David-SantiagoWithin Latin America, there are many different dialects and accents of the Spanish language. In the thousands of miles over which the former Spanish empire stretches, one can find different slang words, greetings, pronunciations and even names of everyday foods. Each country is unique, but Chile is often cited as one of the most difficult dialects of Spanish, with its rapid, fluid speaking style and myriad of slang, of which they are very proud. Separated to the north by the world’s driest desert, to the east by the Andes mountains, and to the west and south by ocean, the country’s geography helps explain the development of the dialect. Nonetheless, for students looking to study abroad in Chile, this dialect can certainly seem intimidating.

Challenges for students

All students who study abroad with IFSA in a Spanish speaking country are required to have a background in the language, but Chilean Spanish provides a unique challenge for even the most educated of outside speakers.
In my first conversation with my host family, I found myself lost as they conversed amongst themselves, and 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, of course, 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 more formal speech is used, understanding your professor is generally something you will get used to without a problem, but talking amongst Chileans will certainly take some effort.

Best ways to learn

David- Santiago, ChileAnyone who has heard anything about studying abroad has heard this before, but it bears repeating: immersion is difficult, but worth it. In a foreign language program, one of the most valuable learning experiences is being surrounded by the language, and embracing that 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 are at the forefront of language creation, and as such they are the best people to learn from. Whether in class or at a party, talking to peers is by far the best way to pick up slang. One of my first experiences with this was when my host sister took me out with her friends. Sitting around a table at a pretty noisy bar, I found myself talking to a Chilean student who had previously studied abroad in California. We compared Chilean and American slang as the other people at the table added their insights. I learned more about Chilean Spanish that night than in the three weeks I had been in the country up to that point and, of course, I friended my new companion on Facebook.
In addition to the new friends you make, your host family is a great resource for learning specific words. If you heard something you didn’t understand, your host family will most likely be able to help you out and explain what it means. In addition, some of my most valuable learning experiences have come from asking about certain things I hear around 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!
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 sitting around the table with me, and when talking with a new Chilean friend, the topic of slang will almost always come up. There are ample opportunities to be found to use newfound vocabulary, so before you arrive, here are some words to get you started:

Starter words

  • ¿Cachai? = You know?
  • Fome = Boring/lame
  • Weon/a = Dude
  • ¡Que lata! = How boring!
  • Vacán = cool
  • Taco = traffic
  • Micro = city bus
  • Agua con gas/sin gas = carbonated/non carbonated water
  • Flaite = sketchy
  • Buena/mala onda = good/bad vibe
  • Pesado/a = misbehaved
  • Carrete = party
  • Pololo/a = boy/girlfriend
  • -po = suffix to anything for emphasis (Sípo, nopo, etc.)

David Gleisner is a Journalism and International Studies major at Northwestern University. He studied abroad with IFSA on the Chilean Universities Programs in Santiago, Chile. He is an international correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study program.