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A Guide to Chilean Spanish

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Within Latin America, there are many dialects and accents of the Spanish language. You’ll find different slang words, greetings, pronunciations, and even names of everyday foods. Each country is unique, but Chile is often cited for having one of the most difficult dialects, with a rapid, fluid speaking style and myriad of slang that can be intimidating if you’re studying abroad. 

The challenges of slang and rapid speech 

Chilean Spanish provides a unique challenge for even the most educated outside speakers. In my first conversation with my host family, I found myself lost. When it was my turn to introduce myself, they commented about how Spanish I sounded, a result of my having learned the language from teachers who were from or studied in Spain.  

My speaking and listening skills have improved throughout my time in Chile, but the rapid pace, pronunciation and, of course, infinite slang still trip me up from time to time. In a classroom where speech is more formal speech, you’ll get used to understanding your professor without a problem. But talking among Chileans will certainly take effort. 

Talk to young Chileans 

In a foreign language program, one of the most valuable learning experiences is being surrounded by the language—embracing this will take your understanding to a new level. 

In terms of slang, one of the best ways to pick up the most relevant and modern terms and phrases is to talk to other young people. As in the U.S., teens and young adults here are at the forefront of language creation. Whether in class or at a party, talking to peers is by far the best way to pick it up.  

One of my first experiences with this was when my host sister took me out with her friends. , I found myself talking to a Chilean student who had studied abroad in California. We compared Chilean and American slang as others  added their insights. I learned more about Chilean Spanish that night than in the three weeks I had been in the country and, of course, I friended my new companion on Facebook. 

Ask your host family  

Your host family is another great resource. If you heard something you didn’t understand, your host family will most likely be able to help you. Some of my most valuable learning experiences have come from asking about things I hear at the dinner table with my host family. Living with a group of native speakers is truly invaluable for your learning abroad, so just like in a classroom, don’t be afraid to ask. 

Use your new words 

The best way to remember new slang and phrases is to incorporate them into your everyday conversation. Try to use a new word the first day you learn it, or if you can’t, talk to your host family about its use. In addition to helping plant the fresh new vocabulary in your mind, Chileans will be impressed by your knowledge of chilenismos. My first use of the word flaite was lauded by the Chileans with me, and when talking with a new Chilean friend, the topic of slang will almost always come up.  

You’ll find ample opportunities to use your new vocabulary, so before you arrive, get a jump on things with these starter words: 

Agua con gas/sin gas: Carbonated/non carbonated water 

Buena/mala onda: Good/bad vibe 

¿Cachai?: You know? 

Flaite: Sketchy 

Fome: Boring, lame 

Micro: City bus 

Pesado/a: Misbehaved 

Pololo/a: Boy/girlfriend 

-po = Sufffix to anything for emphasis (sípo, nopo, etc.) 

¡Que lata!: How boring! 

Taco: Traffic 

Vacán: Cool 

Weon/a: Dude 

—David G. (Northwestern University), Chilean Universities Programs, Santiago, IFSA Work-To-Study program international correspondent