Language learning is easy, or is it? A tale from Chile.

Which one is it? Are they not trying hard enough to learn Spanish or is my life just easy? If learning a language is easy, why hasn’t everyone done it? And if it’s so easy, then why do we have to try hard?

My efforts to speak the best possible Spanish (for me) are far from over, and I just want to think a little bit here about the word effort. Last night I was at a photo exhibit launch at the improperly named “Mall Sport,” which should be called “the mall on the way to Argentina” or “the mall farthest from concentrated population centers,” and I got to talking to some other foreigners about their Spanish. (Directions to mall: pack bag with snacks, load phone with podcasts, take metro to Manquehue, then take the C01 up another eight kilometers, get off shortly before you hit the mountains, or when you see the sign for the mall on the right side).

C has been in Chile on and off for about seven years. She says she speaks fine, but that groups are rough for her. Though one of the groups she said she didn’t easily understand was her husband when he gets together with his childhood friends, an event in Chile (all male-night) referred to as “Club de Toby,” and I’m not sure they’re really saying anything she needs to hear anyway. No offense to husband, seems lovely.

R has been in Chile for about three years, and he reports that groups are also more difficult, and also that recently someone pointed out his “gringo accent” (which, btw, Chilenos, you should see your face when someone tells you you have a “latino accent” in English, and R is not American, and luckily he also has more of a poker face, and my point here is not whether or not he is a gringo, but that there is no one single “gringo accent”). The person who harrangued him about his accent, btw, could not be urged at any moment to try out her English on him. Hmmm.

And people take both of them to task for having been in Chile for X years, and not speaking better. And I think that’s kind of crappy. I mean, it’s one thing if you can’t even say, hey waiter there’s a mosca en la sopa (fly in my soup), but if you can get around, and make yourself understood, take your kids to the vet and your cat to the doctor (you know what I mean), then lay off already. They’re trying.

And then that brings me to the self-defensive topic of myself. When I speak Spanish, a variety of first impressions happen. Your parents are Chilean, you’re Colombian, you’re Spanish (shorthand, sadly, in much of the world for: you’re abrupt), you’re a gringa, you’re Chilean but lived outside of Chile for a long time, you’re an American I can TOTALLY hear your accent, no one would EVER confuse you for a Chilean.


I’ve been here for almost nine years. And yes, I speak well (though I still have an accent, and always will). But remember those people who have been here for a while and don’t speak (by their own admission) super well? They get hassled for not trying hard enough. But me? For speaking well, I get told “well, you’ve been here a long time.”

Which one is it? Are they not trying hard enough or is my life just easy? If learning a language is easy, why hasn’t everyone done it? And if it’s so easy, then why do they have to try hard?

In my case, I haven’t just “been here a long time.” Spanish is one of my hobbies. It’s a pasatiempo, lo que hago en mi tiempo de ocio, lo que me interesa, lo que ando anotando todo el tiempo. (pastime, what I do in my free time, what interests me, what I walk around writing down all the time).

It has taken effort. Maybe not Herculean effort, not the same kind of effort it would take me to climb Aconcagua (forecast: unlikely), but effort all the same. And hearing people chide gringos on the one hand for not speaking well enough, and then undervaluing my (or any other long-time foreigner here’s) efforts to speak Spanish well just doesn’t make sense. And I think it’s mean. And I admit that I may have it easier than some others, or be better wired for language than for other things (please don’t drop by unannounced, when left to my own devices, having an orderly house is not one of them), but it still takes work.

For example (of both my efforts and my distinctly non-Chilean tendency to have certain level of disorder in my home) my house is piled with strips of paper with Spanish words scribbled on them. Here’s one I found today:

no seas guiña-don’t be a thief, where a guiña is a kind of thieving wildcat, word origin Mapuche, in English a kodkod.)
veleta-weather vane
palitroque-bowling pin

So I guess what I’m saying, besides the fact that I have scraps of paper on my desk with an assortment of words so random that I have to wonder what was going on when I was writing that down, is that I think that you shouldn’t insult people for not being better at what they’re not yet great at, and you shouldn’t diminish the value of good performance by minimizing the effort that’s put into it.

You shouldn’t do it both because it is an unsubtle put-down, and because it exposes something you probably don’t want anyone to know about yourself.

You’re insecure.


Photo: point and shoot. Beauty: Santiago

Author: Eileen

Living in the "wrong" country for nine years now, I bike, photograph, write, eat and talk about language, but not in that order. Chile is home now, and probably will be for a while. I was raised in Brooklyn, and in response to a question I've been asked a couple of times since I've been here, no, I am not carrying a knife (most of the time).

15 thoughts on “Language learning is easy, or is it? A tale from Chile.”

  1. Excellent post, Eileen. When I first lived in Chile and Chileans would comment on my “gringo accent” I would take it as a challenge to improve my pronunciation. But as time went on I realized…what if I commented on someone else’s foreign accent in the U.S.? Super offensive. I’m not saying that things are the same in Chile and the U.S., obviously not, but after that realization, when people commented on my accent I would just say, “Pues, soy gringa, por eso tengo accento gringo. Prefieres hablar ingles?” That usually stopped the comments.

  2. hahah, I love the “offer to speak English” to shut down the rude. I have never once had anyone take me up on it. Anyone rude, that is. People who speak really good English know how hard it was, and they are not quite so mouthy about the accent we all still have!

  3. I hate it when Chileans make fun of gringo accents too! I always tell them that it’s rude, and think how they would feel if someone did the same to them, and they usually go “oh, but YOU, you speak so well, you have no accent, etc”…ok, thank you, not the point at all. As you say, some of us are wired for language. I am, and that’s turned out to be quite handy in my choice of lifestyle, but I admire those who’ve had to work hard at it far more than I admire myself for my relatively minimal Spanish-learning efforts.

    1. What’s funny is that I was almost hired by a production company as a language coach to get Chileans to speak Spanish with a gringo accent. In the end they decided that the people sounded fine without the coach, and so didn’t hire anyone. How much could we bet that it sounds pretty bad, because the only thing worse than insulting the “gringo accent” is pretending you have one, and pretending very, very badly!

  4. This reminds me of a little story.. of when an ex of mine met my American friend who lives in a different part of Chile. I had warned him that she doesn’t look stereotypically gringa (sigh) and that she spoke fantastic Spanish. He was utterly floored at her lack of gringo accent and immediately made the faux pas of saying her Spanish was even better than mine.

    Fast forward two months when the same friend was visiting her Chilean family, celebrating her birthday. Her Chilean brother was equally floored by my Spanish, saying that he’d never heard a foreigner speak such good Spanish, that it was (faux pas no. 2) even better than my friend’s.

    We both had lived in Chile for many years. The moral of the story is that you should never make negative comments about nor compare people’s language skills! It’s rude, and ultimately worthless because it’s completely subjective. And it’s annoying. And it’s inappropriate. And. And. Yes, I agree with this article.

    1. yes, a whole nother post perhaps on, “don’t compare the spanish.” I think I remember hearing the first half, but maybe not the second half of that story. Don’t compare the Spanish! (or the Portuguese…) Hope things are going well up north! Miss you, esp on skates!

  5. Hi there,
    I’ve been on both sides and I understand your frustration. Although when I was in Chile I made fun of foreigners, it was meant in a mean way. But once I moved out and I started being mobbed for my language skills, I realized hos annoying it is. Honestly speaking I haven’t found major differences between countries and cultures, they all mobb the same. Some experiences:
    In Belgium they mobbed me because I was speaking french with a french accent. It turns out that belgians decided to “improve” french and they mobb people speaking french french.
    In the US they mobbed me because I had a latino accent. Extra points for asking me everytime in which restaurant I was working or in which company I was cleaning. Not to mention that I don’t speaking mexican.
    In Norway they mobb me because I learnt the language. What else are you supposed to do if you move to a foreign country?
    So you are not alone on this, it happens to everyone.

    1. Maybe it’s just another way of calling people out for being different in these conformist sub-societies. I don’t think I’m alone, and now hearing people’s comments, even less so, but it is interesting to hear how it works in other countries, too. I think that because I grew up in a pretty multicultural place, it was just normal that people spoke different languages at home and in public, and I really never gave it much thought, nor ever made fun of anyone’s accent! Being from an immigrant family might have helped as well. Who knows!

      Thanks for commenting, and btw, I’ve gotten a couple of hits on my blog of late for your name!

  6. This definitely hits true – and a related point is that sometimes even a compliment feels like (sort of) an insult. Like it seemed to me that a lot of Chileans compliment any gringo who can speak Spanish at all – as if the expectation is that gringos don’t speak any Spanish so they’re amazed when they meet one who does!

    1. Hi Kristen, thanks for popping by! I have had people in Brazil tell me I speak good Portuguese. I don’t. I want to say, “do you want to hear me speak Spanish?” Ha.

  7. Great post Eileen! Like Abby, I pull out the “let’s speak English” card–and it’s a sure-fire way to shut it down.
    Along with the comments on accent and ability (or not) to speak Spanish, there are the “isn’t that cute” attitude that drives me up the wall. “¡Mira! Usa chilenismos!” ¡Chis!… I learned Spanish in Chile, I live with a Chilean, I work with Chileans, I hear Chilean todo el santo día… Why would anyone think I’d speak Mexican?

    1. Margaret,
      Unfortunately the picture of latinos in the US is not very positive. At least not by my experience. I’m not generalizing and saying that nobody in the US knows that there are more countries than Mexico south of the border but there are quite a lot that think that mexican is a language (which could probably be true given that pure mexican can be difficult to understand, even for native speakers). In addition to that, the image of having a latino person with higher education that did not come as an immigrant with his parents and only studied on his home country, made certain people “uneasy”.
      Not to mention the fact that given that I had a very good job which was not in reach for people without high qualifications, so definitivelyI not fit the bill. I was in a sense “bullied” for being a highly educated latino. Now, if I had said that I came from India nobody would have cared. Except that probably they would wondered why I was eating some much meat instead of vegetals.
      I realize that we Chileans are not better than that because we also have very strong stereotypes of other cultures, so I’m not saying that we are better. And other cultures are not better either, as I said, in all of the countries that I have lived I have been subject of some sort of “language/stereotype mobbing” 🙂

  8. I assume that comes from a lack of confidence, like, oh, who would ever want to learn our slang-addled Spanish… But yes, I get that, too. Or funnier, when they’re all, “you say cachai?!” Dude, that is Chilean 101, I can do much better than that!

    Also, I knew I’d drag you in with the language talk, Margaret!

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