Chilean Spanish: Language Lessons

So you took high school Spanish, maybe even some classes in college.  It’s been a few years, but you at least know how to say “hello,” “goodbye,” “I want a beer,” “where is the bathroom,” and “thank you.” Right?

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Not so fast, there, weon.  Chileans don’t frequently use “hola” or “adios.” They say “alo” and “ciao ciao.

Did you just order a beer on the menu? Hard to be sure, because the response was at least four sentences long and might have included a question or a statement or both, but the bartender is still looking at you. She wants to know if you want a lata, a chopp, or a chela, and she doesn’t have any of the options that are listed on the menu, cachai?

Maybe you’re talking transport, and your pololo offers you a ride instead of having to take public transit, but the words coche, carro, and autobus never appear in the conversation.  He wants you in his auto, not on the micro. Da real.

You’re hungry and you want a taco?  Let me tell you–you don’t want a taco.  A taco is a traffic jam, and considering Chilean driving styles, can be not only frustrating but terrifying. Appetite gone? Si poh.

Bacán, you’ve gotten your Chilean-isms down.  So you’re set right? No poh.

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The Chilean version of castellano is spoken incredibly fast, dropping consonants like crazy, and often spoken with a very closed (*ahem* mumble) mouth.

Yes, in Andalucia, there were dropped consonants. Men, particularly those from Basque country, hardly even move their mouths when they speak in Spain. And everyone marvels about how fast Spanish is spoken by native speakers. I tend to take relative observations with a grain of salt.

I’d had native speaking teachers throughout high school and college combined with multiple abroad experiences. On vacation in Mexico, I was proud of how little coaxing the language had needed to inundate my brain with thoughts in Spanish instead of constantly translating from English to Spanish and back again. Yes, I had heard that Chilean Spanish was one of the most difficult and fast manifestations of the language.  I knew Chilean Spanish would be different.  I still figured I’d acclimate within a few weeks.

Oh boy, I was wrong.  People who I speak with in stores, in the neighborhood, at my job–they all tell me my Spanish is good. But there’s a pragmatist lurking inside reminding me that the grammatical error I made in the first sentence out of my mouth gave me away.

I’ve evolved the tone, diction, and cadence of my speaking, but I don’t feel like I’ve mastered new turns of phrase or verb usage.  I listen HARD, and actually try to be as efficient with as few words as possible when I do speak, cutting down on possible mistakes as I bumble through.

In a professional setting, all I can do is slow…way…down…in my own speaking, and in the speech of others.  As I listen on the phone or in person I repeat, verbatim, the words I’ve heard to be sure that I’ve understood correctly.  By chewing the words in my own mouth, I can figure out what the person just said.  Sometimes it clues the speaker in that I missed a word or important phrase and they’ll slow down or simplify.

I try not to do this around my boss. I’m not sure how I fooled her in my interview, but I’m always afraid she’s going to realize how terrible my Spanish is. It makes me mess up more around her, being nervous.  Luckily, she speaks pretty clearly and punctuates everything with a cheerful “si poh, obvio.” I smile and nod, pretty universal.

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Weon: This seems to have evolved from the word “huevon,” which is also slang. It can be used in a good natured way like “bro,” or “dude.” It can also be used in a derogatory way like “idiot” or “half-wit.”

Lata, Chopp, and Chela: Three different ways to refer to beer in Chile, where “cerveza” is infrequently used.  Lata would be in a can, chopp would be a large draught beer, and chela would usually be a blond lager in a bottle. And inventory on something seems to always be slim.

Cachai?: Means “do you understand?” I’ve been told it comes from English “catch that?” and is used like “you know?” or “got it?”

Pololo/a: Pololo/a is a boyfriend or girlfriend, whether in jest, for a week, or for years. A novio or novia in Chile refers to an engagement.  Pololeando is a fun word to say, and means “dating” or “screwing around with.”

Coche, Carro, and Auto: All meaning car.  In Spain use coche.  In Mexico use carro.  In Chile it’s auto. 

Autobus and Micro: In Spain, I only ever heard the word autobus which gets abbreviated to bus.  Here in Chile, as I’ve mentioned in another post, there are different levels of bus like the city buses or the bigger buses that travel the length of the country.  Micro is definitely the most often spoken about.

Da real: For real.

Taco: Means traffic jam.  I have also been told that it means the heel of a shoe. I’m not clear if that is actually the word Chileans use for heel, or if the “n” at the end of the word “tacón” has recently been forgotten.  In all cases, it does not allude to delicious Mexican food.  And now I’m dreaming of fish tacos.

Si poh and No poh: Poh” is commonly tacked on at the end many sentences.  “Poh” is derived from the Spanish word “pues” meaning “well.” I hear in Peru they finish sentences with “peh” instead of “poh.”  Language is an incredible thing.

Bacán: Awesome, cool, or sweet.

Castellano: Castellano is the language of Castille, the central ruling province of Spain. There are hundreds of dialects spoken in Spain but during the periods of Spanish imperialism, monarchs declared Castellano as the official language of the country of Spain.  Español or Spanish is a more inclusive word to use, as it covers the language spoken all over Central and Latin America as well as in Spain.  To refer to the language one speaks as “castellano” as Chileans do has certain class implications. But this shouldn’t be so surprising, as Chile is a highly classist society in my observation.





3 thoughts on “Chilean Spanish: Language Lessons

  1. Anita Urbanski says:

    A fascinating, entertaining article. Now I am even more nervous about visiting. And also more impressed that you are working in a foreign country. You brave girl.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. travelchowdown says:

    This is really interesting, I’ve been learning ‘Spanish’ Spanish for almost a year now but Latin American Spanish seems different in every country! I’ll be bookmarking this page for our arrival in Chile :p


    • thehighwayisgreen says:

      Que bueno! A whole world of wonderful awaits you! Language is often key to understanding culture, and the subtleties across country lines offer me all sorts of wonderful jems of understanding. It´s one of my favorite parts of the adventure. Suerte!

      Liked by 1 person

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