I Have No Words, And I Must Chat (Chilean Spanish)

The Chilean flag flying over Arica, the country's northernmost city.

Chilean Spanish is even harder to grasp than regular Spanish.  

Back in the UK, I grew up in a town bursting with immigrants--and the kind of people who take umbrage with immigrants, for daring to move from one place to another. One memory that sticks in the mind is of queuing in a doctor's surgery and watching the small shrivelled woman behind the reception desk pitilessly dismiss some poor Pakistani lady possessing hardly any English skills (not quite enough to make an appointment), with the kind of malevolent glee only an NHS receptionist can muster.

Being on the other end of the conversation is instructive. Passing through Chile, I've had a hard time mustering even the basic communication skills I managed in Peru and Bolivia. Chilean Spanish is heavily accented, machine-gun fast, and full of confusing local idioms. I can, when pressed, just about manage to buy an apple. Just.

A pelican lands at the bustling port of Arica. I also find pelicans difficult to communicate with .

It's a curious feeling,  for someone who is used to communicating in English with ease and fluency. Suddenly, huge tracts of language are inaccessible to me. Concepts that ought to be well within my grasp have become impossible to convey, as if great chunks of my brain have been scooped out. Even the slightest conversation is a palpable effort, with most Chileans nodding patiently along to before switching abruptly to English. It's hard not to feel as if you've suddenly dropped by at least 100 IQ points.

It's inevitable that we judge people by their language skills; language is our single point of interface with each other, and there's no way around it. Perhaps this is why it's so important to try learning another language--not just to learn it, but also to experience what it's like to fumble at the tongue around you.  Worse than knowing nothing is knowing just enough to say hello, and not quite enough to connect.

It's easy to take expressing yourself for granted when you speak English, and the whole world strains to speak it with you.

But every once in a while, it's enlightening to be lost for words.

The busy port of Arica, a gateway in and out of Chile.



A few interesting Chilean ibits of Chilean slang:

>Unlike the rest of South America, money in Chile is called "plata," (silver) not "dinero" (Robert).

>Similarly, "pololo," means "boyfriend," while the rest of the Spanish speaking world uses "novio." "Polola," is "girlfriend," instead of "novia." Neither should be confused with "pollo," which is in fact Spanish for "chicken."

>"Luca," is a slang term for a thousand peso note.

>"Bacán" means "cool."

>"Cachai?" means "Understand?" (I do not.)

...And many, many more.