5 In Chile/ Language learning/ Linguistics/ Spanish


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 difficult to learn?

1. “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 actually 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 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.

2. “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 a “d” is surrounded by vowels. In Spanish, this would be in reference to 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 case, we see a similar occurrence. The pronunciation becomes: 

El teclao

Un hogar organizao

So, when we have a masculine ending, we will see a pronunciation similar to the “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. In fact, I would argue that the “d” lenition is less difficult to catch than the “s” aspiration as it normally occurs in the middle of two vowels instead of at the very end of the word.

3. “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 teach us the different conjugations that each Spanish speaking country uses, it would just be superfluous. Due to the fact that Chile is a smaller nation (17.62 million people), this isn’t something that we are likely to even realize until we visit Chile. So, my advice is to just pick it up as you go along. Start imitating the conjugations that you hear your Chilean friends use.

4. Chilenismos

Like with any country, Chilean Spanish has its own phrases/sayings. Nonetheless, let me be completely forthcoming in saying that Chile is notorious for its chilenismos. In a way, I feel that as a U.S. Southerner, I can kind of 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.

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 to 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.

5. 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. In fact, 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 actually 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 just automatically accept that that’s the way it is. So, it’s hard for us to change some of the most simple Spanish vocabulary that we were taught in one of our first classes. However, after spending a longer period of time in Chile, I promise that this gets easier.

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

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  • 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
    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
    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
    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
    May 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm

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

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