I thought I was pretty prepared to be in a Spanish immersion program in Chile. I had taken Spanish since middle school. I thought I was good at it too! I’ve loved Spanish ever since I learned how to say hola. It’s like a door into a whole other world. With Spanish, all of those incomprehensible signs and conversations start to make sense. What others might have seen as a burdensome grammar class was an hour of discovery to me. Every small detail, every new way to twist those exotic words was a delight!
Learning another language even made me examine my own. It brought up questions like why do we say, “I like ____.” In English, but in Spanish you say, “___ pleases me.” Even more interesting, where do our sayings come from? Why does “The apple of my eye” in English mean someone is precious to you, while “Walking like a duck” [Andar en pato] mean going broke in Spanish? I’m still trying to find the answers to questions like these, which is what keeps up my enthusiasm for learning.
Now that I’m smack dab in the middle of a Spanish speaking country, everything is completely different from what I expected. First off, Chileans speak quickly. Plus they have plenty of slang never used outside of the country. Palta is avocado, pololo is boyfriend and so on.
It was embarrassing to ask my friends, classmates and teachers to slow down and repeat what they said again and again and my first few weeks of classes actually gave me headaches. It turns out I was focusing so hard on translating what was being said that I hurt myself! Another interesting reason why it was so hard to speak Spanish at first was my confidence. The first few nights I sat down to dinner with my host family I would freeze up. I barely knew these people, I didn’t want to insult them by accidentally saying something offensive, or leave the impression that I was a mute, clueless foreigner. The conflict of emotions and thoughts often left me tongue-tied.
My host mom would ask me something as simple as “Would you like some juice?” and I would stare and stammer while my mind in turmoil tried to dig up the words. After a too-long pause I would force out a sí and finally hold out my glass for her to fill. On the flip side I would try so hard to answer her quickly and smartly that a river of incomprehensible words would spill out. I was so nervous I wouldn’t even realize I sounded ridiculous until my host mother would give me a confused look and ask, what?
Luckily I no longer have this much trouble speaking. The majority of this I attribute to the amount of time I’ve been in Chile. I began to realize that I couldn’t be so tightly wound for every class I went to. I didn’t have the energy to stay that stressed all the time! At home answering routine questions became simpler and as I got to know my host family I felt less self-conscious about saying something incorrect or foolish. The words that at first had flown out of my head finally were natural! I also began to make Chilean friends, which was a huge help to me. I was now able to sit down and talk for hours in a mish-mash of Spanish and English. Better yet, some of them wanted to practice their English, so I only had to worry about responding in Spanish. I also felt comfortable enough to ask how to say something in Spanish and the Chileans, like the sweet people they are, would take their time laying out the word’s meaning in several ways.
This help led me to a realization about a month into my time here. I was chatting with a Chilean friend on the train when it struck me: my Spanish had improved! In the US English-speakers had surrounded me. No matter how good I thought I was at Spanish I didn’t have the fluidity that comes from thinking and talking in the language nearly 24/7. Here I was forced out of my comfort zone and it did me some real good. Now switching back and forth between my two languages comes naturally and I’m starting to think in Spanish, a sure fire sign that I am improving. I still have a lot to learn, but more recently being fluent in Spanish has become a realistic goal, instead of a mountainous task.
Sign for a bakery
A graffiti of resistance, which is very common across the country
A word in Mapudungo, a native Chilean language.