Why Spanish class in Guatemala didn’t prepare me for the Spanish in Chile


I just spent 4 weeks in Guatemala travelling around the country and speaking Spanish. I spent nearly 40 hours in Spanish lessons over the course of two weeks. I haggled in markets, warded off unwanted advances by virile Guatemalan males, and completed complex administrative tasks during my stay.

My diploma, pictured above, says I have a high-intermediate level of Spanish.

So why the heck can’t I understand anybody in Chile?

Chilean Spanish is hard (for me). Guatemalan Spanish is slow, deliberate. Guatemalans pronounce all their letters. I got over-confident with my Spanish level.

I have been Chile for two full days now and I feel like I don’t understand anybody. I have to ask people to repeat themselves. The most commonest of phrases are unrecognizable to me because people here don’t seem to pronounce the letter “s” in words. And Chilean Spanish is fast… REALLY fast. Gone is the relaxed, slow way of speaking I have become accustomed to in Guate.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Chilean Spanish. It is sexy. It is fast. The accent is exotic in that it’s different than what I’m used to. There are a zillion and one slang words and different ways of saying things here.

What I’m trying to say is: I love the variety of Spanish here, I love the code.

I just wish I could understand it.

That being said, this IS coming from the girl who has problems understanding Irish, Scottish, and Australian English- and I’m a native speaker.

Has anyone else had the experience of speaking a certain dialect/variety of a language, only to not understand people when you get to a region with a different dialect/variety?


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  • You are one amazing girl! I am so impressed. I'm not so good with languages. I lived in Germany for 10 years and never mastered German. Just when I thought I was doing so well and patted myself on the back, someone would burst my inflated bubble very quickly. Stay with it, you'll pick up quickly. Safe travels!

  • I studied abroad in the northern part of England and I found it difficult to understand the accent sometimes. Even when I could understand them, some of their phrases would throw me off. For example, instead of asking "how are you?" they would sometimes ask "You alright?". It always made me feel like I looked upset or sick to them haha til I realized that was just their way of asking 'how are you?'

  • I have family in the north of England near Leeds, and I can't understand a word they say. I just smile and nod like an idiot and pray they don't ask me any questions.

    Have fun in Chile! Can't wait to see pics!

  • Yup. I was in Cuba and I was like, what??!! Come again? I sometimes can't understand some English people either. You'll get used to the accents. Have a great time!!

  • The same thing happened to me when I went to Panama. I thought I "knew" Spanish because I could write ten page papers and have discussions about Spanish literature, yada, yada, yada. Then I arrived in Panama and QUE?!QUE?! I was sooo lost. They speak fast too and change and drop letters too! With time I was fine–and you will be too. Oh and I had the same problem with understanding Australians and Scots, at times Americans still!! Cuidate, chica.

  • You will initially have that feeling, but I do think you will get use to it. I still have a bit of trouble with Chilean, Argentine, and Honduran Spanish. Sometimes, I feel they are speaking a whole different language entirely lol. However, as kvowels has alluded to, it does bruise the ego a bit to not understand a certain Spanish when you have studied the language for a while. That's why I say that learning Spanish (and whatever other languages I become interested in) has become a life-long commitment. I just wish I knew when I can finally say I'm fluent in a language, besides my native one.

  • So true. Chilean Spanish is probably the hardest Spanish dialect to understand. My husband also speaks Spanish and one of his best friends is Chilean so he can manage it.

    It's the same here in Sweden actually. I speak "Stockholm" Swedish which is different (and more understandable) than the Skåne dialect in the south which even many native Swedes have a tough time understanding.

  • The difference between French in Paris and on the island of Martinique is pretty fast. In the latter there's a fusion of creole patois and French that makes for a confusing ride. I've had the same problem understanding people (or movies) from the Congo for similar reasons.

    Of course the root problem is that my French sucks.

    And I too have difficulty with English from certain places. Friends I've known from years supposedly use it but they're from Belfast so it's pretty unrecognizable. When I was in Liverpool no one could understand me and I couldn't understand them.

  • @Sixpence: Thank you! But don't knock yourself- German is KILLER! So hard to learn!!!

    @Marisa: LOL!! I have the HARDEST time with accents from the north of England… Like the accent from Newcastle… Whaa?!

    @Crystal: I'm doing a lot of smiling and nodding here!

    @Terri: Things are marginally better today but I have a long way to go!

    @kvowels: So you know exactly how I feel… 🙂

    @geotraveler: Your example reminds me somehow of the difference between "High" German and Swiss German… I have heard that even native German speakers who speak the standard variety have a devil of a time understanding the Swiss!

    @legrandezombie: Creole IS killer. And it doesn't help that Haiti/Guadelupean/Martinique are have differences that may not make them mutually intelligle to Creole speakers. I think that I'm beginning to realize that the real problem is that my Spanish kinda sucks, too… LOL

    @Mrs. Pancakes: Thank you!! Hope you'll stick around. 😉

  • I can't imagine feeling good knowing a new language only to go to another place and feel like you don't know a thing. I'm sure your ears will start picking it up all over again. And next thing you know, you'll be able to speak as fast as them. 🙂

    Emily w/Amazing Grapes

    • Chilean:
      ksajkjsa!! no wna, la weá que ‘hstá ‘ulando la galla e’h la pulenta, si vo vení y la única weá que haulai e’h e’hpañol (español) no vai a cachar ni una weá y vay a andar puro dando jugo. Y no e’h webeo

      Jajajaaj!!! No, amiga. Lo que la señorita está diciendo es completamente cierto, si tú (In some places vos = tú) vienes y el único idioma que hablas es español, entonces no vas a comprender nada y vas a perder mucho tiempo intentando establecer algún tipo de comunicación fluida con las personas. No estoy bromeando

  • Haha, welcome to Chile! I think everyone feels this way at first – there's really nothing quite like it, and it takes some getting used to for sure.

  • Don't feel sad about it. If you want to feel like a complete idiot, go to Cuba. Their spanish is spoken so fast you might get hurt. REALLY!

    • Cubans? no way, u say that cuz u don’t know how’s chileans sounds like lol

  • Baaaa-haaaa-haaa-haaa-haaa! (That's the love laughing chica. If you coulda heard my laughter you would've hated me. My in-laws were looking at me like I was crazy!)

    Anyway, I totally get it. It's like the first time I visited my in-laws and their Provencal friends were here. Oh. My. GOD. I didn't understand a thing. You'll get through, no worries. Just relax.

  • Here I am sitting and laughing inside. Fret not, I'm not laughing at you but at the fact that I've heard the same comment so many times. As a Cuban I know that we're very hard to understand as one of the posters wrote before me. I struggled to get the London accent at first and when confronted with Northerners (Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, I have to keep asking them to repeat what they've ust said). By the way, I love the Chilean accent. It's unique. What I mean is that Argentinians, Paraguayans and Uruguayans sound similar (though, you shouldn't tell them :-D), Bolivians, Ecuadorians and Peruvians sound similar, too. Cubans, Panamanians, Costa Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans have a similar accent and then you have Nicaraguans, Salvadorians and Guatemalans sounding similar, too. But Mexicans and Chileans? A world of their own.

    Enjoy your stay and wish you luck.

    Greetings from London.

  • I feel you. I'm still struggling learning Italian and I've been taking classes for the longest. I have a friend in England that I always have to tell her to slow down or to repeat herself because her English accent is something far off from the norm lol. I wish I could stay in a country and learn the language like you, but I have so much work here. Sigh

  • OMG this is just like my trip to Argentina. I had been practicing my Spanish and was ready, but that darn accent was the death of me. I found myself saying ?que? to the simplest of things, like hola! It was a mess, but made for fun times trying to direct direct taxi drivers among other things. If you stayed longer, you'd get the hang out it.

  • @Emily(Amazing Grapes): I sure hope so! Thanks for the kind words!

    @Emily (in Chile): I would love to get your perspective on how it was for you at first!! You can tell me on Tuesday. 🙂

    @liveletlive: LOL. You and me both.

    @Cynthia: Hahaha!! Love it!

    @tanya: So glad you could have a laugh at my expense… 😉 But seriously though, I'm Canadian, and I sometimes have problems understanding Quebec French.. eek!

    @Cuban in London: I went to Cuba years ago when I didn't speak Spanish at all so I don't remember the accent. I just love the diversity of Spanish accents, though! I came here expecting Chilean Spanish to sound very much like Argentinian Spanish. Silly me! Thanks for the comment.. 🙂

    @ Bougie Girl: Italian is such a gorgeous language. Are you taking classes in a language institute? Maybe for you next vacation from work you can go and do an immersion program in Italy somewhere for one or two weeks!

    @AbsoluteADT: That's the way I feel over here! I'm CONSTANTLY asking people to repeat themselves and I can't even imagine how annoyed they must get! But you're right, it's all about the adventure and the fun!

  • I'm with you on being a native English speaker and having trouble with other English speakers with accents. I'm particularly bad when it comes to the Welsh. I just smile and nod my head a lot.

  • Has anyone else had the experience of speaking a certain dialect/variety of a language, only to not understand people when you get to a region with a different dialect/variety?

    I'm studying linguistics right now and I completely understand how hard it can be to understand different dialects of the same darn language! We listen to recordings of Scottish and Canadian English and the stresses and intonations are on completely different words. (yes, I know you're Canadian but you all do sound a bit different when speaking English than thus us Americans, even if English if your first language!) When you think about all of this linguistic variety it's easy to see how a group of folks can end up secluded in a part of the world for a time and eventually their language ends up sounding completely different from the original group they were a part of.

  • If it makes you feel better, we had a Mexican friend who arrived and could not understand a word that Chileans were saying to her. So it's not just because you're learning Spanish. Even native speakers of other countries feel that way about the way they speak here!

  • @Monique: I don't think I have encountered Welsh before! Does it sound like Northern English?

    @homespunwisdom: There totally IS a difference between Canadian and American English! Especially with the "o"… I definitely do the whole "oot and aboot" thing… LOL

    @Mamacita: Thanks! I guess I'll just keep smiling and nodding… 🙂

  • Oneika,

    I had the exact same experience as you…repeated 3 times. I studied Spanish in the US and had my first experience in Mexico. From there I moved to Chile for 3 years, then Argentina and Puerto Rico. Each country required me to learn a vastly different vocabulary.

    Spanish varies significantly from country to country as you found. For that reason I created a series of books, and later a website, called Speaking Latino, that goes into the detail of the language unique to each country.

    If you have time, I would like to hear about the differences you found from Guatamala to Chile. I haven't had any experience with the Spanish in Guatamala and so am intrigued as to what words you found that changed drastically. Also, were there any words that you had never seen or learned before arriving there??

    If you are still in Chile, my book Speaking Chileno is available in most bookstores, and should help you better make the transition from Guatamalan to Chilean Spanish. I've also posted a couple blogs on my website about Chilean spanish, that should help you.

    Anyway, if you have any specific questions, write me, and I'll see if I can help.

    You'll find that the more you explore the diversity of Spanish, the more you'll be amazed by it.


  • Chile was such a shock to the system. I’d read something before about Chilean Spanish, and filed it away under “Eh, I don’t understand regular Spanish much either, it won’t make much difference”. But we spent the previous four a half months having very few problems with other countries’ Spanish, and then couldn’t even order a sandwich in Chile without several minutes of “Que? QUE?!”

    The only other place I’ve experienced this is in Naples, Italy. But they’re proud to confused everyone- other Italians and foreigners alike!

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