of faith.
Three weeks later I was striding through the classroom door into a room where about 15 Argentines of various ages were sitting in a circle waiting for the professor to begin. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was clearly the only foreigner in the room…and therefore the only one for whom Spanish was a second language. I had been in Argentina long enough that being the only non-argentine didn’t bother me, in fact, that was the entire point of signing up for this class. However, when the professor began describing the different kinds of activities we would be doing over the next three months and I realized that I had signed up for a theater improvisation class, the panic started to set in.
For those of you who know me well (especially my former Ogg coworkers) you will know that improvisation activities have always made me very uncomfortable, especially when the objective is to be funny. I am a meticulous planner-always thinking things through before I act- and I have never even remotely fashioned myself a comedian (I think my brother got all of the “funny” genes). Improvisation activities are the kinds of activities I tend to avoid, and here I was being told that I was going to have to be creative and think on my feet in a foreign language. To say that I was nervous would be a huge understatement.
However, to my surprise as the weeks went on, I became more and more comfortable and began to truly enjoy the improv games we played in class. In the beginning my biggest struggle was getting over my fears about sounding like an idiot or not being able to come up with the words in Spanish that I needed to participate in a scene. Luckily, my classmates were very supportive, helping me out when I didn’t understand a word or expression, and seemed to enjoy the fresh perspective I brought to the classroom. I think that this theater class has been one of the best vehicles through which I have improved my Spanish fluency over the past 11 months for several reasons:
- I have been exposed to a variety of local expressions and informal language that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn in an academic setting. I think I’ve become pretty skilled at knowing when to use “che,” “boludo,” “quilombo,” and a plethora of other phrases.
- I realized that before I started my theater class, when I would go to the store, to the doctor’s office, to talk to a professor, etc. I would plan in my head beforehand what I needed to say to in Spanish and imagine what the other person’s probable response would be. In this way, I could think hard about any vocabulary I didn’t know and make sure that when I spoke my words came out grammatically correct. In theater improv class this pre-planning was impossible. I was forced into a variety of different scenarios requiring a variety of different vocabulary without the ability to “rehearse” in my head beforehand. Learning to think on my feet in Spanish has reduced my dependency on pre-planning. I realized that I had a stronger ability to think and react in Spanish than I had originally thought, and the amount of errors I make in day-to-day conversation is substantially less. Speaking in Spanish feels more natural and fluid than it did before.
- My confidence in my speaking ability has grown in leaps and bounds since that first day of class when fear paralyzed my tongue and set my heart racing. One of the biggest obstacles for those learning a foreign language is that fear of making a mistake prevents them from practicing and therefore improving. After a few classes of improv scenarios, I became less and less worried about making a mistake, and my every day life conservations became easier. Once the fear eased up I was better able to demonstrate my Spanish proficiency. I figured that if I could perform improvisation with a group of argentines there wasn’t anything language-related I couldn’t do. Nothing else has seemed nearly as nerve-racking.
Last but not least, improv class has introduced me to a wonderful group of argentine friends that I am truly going to miss when I return to the U.S. in a few weeks. Recently, I have had the opportunity to talk with many of my compañeros outside of the classroom, and I am sad that I will not be around to deepen these friendships just as they are starting to bloom. It seems to me that theater always draws very engaging people from all walks of life: in my class alone there is a photographer, a capoeirista, a geographer, a girl just out of high school, a man in his 50s, and everything in-between. I struggled meeting argentine friends first semester, and it figures that I would be leaving soon after finally feeling like I have begun making connections. I will miss being a part of this group.
Taller de teatro has become one of the highlights of my week. I have grown so much both personally and linguistically through this class, especially when I look at how far I’ve come from the scared little yanqui I was on my first day. Moral of the story: don’t let fear stop you from trying something new. You never know what might happen or what new talent you might discover. If that isn’t a study abroad cliché for you, I don’t know what is.