Inspiring Expats: Argentinian Black Belt of Linguistics In Budapest + His Spanish Club

  • 25 Apr 2023 6:16 AM
Inspiring Expats: Argentinian Black Belt of Linguistics In Budapest + His Spanish Club
This segment showcases stories of expats rooted in this land, inspired to add cultural value through their craft, written by the journalist Daniel Sepúlveda O.

Wenceslao Grillo is a polyglot who relishes the opportunity to meet a wide variety of people passing through Budapest, a context in which today he heads a free social club where the Spanish language is the main character.

From machine languages to people´s languages

When I ask him what his first approach to Hungarian culture was, we are faced with one of those atypical cases. He first began studying the Magyar language in Argentina simply because of his attraction to the rarity of the language.

Nothing strange, however, when he tells us that linguistics (before languages) has been something that has caught his attention since he was a child, without knowing what that field of knowledge was called.

“From the things that made my head explode the most was when I was little and my French teacher said that in French the verb “to be” doesn’t have two forms like in Spanish (ser o estar)'. And I thought, how come? Since I already knew English from a very young age, I never stopped to think that the same was happening there. It was then that I began to be interested not only in a particular language but rather in the regularity that exists among all the languages in the world”.

It was thus that "Wences" devoted time to this hobby all his life, although without having it as a source of employment or side hustle. Surprisingly, a man who seems to belong fully to the humanities world, it turns out that he always worked in the field of computer science thanks to his first studies as a Bachelor of Systems. Oil and water?

“IT and linguistics are actually rather like hydrogen and oxygen. To anyone who tells you that they work as a programmer, the first thing you ask them is, with what language? Today, for example, with Chat GPT (Artificial Intelligence tool), what you can see is this same effort to deliver a reasonable language”.

Photo by Daniel Sepúlveda

A penchant for the Hungarian challenge

With knowledge in French, Russian, and German languages, among others, he had already delved into others of a lesser popular scope such as Finnish, Malay, and Hungarian, the latter being the one in which he developed the most interest. It was not then until he came to Hungary in 2018, that he fully opted for schooling what was always his biggest hobby.

"Apart from being fanatical about any language, with Hungarian in particular, I was quite curious because I had met Hungarian immigrants in Argentina (like his own fencing instructor), and because I knew that it was not an Indo-European language."

Thus, he enrolled in a degree in Hispanic Philology for 3 years at a university in Budapest, not before studying here Hungarian for a year. He wanted -and still- the whole challenge, which meant a complete shift in his aforementioned long-standing professional career.

During this time, he came across something called “Club de Español” in which he found a social circle where to contribute from his background while making friends. Krisztina, a Hungarian girl with two decades of practice in the Spanish language, was the one who led the group at that time. Eventually, she had to step aside and among her attendees the one who stood out as the natural choice due to his expertise was Wenceslao.

“People began to look at me as if I were the organizer when the truth was that I only answered questions. I promised to come every week and so we keep things working. I started attending knowing that I could help with what I know of Spanish. Having already learned other languages, I had also learned enough about my own language. So, any question a Hungarian has about Spanish I answer better than the average native speaker.”

Photo by Daniel Sepúlveda

Rule n°1 of the Spanish Club: you don't talk any other than Spanish

Of course, the club also has its doors open to native Spanish speakers, from which this language expert emphasizes how this contributes to the spontaneity of the event.

“At the club, we don't do anything structured. If I start to teach a Spanish class, at a table where there are also native Spanish speakers, they get bored and leave. It is better to let everyone talk to whomever they want, on the topic they want. Thus, they ask me whenever they feel, and when I see that someone systematically makes a mistake, I also correct them”.

And how do the foreigners who come to the club normally function?

“When I see that someone is quiet and doesn't dare to speak, I go and pull their tongues to make them speak. Normally those are Hungarians who feel insecure with their Spanish, so you have to go and ask them questions. It doesn't matter that they speak badly”.

With quite a few Hungarians interested in the Spanish language, how do they adapt to this environment?

“Here everyone speaks at the same time so you better interrupt who is speaking otherwise you don't speak all night. It's good to print that to Hungarians. Imagine a Hungarian-style Spanish class where everyone politely waits for the other to finish so you can say what you want to say. That does not prepare you for the Spanish-speaking reality ”, he laughs.

Wenceslao states that the club is not only a benefit for people who want to learn Spanish, but also for Spanish-speakers who often go because what they want is to hear Hungarian stories or make friends with foreigners with common interests.

“There are Hungarians who speak Spanish at a great level and what they take away is being able to socialize with people who interest them. Then there are the others who put together broken sentences and need the interlocutor to help them build the sentence well and that's how they learn. And finally, there are the very Spanish speakers who also need to socialize and who often find advice about problems in Hungary from the Hungarians who attend”.

Photo by Daniel Sepúlveda

Since this language lover has been in charge of the club, he has witnessed all kinds of notable cases of participants.

“A case that caught my attention was that of a Spanish-speaking girl who said ´I came here because the psychologist recommended it to me´. She had just arrived here, alone, depressed and with a horrible job. She was not okey and this place helped her a lot and we saw that effect on the girl. And just like her, there are many people who continue to use this place to converge on other social activities.

Spanish teacher in Hungary

Wenceslao is a secondary school teacher at a school in Budapest, where he teaches Spanish. He regrets: "the way in which the educational system is being sabotaged". A matter which is for him today the most immediate one to be amended.

“In Argentina, for a long time, education was the hostage of politics. The Hungarian government has been doing the same bad things that I have seen the Argentine governments do for decades and that has led Argentina to no good place. Here the full-time salary of a secondary school teacher is 220,000 forints. It's nothing. This produces a huge lack of teachers or over-demanded teachers or simply people who act as teachers because they don't know how to do anything else”.

Photo by Daniel Sepúlveda

The situation is also reflected in the careless work that he assures, there is behind the Spanish teaching textbooks provided by the Hungarian state.

“I work with the book “Colores” and it has grammatical errors on every page. I don't know how to dissimulate. It is a horror. It doesn't have two sentences in a row that sound natural. I use it because it is the one that the government provides to students. The schools could say, ok we will use another book, but then the problem is that the students will have to pay for it”.

Beyond the global educational landscape, Wenceslao really likes the local academic atmosphere. And while he rejects many things from what happens in his country of origin, he values the cultural heritage that everybody carries as an individual wherever one goes around the world.

“Our culture ends up becoming part of our personality, even if you reject it. I always jokingly and seriously say that I am a bad Argentinian because I don't like football or yerba mate (infusion herb). But the reality is that I know both deeply. The only way to not be offering a piece of your culture is to withdraw."

And the last thing Wenceslao wants is to be in a shell today. His plan is to keep the Spanish Club active as long as his own plans to stay here allow him to. For now, his willingness for knowledge it is as eager as ever. He signed up this year for a purpose that he has been preparing his Hungarian for since he got here: his master's in theoretical linguistics no other than imparted in Hungarian. A challenge in which to succeed, as he puts it: "You have to attain the Black belt 5th Dan in Hungarian at least," he laughs.

Club de Español

Every Monday from 18:00 to 23:59
Location: Paris-Texas Kávéház
Summer season location: picnics at Margaret Island.
Public event.

Interview by Daniel Sepúlveda O, contributing journalist for

  • How does this interview make you feel?