One thing that can be surprising for Spanish speakers or for Spanish learners, travelling to South America for the first time, is the sheer variety and many subtle differences when it comes to the quality of the spoken Spanish in each different countries. Personally, although I was a newbie to the language when I arrive in Chile for the first time, I thought I had a pretty good idea what it was all about as I had lived in Spain for several months. I soon discovered that it was a whole different ball game!
I suppose it is a lot like the difference between British English as it is spoken in the UK and US English, or maybe Australian or South African English. It’s all English at the end of the day, and for native speakers it’s pretty easy telling them apart and spotting the different accents and slang and so forth. Even when you can’t understand some of the heavier slang and thicker accents you can still basically track along with what’s being said and understand the majority. However in a second language, especially one in which you are a beginner, this is not so easy.
My idea of Spanish was what you hear when you are in Spain and I had already picked up a few common Spanish expressions and typical words and pronunciations, thinking that was Spanish as it would be spoken everywhere. I soon discovered that this was not exactly the case however when my new Chilean friends smirked at my Spanish style pronunciation of the letter ‘z’ or use of the word ‘vale’ which is hardly ever used in South America. That basically means ‘okay’ in English and I think rolls off the tongue nicely, especially in combination with words like ‘macho’ or ‘tio’ (uncle) which are like a Spanish equivalent of the word ‘mate’.
But none of that worked out too well in Chile or any of the other countries I visited. They had their own versions of these words and in fact actually used the word ‘okay’ just as we use it in English, rather than the Spanish ‘vale’. I found that odd, mixing in bits English with Spanish but I soon found it to be a common pattern, especially in Chile. Instead of saying ‘la sala’ for ‘living room’, they actually say ‘el living’, which I personally found to be pretty silly! Call me a grammar Nazi if you want, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
As for the words for ‘mate’ or ‘tio’, ‘macho’ etc if you are from Spain, there is wonderful word ‘huevon’, or ‘huevona’ for girls. I found this to be used all over the place in a few different countries, but in Chile it has become a new art form with apparently something like seventeen different meanings according to some Chileans I know. I decided to stick to the much more simple ‘amigo/amiga’ and leave the ‘huevon’ to the experts!
The good news for students of Spanish is that in Peru and Bolivia the language was a lot more easy to understand and I personally suddenly felt like a genius as soon as I left Chile, understanding almost everything. I discovered that Chile is actually famous for its heavy accent and complicated slang. In close second place in terms of difficulty was Argentinian Spanish which also has a pretty specific set of slang words, a very different accent and even in some cases a few fundamental grammar changes. The word ‘tu’ (you) is replaced by ‘vos’, which threw me off completely the first few times I heard it.
But the good thing is, after a bit of experience you soon get used to the different varieties of Spanish and realise the differences are actually pretty superficial. There is definitely a ‘universal’ and ‘good’ Spanish that should work everywhere you go. Just don’t learn Spanish from a Chilean!