Overcoming Language Barriers, one badly constructed sentence at a time

When I got off the bus in Viña del Mar last spring, after a two hour long bus ride with 4 other English speaking Americans, I was not expecting the welcome I received.

“Tu eres Mollie, tan liiiinda, estoy tan emocionada, como esta el viaje…”

If you speak Spanish, you probably know exactly what my host mother was saying to me from reading the above. However, after 3 semesters of beginning to intermediate level Spanish and a 2 month break without any Spanish practice at all, I was completely caught off guard by this string of unknown words and phrases.

If you add on top of that the fact that my host mom was using Chilenismos (a.k.a. words that Chileans made up to confuse any visitors that don’t speak Chilean Spanish) and speaking with a Chilean accent (a.k.a. fast and mumbly), I really didn’t have a chance. I just stared for a few minutes before she realized exactly how bad my knowledge of the Spanish language was. From there, she began to speak slower and explain more of the words I didn’t understand. It helped that I had three wonderful host siblings, one with a ton of English knowledge, to help me along when I just couldn’t figure the language out.

Advice for those traveling to countries with a foreign language:

  1. Practice the language before you leave. Even if you’re not in a language class, you need to be practicing how to speak the language and reviewing the more common words and phrases that you know you will come across more. I wish that I had practiced more before I left, because I know I would have been more comfortable practicing there as a result.
  2. Look into local dialects and slang. Chileans are notorious (little did I know before arriving) for their Chilenismos. The ‘S’ disappears from the ends of words, never to be seen again. If you’re taking a nap, you’re not “tomando una siesta” or “durmiendo,“ you’re “teniendo un tuto.”
  3. Try even when you’re unsure of yourself. Towards the middle of my trip, I realized my host mom could usually decipher what I was trying to say even if I didn’t really have all of the words or verb tenses right. The best thing about having a conversation with her- she would correct what I had said wrong! I realized that the people you’re around as a student studying abroad are all there to help you. Whether it was a friend, professor, or my wonderful family, everyone was really helpful to fix my faulty Spanish and to listen to me struggle through telling a story in order to help me to improve.

Although my Spanish was nowhere near fluent (at arrival or departure), it was easier than I had expected to get by, one badly constructed sentence at a time. In the end, my Spanish definitely improved and I am way more confident in my language skills now than before. Even if you’re at a very elementary level (which I was), you have to step out of your comfort zone to move on to the next level, whether that’s simple competency or advanced fluency. ¡Buena Suerte!


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