By Charity Woodruff

13 January 2016 - 14:31

'My house mates have introduced me to lots of Chilean people studying and working in Santiago.' Photo (c) Christian Córdova, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'My house mates have introduced me to lots of Chilean people studying and working in Santiago.' Photo ©

Christian Córdova, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

After having studied Spanish for more than five years, UK student Charity Woodruff was surprised when first faced with the idioms of Chile. Read how she got to grips with the language.

I've taken time to tune into the local dialect

A big worry for me before I came to live in Santiago de Chile was the prospect of not being able to understand what anyone was saying. I'd heard that the locals spoke with their own idioms – 'modismos chilenos' – and with a different accent from the one I was used to at university.

For the first few weeks, I felt a little lost, but I soon started to 'tune in'. By listening and speaking to people at every opportunity, I started picking up more and more local words and phrases  My favourite words are 'bacán', which means 'cool', '¿cachai?' which means 'get it?', and 'Piscola', which is the famous pisco liquor with coke – a Latin American favourite. I like throwing them into conversation every now and then, as it makes me feel like part of the local community.

Living with locals is one of the best decisions I've made

One of the best ways to get to grips with Chilean Spanish is living with locals. I am currently living with two other women, a medical student and a nursing student, and am thoroughly enjoying it. They are both from a place a few hours south of Santiago and have been my lifeline since I moved in. We speak Spanish around the house, so I'm totally immersed in the language, and when I get home, I'm able to practise and consolidate what I have learnt during the day. They also have a good level of English, which is comforting as it means that, if I ever have an issue, need to see a doctor, or am having any trouble with paper work, they are always able to help me out.

Living with Chileans has also been great for my social life, and my house mates have introduced me to lots of other Chilean people who are studying and working in Santiago. I feel like I have become part of the local community, and this is in large part because of my house mates and their friends. They have invited me to football matches a few times to watch the national team, but the team is so popular that it can sometimes be hard to get tickets. If we can't go to the live match itself, we tend to gather at someone's house to watch it on television and bring along food and drinks to share. Typically, we eat cheese-stuffed chilli peppers with bacon and drink pisco. Social gatherings like this are fantastic in terms of practising Spanish and getting to know new people.

I've learnt to listen as well as speak 

As I don’t have a full timetable at school, I have quite a bit of time in between classes, and a natural place to spend some of it is in the staffroom. To begin with, I found it quite overwhelming, as it’s full of talkative teachers, and due to the nature of the space, there are lots of them. Sometimes, I will be having a conversation with one group of them who are all speaking really quickly, and behind me, there might be ten tables of other teachers all doing the same. This always tests my ability to concentrate and pick up natural, fast-moving conversational Spanish in quite a loud environment. I have gradually become more confident in my own abilities and can feel my accent and understanding of the local dialect improving every day.

I am eating my way to success

Learning the words for food is one of the basics and normally one of the first things you start with at school. At first, going to a restaurant, opening the menu and seeing a list of things I didn't recognise was slightly demoralising. Chileans have different words for food from European Spanish speakers – prawns are 'camarones' instead of 'gambas', and strawberries are 'frutillas', not 'fresas'. Although many Chileans are familiar with some of the European equivalents, there are some they have never come across before. The locals are always patient and friendly with me though, as it’s also a chance for them to practise their English when they try to explain what the dishes consist of, which they really like doing.

Apply to become an English language assistant

Read Charity's blog.

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