Let’s Talk About: Unintelligible Chilean Spanish

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-8-45-05-pmSooo, can anyone who speaks speaks Spanish accurately translate that entire statement? It’s a University student complaining about protests that have stopped classes. My guess is if you haven’t spent time in Chile, the answer is no.  That’s cause Chilean Spanish is barely Spanish at all.  In fact, a lot of native Spanish speakers can’t understand Chileans.

Now there are definitely varying levels to how Chileans speak.  Some speak ‘standard’ Spanish with just a few idiomatic expressions.  Other people are so ‘Chilean’ they barely make sense.  My host brothers were a good example of this.  My older host brother, who was 23, spoke very understandable Spanish – likely cause he’s studying kinesiology and he has to be very precise with his language.  Conversely, my younger host brother, who was 16, was nearly unintelligible.  Even after a full semester living with him, it was hard to maintain good conversation.  Not surprisingly, I was much closer with my older host brother than my younger.

This experience with my host brothers demonstrates something very interesting in Chilean culture: education level is clearly correlated to how correctly a Chilean speaks Spanish.

So let’s get into why Chilean Spanish is so confusing.  I think you can break it up into three categories: 1) a high number of uniquely Chilean words and phrases. 2) the lack of descriptive language replaced by idiomatic expressions.  3) poor pronunciation and enunciation.

1)  Now of these three categories, the large number of uniquely Chilean words or phrases is the least significant.  After all, every Spanish speaking country has its own slang and its own unique words.  That’s nothing new.  However, I would argue that Chile has a higher number than is typical.  Chile has a different word for avocado, beans, boring, to party, to date, and hangover, just to name a few.  But again, as I said before, this is not overly significant, as it only take a little while to learn these exclusively Chilean phrases.

2) The lack of descriptive language however, is a hugely complicating factor.  Two Chilean words in particular are indicative of the lack of descriptors in Chilean Spanish – wea and cachai.  Cachai means ‘got it?’ and wea means ‘thing’ or ‘that’.  In conjunction, these two words allow Chileans to speak in a very inferential, rather than direct, manner.  ‘Wea’ can be used to describe nearly anything.  So, instead of saying ‘Look at that sign across the street next to the grocery store’, a Chilean would say: ‘Oye, mira esa wea’, literally ‘look at that thing’.  It’s then up to the listener to use context clues and interpret what ‘thing’ actually represents.

Similarly, most Chileans, if they are making a point or explaining something, end their sentences with ‘cachai?’, essentially asking if the person listening understands.  However, strangely, simply saying cachai is enough to assume the person does understand.  They’ll be explaining a complicated topic or giving directions, and then say ‘got it?’  But, rather than give the person the opportunity to say ‘yea I got it’ or ‘no I don’t’, they just quickly keep talking.  As the listener, you’re supposed to figure out what they mean, as it’s not normal to explain everything in explicit detail.

I could go on about this point in particular for another thousand words, because it’s a fascinating aspect of Chilean culture/cultural expectations.  I’m going to touch on this again when I talk about drinking culture in Chile, as when they’re drunk, Chileans use even fewer descriptors than normal, becoming even harder to understand.

3) Poor pronunciation and lack of enunciation.  This one is frustrating.  In lots of Spanish-speaking countries, people talk quickly and cut off the ends of certain words.  A common example of this is saying ‘ma o meno’ instead of ‘mas o menos’ (meaning: more or less).  However, in Chile, every word is said in this manner.  If a word ends in an ‘s’ sound or a ‘d’ sound, it’s likely that they just cut that sound out.  It makes words flow together, and it becomes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.  I found I had to be looking at a person’s mouth to be able to understand them, as otherwise I couldn’t tell which word was which.

There are so many other aspects of Chilean Spanish that I could touch on (the ubiquitous use of the word ‘weon’ as ‘dude’, ending arbitrary words with ‘po’, etc), but I think I’ve covered the basics here.  I actually came to love Chilean Spanish over time despite how frustrating it could be, and I definitely miss it a lot.





2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: Unintelligible Chilean Spanish

  1. ¡Tienes razón! As a Spanish native speaker, I understood like 75% of the text because as you said, the guy used many colloquial idioms that, most of them, are only understood by Chilean people. ¡Me gustó el post!


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