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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.