24 In Chile/ Language learning/ Linguistics/ Spanish

WHAT MAKES CHILEAN SPANISH SO DIFFICULT TO LEARN?

If you’re an expat in Chile, you’ve most likely heard one of the following phrases: 

1. Chilean Spanish is different from the Spanish you learn in class.

2. Even native Spanish speakers have trouble understanding Chileans.

3. Chilean Spanish is the hardest Spanish to learn.

4. If you can understand Chilean Spanish, you can understand anything in the language.

Today, I’m here to dig deeper into #3, from a linguist’s point of view. We’ve all heard that Chilean Spanish is challenging. Most likely, you’ve even experienced the struggle of learning the Chilean dialect first-hand. So, what makes Chilean Spanish so challenging to learn?

“S” Aspiration

You’ve probably heard people say, “Chileans don’t pronounce the ‘s’. ” While this may seem to be what they’re doing, in linguistics, Chileans aspirate the “s” at the end of a word when it follows a vowel. For example, let’s take a phrase like: 

Los chilenos son más conservadores. 

In Spanish class, we were always taught to pronounce the “s”. Contrary to what most people think, Chileans are not entirely leaving off the ‘s’; instead, it is aspirated to [h]. So, if the Chilean pronunciation of this previous phrase were to be written out (in layman‘s pronunciation, not in the phonetic script), it would be something like: 

Loh chilenoh son máh conservadoreh.

So, what’s the difficulty?

The aspiration of the ‘s’ often makes it hard for those learning Spanish to distinguish where one word ends and another begins. Language learners are caught listening for a sound that they were taught in a traditional Spanish classroom that is not actually “pronounced” in the Chilean dialect.

“D” Elision/Lenition

While “s” is the most common letter to trip up students of Chilean Spanish, “d” would most certainly be the second. It’s not that Chileans never pronounce the “d”. For example, you’ll notice in words like difundir and dibujar that the “d” is pronounced like normal. However, we run into a bit of a challenge when vowels surround a “d”. In Spanish, this would be about adjectives and participles ending in “ado,” as well as some nouns. For example: 

La casa abandonada 

El teclado

Un hogar organizado

You’ll notice that in the first example, we have a feminine adjective (thus the ‘a’ ending). In this case, the pronunciation would sound something like: 

La casa abandoná

Instead of pronouncing the “d”, the vowel “a” is accented (in pronunciation ONLY, the spelling in written form does not change and will never change).

In the second and third cases, we see a similar occurrence. The pronunciation becomes: 

El teclao

Un hogar organizao

So, when we have a masculine ending, we will see the same pronunciation as “ao” in the word “chao”.

So, what’s the difficulty?

Once again, language learners will be listening for a sound that they are not going to hear. Nonetheless, it’s not that difficult once you know to look for it. I would argue that the “d” lenition is less difficult to catch than the “s” aspiration as it usually occurs in the middle of two vowels instead of at the very end of the word.

“Ai” conjugation

Something very random happens in Chile in the tú conjugation. The actual pronoun “tú” remains the same (except for the occasional vos); however, the conjugation changes. For example, in Standard Spanish, you would hear conjugation such as “hablas, comes, llamas, pides, etc.”. Nonetheless, Chileans conjugate these differently. 

Tú hablas → Tú hablai 

Tú comes → Tú comi

Tú llamas → Tú llamai 

Tú pides → Tú pedi

You’ll notice that in Spanish there are “-ar”,”-er”, and “-ir” verbs. You can see above that “-ar” conjugates as an “ai” ending while “-er” and “-ir” verbs take an “i” ending.

So, what’s the difficulty?

I don’t fault our Spanish teachers for not teaching us the “ai” conjugation. I mean, if they were to take the time to show us the different conjugations that each Spanish speaking country uses, it would just be superfluous. Since Chile is a smaller nation (17.62 million people), this isn’t something that we are likely even to realize until we visit Chile. So, my advice is just to pick it up as you go along. Start imitating the conjugations that you hear your Chilean friends use.

Chilenismos

Like with any country, Chilean Spanish has its own phrases/sayings. Nonetheless, let me be utterly forthcoming in saying that Chile is notorious for its chilenismos. In a way, I feel that as a U.S. Southerner, I can relate. For example, I hear my grandparents say things all of the time that I know my friends from other regions of the U.S. would never understand. Still, Chile, as a country, not just as a region, loves its slang. Here are some examples of sayings that, to the best of my knowledge, you’ll only hear in Chile (I’ve highlighted the words that are “Chilean”):

¿Me cachai?

Dame un pinchintún, porfa.

¿Me apañai a jugar una pichanga?

Lo hago al tiro.

…and that’s just the beginning. There are loads of books and articles that cover the thousands of Spanish expressions that are native to Chile. One of my favorites? How to Survive in the Chilean Jungle.

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

So, what’s the difficulty?

Well, unless you had a Chilean Spanish teacher, your professor most likely didn’t even know these chilenismos to begin with. When arriving in Chile, do your best to familiarize yourself with these Chilean phrases. That way, even if you don’t feel comfortable using these expressions, you will still be able to understand their meaning.

Regional vocabulary

When I began to learn Spanish in school, I didn’t know it at the time, but many of the words I was being taught were variants that just aren’t used everywhere. I would venture to say that, having learned Spanish in the United States, I was most often taught the Central American version of certain words. Once you start traveling to different Spanish-speaking nations, you’ll notice that many of the vocabulary words are different. This is just like if we were to compare American and British English. So, while words like carro and aguacate are acceptable in Mexico, the terms for these concepts in Chile are auto and palta. I’ve written an entire post about this concept, titled: Chilean Vocabulary You Didn’t Learn in Class.

So, what’s the difficulty?

Sometimes I think that when we’re taught something in school, we automatically accept that that’s the way it is. So, it’s hard for us to change some of the most simple Spanish vocabularies that we were taught in one of our first classes. However, after spending a more extended period in Chile, I promise that this gets easier.

What’s your opinion? What makes Chilean Spanish so tricky to learn?

 

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    Marcella ~ WhatAWonderfulWorld
    March 1, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    I can relate to alllll of these, but I do love my Chilean Spanish!

  • Reply
    Sarah
    March 2, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    I’ve highlighted the same details when thinking about it! I’m wondering why exactly it makes other Spanish variations so much easier to understand after learning Chilean Spanish?

    • Reply
      UnaWeaitaWhite
      June 12, 2020 at 1:23 am

      I’m chilean and i can’t answer that to u because i think that’s just wrong, Speaking chilean spanish will not make easier to you to learn another spanish variations, They’re totally different!

    • Reply
      UnaWeaitaWhite
      June 12, 2020 at 1:25 am

      Sorry for my bad english, I told ya i’m chilean.

  • Reply
    Killian
    March 3, 2017 at 7:26 am

    What makes it so difficult to learn is the fact that there is so little literature in the public domain for people to study it! With more posts like these it should become much easier.

  • Reply
    Mariah
    March 4, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    Teachers don’t teach the “Ai” conjugation because is a a very informal way to speak. You can use “Ai” conjugation talking to family, friends and colleagues, but not to your boss or professors! It depends on who are you talking to… It could be very rude if you don’t know when to use it.

    • Reply
      Emily
      February 20, 2019 at 10:49 am

      Totally agree! The “Ai” conjugation is not correct grammatically! It is very informal, and you shouldn’t use it to write formal emails.

  • Reply
    Ravi
    May 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    I personally Appreciate your hard work… Have a great future and good wishes, do your best.

  • Reply
    Nancy
    June 6, 2017 at 9:55 pm

    Very interesting! After my first couple years of studying Spanish and having two Chilean exchange students live with my family, it was my turn to spend time living with a family in Chile. It’s a good thing didn’t know Chilean Spanish was considered so difficult to speak. I just dove in. Other trips to Chile have continued my love affair with the country

    I’ve since learned Portuguese in Brazil, another lovely language.

  • Reply
    Rebecca
    July 5, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Great post, Leah! Very informative, though I didn’t know before I read it that Chilean Spanish was considered difficult to learn 😉 I have always been told that the Andalucian accent should be one of the worst because they eat most of the endings of the words. Actually, a lit bit the same as your point about the S and D in Chilean Spanish 🙂 But now I’m at least prepared for when I’m one day going to visit Chile that it might be difficult too 😊 Thanks!

  • Reply
    Raniero
    February 21, 2018 at 11:28 am

    I can undoubtly agree with all the topics but one: Just like Japanese people who respects the quality of vowels when they are together, specially when these vowels are the same, like the word (Hojo would be “/Oodzo/”, it the same with “La casa abandonada” which would be “La casa abandonaá”. In fact, a formal way to write this would be “La casa abandona’a”. This means that just the consonant is elided and not merging the vowels into one, even when their quality is the same, phonetically speaking. But, of course, the thing you are saying is possible as well.

  • Reply
    Jessica J Jackson-Huertas
    August 10, 2018 at 6:14 am

    Thank you for explaining it so well! I will use this explanation in my classes!

  • Reply
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    […] Characteristics of Chilean Spanish: Chilean Spanish is similar to the Spanish you would find in southern Spain mixed with Quechua and Mapudungun. Chilean Spanish also has their own conjugation, ending many words with an “ay” sound. […]

  • Reply
    Nicolás Carrasco-Stevenson
    January 16, 2019 at 9:42 am

    (Disclaimer: This is an oversimplification so please take it with a grain of salt)
    What you describe as “The ‘Ai’ conjugation” is formally known as “voseo verbal” and it has some relations to the “voseo pronominal” that is typical in the Rioplatense dialect (among other dialects) spoken in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
    Even though there are no hard and fast rules to come up with this conjugation in chilean spanish, there is more method to the madness than what many may think. Similarly to the rioplatense version, everything begins with the conjugation of the verb for the second person plural: vosotros. Using the same verbs used in the article, here is how to derive the conjugation:

    Hablar -> (vosotros) habláis -> [Drop the “s” and you have the chilean conjugation] -> tú hablái
    -> [Drop the “i” and you have the rioplatense conjugation] -> vos hablás

    Comer -> (vosotros) coméis -> [Drop the “e” and you have the chilean conjugation] -> tú comís (or comíh)
    -> [Drop the “i” and you have the rioplatense conjugation] -> vos comés

    Pedir -> (vosotros) pedís -> [No change to get the chilean conjugation] -> tú pedís (or pedíh)
    -> [No change to get the rioplatense conjugation] -> vos pedís

    I understand that knowing which letter you should drop seems entirely arbitrary, because it is, but I hope you can appreciate that the apple doesn’t fall far away from the three.
    If you want to know more about this phenomenon, then just google around for “voseo verbal” and Google shall provide.

  • Reply
    Chan Roberts
    March 2, 2019 at 8:35 am

    What about the zho sound I often hear when listening to Chileno radio online?

    • Reply
      Leah Shoup
      March 8, 2019 at 10:28 am

      Hi Chan! Would you mind providing me with an example for context?

  • Reply
    RGC
    March 28, 2019 at 9:07 pm

    Great post! What I have discovered (to my horror) is that most Chileans do not master the skills to speak (or write) formal Spanish. It’s not a question of speech preferences or picturesque idioms. They just manage to keep afloat with their limited dialectal competences. The tide is inexorably engulfing even the so-called “educated classes” and is creating growing islands of functional inarticulateness.

  • Reply
    Jonatan
    March 13, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    I had so much fun reading this article. didn’t know we were so damn hard to understand.

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Yerco Roa
    September 10, 2020 at 12:25 am

    I totally agree with you, Leah! I would add the “CH” pronunciation for both sh and ch spelling. I will provide a few examples:

    • We say suchi instead of sushi.
    • We say chort instead of short.
    • We say machmelou instead of mashmellow
    • We say chou instead of show

    My friends from other latin countries made fun of us about this when they visited me here, in Chile jajaja

  • Reply
    Yerco Roa
    September 10, 2020 at 12:31 am

    I totally agree with you, Leah! I would add the “CH” pronunciation for both sh and ch spelling. I will provide a few examples:

    • We say “suchi” instead of sushi.
    • We say “chort” instead of short (as noun: I will use “chort” because it is sunny)
    • We say “machmelou” instead of mashmellow
    • We say “chou” instead of show (as noun: Do you watch any TV “chou” at night?)

    My friends from other latin countries made fun of us about this when they visited me here, in Chile jajaja

  • Reply
    Pablo
    December 20, 2020 at 3:16 am

    El español chileno tiene variantes importantes: norte vs sur del país (no se entienden al 100%), clases sociales, sector etario. Muchas expresiones que explicas del chileno, no son de un mismo grupo. Por ejemplo, “pichintún” proviene del mapuche y se escucha al sur del país, en la zona centro y norte se utiliza “poquito” o “cagaá” (informales). La pronunciación también varía mucho, siendo la sureña la más variada y compleja, con inflexiones que no se oyen más al norte. Lo mismo ocurre con el español chileno metropolitano (o santiaguino), que se hacen notar expresiones y pronunciación muy diferentes según el estrato socioeconómico. En sectores con alto capital cultural las “S”, “Ch” y “T” se pronuncian fuerte, en zonas más humildes no es así y la entonación es diferente (muy diferente).

  • Reply
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