Before leaving for Chile, I was forewarned of their Spanish. “You plan on studying Spanish in Chile?” several friends asked me with worried faces. Thanks to their rapid speech, frequent word-shortening, and extensive slang, many consider Chileno to be the most difficult of all the Spanish dialects. In my naive overconfidence, I thought they were over-exaggerating the difficulty. I now look back at my former self and laugh at how wrong I was.
With years of middle school, high school, and university Spanish courses, I left the U.S. with an overly inflated view of my Spanish abilities. I could read and write relatively well, and I’d gotten good grades on presentations in Spanish classes. In my mind, this added up to near-fluency. Ha, wrong again.
When I first arrived in Chile, I had a mild freak out. The Spanish was so fast! I couldn’t decipher the individual words to save my life. Everything was a bundle of syllables, with only a few individual words jumping out with any meaning. “But I always did so well with those listening tapes in high school,” I thought in sad disbelief. Turns out, those listening tapes about Juan eating bread and María buying a dress don’t actually help much in real life. Who would’ve thought?
After eating that giant slice of humble pie and moping for a bit over the reality of my crappy Spanish, I realized I needed to work hard if I wanted to achieve my goal of leaving with fluency. While I definitely am not close to a native-speaker’s fluidity, I would say I achieved my goal. For those interested, here are some tips that worked for me:
- Be honest with yourself, with others. If you don’t understand something, don’t pretend you do. Although you may be embarrassed to admit your ignorance and don’t want to burden the other person, it’s kind of rude not to. If you don’t say something, most people assume you understand. You’ll miss out on good learning opportunities and good conversation.
- Be patient with yourself, with others. Learning a language is hard! Some days you will feel fluent, other days you will feel like you’ve never heard a word of the language before. Don’t give up, just understand it’s part of the process. Additionally, be patient with people who struggle to understand you, even if you think your grammar is good. The fact is, you will probably have a strong accent that is difficult to understand. If they haven’t had much interaction with foreigners, this could be a tough situation for them, too.
- Watch TV TV may be a time suck in the U.S., but in another language it is a learning tool. Every day at lunchtime I watched Avenida Brasil, a Brazilian soap opera (dubbed in Spanish) with my host family. I improved my comprehension, bonded with my mom discussing the overly dramatic plotline, and ogled some Brazilian man candy—all good things.
- Live with a host family Beyond understanding the culture and forming relationships with actual native citizens of the country where you study (this is surprisingly rare for some study abroad experiences), constantly hearing and speaking the language is a huge help. Plus it’s pretty comforting to have home-cooked meals and a family to come back to, especially if feeling homesick.
- Take classes in the language Reading, writing, speaking, and listening to the language will help greatly. The teachers understand you are there to learn the language, so this is the place to make mistakes and ask any questions you may have been embarrassed to ask others.
- Carry a notebook Whenever you hear new words and phrases, write them down. Review them often and try to integrate them into your speech.
- Read the newspaper Your reading comprehension will improve, you will be better informed, and you will have more to discuss with your friends, teachers, whoever.
- Talk with strangers Sorry parents, but I advise forgetting the “stranger danger” mentality. Talking to strangers is a great, low-pressure way to practice the language. If you fail miserably, you will probably never see them again. If it goes well, you will likely end up learning a lot and maybe even walk away with a good story.
- Eavesdrop Yes, this is mildly creepy. But listening in on casual conversations on the bus, in the store, wherever, is great practice.
- Practice with other exchange students Although it may feel unnatural and awkward at times, practicing the language with other English speakers works well. They, too, are learning and can easily explain a grammatical nuance in a way you can understand.
If some of the suggestions in this list seem dorky or social awkward, that’s because they are. Learning another language takes effort and can be really uncomfortable. However, it’s completely worth it. There is a notable difference between meeting someone in their native language and their second (or third, or fourth, etc.) language. The cultural nuances of a native speaker’s language give much insight into their background and personality. Learning another language allows you to enter into a new world of people, places, literature, film, and music. Suffering a few uncomfortable social situations is a small price to pay.