How I Learned to Speak Chilean

My Host Family

Angela Hanson is a student at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and studied abroad through the IFSA-Butler Chilean Universities Program, Santiago in 2016.

What is the official language in Chile? Many sources would say Spanish, but that’s not entirely true.

At least, the Spanish I learned in Chile was not the Spanish I was taught in the six years leading up to my trip. As I prepared for my study abroad experience, I knew that I still had room to improve my Spanish, but I did not realize just how much. I was about to learn an entirely new language: Chilean Spanish.

When I boarded the international flight to Santiago, I was bombarded with a blend of English and Spanish, which hurt my brain. I tried to listen to the Spanish and catch what I could, but the English kept drawing my attention. I felt almost like a dog distracted by a squeaky toy, because I could not focus on the Spanish when listening to the English was so much easier.

Luckily by the time I was through customs, everything was in Spanish. It was still a challenge, but I at least had a shot at focusing and understanding. In fact, I focused so actively on what was being said all the time, that I had to take daily naps to rest my brain. But like working a muscle, I gained stamina over time and found it easier and easier to listen without so much effort. Then something would catch my ear: another bit of English.

I came to call these moments the “dangers of Spanglish.”

"light" on a Chilean Coca-Cola can
Coca-Cola “light”

In Santiago in particular, Spanglish was a constant threat. Most of the imports had at least a hint of English in the marketing and logos. For example, Diet Coca-Cola in Chile is called “light” instead, but the rest of the label will still be in Spanish. Then signs in front of stores will say “sale” which is extra confusing because that means “leave” in Spanish, but the store actually wants you to come in and enjoy the lower prices.

The globalized pop culture in Santiago also invites more English into daily life through music and movies from the United States. These have a strong influence on vocabulary particularly for the children and young adults. This meant that I was regularly distracted by a song in English. Then of course there were the words that were used more often in English than in Spanish like “break” and “sorry.” I have almost forgot the Spanish version of words like those. Luckily, after the first couple months, the Spanglish was less noticeable.

My next lesson in Chilean Spanish was with new food vocabulary. I quickly realized that each country, or even city, has their own vocabulary—their own version of Spanish. From what I could tell, much of the differences in vocabulary between regions came from the indigenous languages. For Chile, that was Mapuche. The Mapuche named much of the foods before the Spanish arrived, and the root of many of those names survived over the years. To me as a foreigner, much of the vocabulary sounded similar, which presented some extra challenges, the first of which revolved around tuna. To me, “tuna” was a type of fish, but in Chile “tuna” was prickly pear. What I knew as “tuna” was called “atún.” To make things worse, there is “aceituna” which is “olive.” When I heard it in a sentence, the words all ran together, so all I heard was “tuna.” The funniest part is that “tuna,” the fruit, had become my favorite fruit, but I hate “aceituna.” So what seemed like bonding with someone over a favorite food was actually a complete misunderstanding.

It was difficult to learn all of the new vocabulary, but I did catch a break when I learned the word “taco.” I knew what a “taco” was in the sense of food, but I also learned that it has other meaning. It also means “high heel,” “traffic,” and “pool stick.” Yes, this was confusing at first, but it also meant that when I didn’t know what to call something I could guess “taco” with a decent likelihood of being right!

Not really, but my host family got a kick out of it anyway.

Once I knew the basic vocabulary, it was time to study the young people version of Chilean Spanish versus the adult version. Like most cultures, the youth speak differently than the adults. Being that I was at the border of those age ranges, I had to learn to speak to both. Since the adult version is generally more formal, I had inherently learned most of it in the process of learning Chilean Spanish.

Slang and swear words were mostly what was left to learn in the young people version. The fastest way to pick those up is to go to a small party and watch a soccer match on TV with a group of young Chileans. That way, you can only speak Chilean Spanish and they will turn off all filters. Normally, I found that young Chileans would try to put their best foot forward when talking with international students on campus. But when its game time, all bets are off and you get to see what real Chilean college students are like.

By the time that I finished my study abroad experience, I was fluent in Chilean Spanish. My Spanish professors even told me when I returned that I had picked up a bit of the accent. Of course this did not happen overnight; it took me over three months of constant immersion. I tried very hard not to use English, because each time that I did, it felt like a step backward in my Spanish. I was tempted many times to give in and use English, but my efforts paid off.

Now I have a new level of understanding in Spanish, and I am ready to face my next challenge: not forgetting all that I learned.

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