La primera semana

I’ve only been in Chile for a week, and I’ve already learned so much.

One of the most important things I’ve learned (or realized) is how well I know the Spanish language. Before I left, friends cautioned me that Chileans speak very quickly, use words unique to their dialect, and sometimes don’t pronounce the ‘s’ sounds that end words. All of these factors tend to confuse foreigners, they told me. So I arrived in Chile worrying that I wouldn’t be able to understand anybody, I wouldn’t be able to say anything anyone would understand, et cetera.

All of those fears proved to be unfounded. Since arriving in Valparaíso, I’ve discovered new levels of competence: I’ve gotten to know my host family on a personal level, ordered food and drinks, asked for directions several times, and engaged in complex conversations about abstract topics. For example, the second day I was here I talked to my host mother about the environmental toxicity caused by lead and copper mining, which exists both in Butte, MT and some parts of Chile. It’s exciting and satisfying to apply my prior knowledge from three years of Spanish classes at UM in these real-world contexts.

Through this language learning by immersion, my understanding of Spanish grammar has developed significantly. I’ve observed a change in the way I mentally organize my knowledge of Spanish verb morphology.

In every class or educational software that I’ve encountered, Spanish verbs are taught in their tenses, in order of increasing complexity: first students learn to conjugate verbs in the present tense, then the two aspects of the past tense, and from there on to more tricky conjugations, like the present subjunctive or past perfect.

This is the way I’ve become accustomed to conceptualizing Spanish verbs. But after a week of speaking almost entirely in Spanish, I notice I tend to think of verb endings in groups based on person: first person conjugations I use to speak about myself, second person conjugations for asking about my conversation partner, first person plural conjugations to express something about me and my friends, and so on.

I imagine this is because in actual conversation, I’m far more likely to need to switch between thinking of different tenses within the same person, than to call to mind the different forms of a certain tense for different persons. This type of metacognitive learning will no doubt prove useful when I am teaching these grammatical and linguistic concepts one day.

This is just one particularly interesting thing I’ve noticed about the process of learning a language in an immersive environment. I’m sure that as I spend more time with Chileans, I will gain more insights into their language and culture.


I took this right before landing at the airport in Santiago.


A view of Valparaíso.

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