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Gap Year Abroad

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El Idioma--ESPANOL

Me llamo Katerina (yamo)

Tengo 18 anos

Soy  des de Estados Unidos

Quiero ayudar.

As a parting gift, one of my friends gave me a little notebook to fill with vocabulary on my trip; what you see above is what is written on the first page. For better and for worse, when I arrived in Chile, I did not speak Spanish.



  • My learning curve was exponential which was motivational throughout the semester. There’s no question of whether or not my Spanish improved.

  •    The first time my brother met my host mother on skype, he had a really hard time understanding her because of her Chilean accent, but having never heard a different way of speaking, I never had to to go through an adjustment phase. And a bonus for learning Spanish in Chile: they say if you can understand a Chilean, you can understand any other Spanish speaker in the Americas (because they all speak clearer and slower and with better pronunciation). This I’ve already found to be true after watching Spanish TV.
  • I was never embarrassed to ask questions about really basic concepts, nor was I ashamed when I made simple mistakes (partly due to my personality and partly due to the fact that I was new to the language).

  • Sometimes Spanish classes teach words that are either not useful or not ever used (or only used in Mexico), but because I never learned Spanish in a high school classroom, these words were not part of my vocabulary and they weren’t floating around in my head. For instance, asi asi does not exist, at least in Chile (they say mas o menos).  

  • I will never again have a problem asking questions or for directions because if I could do it in Spanish, English should be a breeze.

  • It is a huge confidence boost. And a great story.. I went to Chile without knowing Spanish!



  • I don’t know the difference between universal Spanish words and words that are only used in Chile (known as modismos). For instance, cereza is the Spanish word for cherry, but guinda is the Chilean word.

  • The entire first month was a REAL struggle.

  • I don’t have any vocabulary except for what I’ve learned here which can be limiting, and if I want to have a conversation on an entirely new topic, I have to learn all the vocabulary (for instance, I don’t know any “Going to the Doctors” vocabulary).

  • For every word I’d learn, it felt like I’d also forget one, just because there were always a million new words. I had to start from square one.

  • I cannot carry even the most basic conversation in French anymore; it has completely disappeared. I can read some, and translate the occaisonal word, but that’s actually it; five years of French, gone. Some people say it would come back really fast, and others say you can only really focus on learning one language at a time until you’re proficient (especially when they’re so similiar). I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do (try and relearn or drop it for now).

  • And finally, I’m not going to go home fluent. Or even anywhere close. I understand a decent amount but not every conversation, and although I can usually get my point across, I don’t always do so gracefully or correctly. Plus, writing is still quite difficult for me as well.


Do I regret coming here with no Spanish? Absolutely not. To be completely honest, I’ve loved the struggle and the daily adventure of just trying to figure out what was going on around me, and it’s incredible to look back over the last couple of months and see my progress.  I’ve also loved watching people’s expressions when I told them I came knowing almost nothing of the language,  especially in the beginning, and their complements were some of the most motivating. There’s no comparison between how much one learns studying in classroom versus living abroad, and I absolutely suggest stepping out of the traditional comfort zone to learn a new language. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.


And as an additional bonus, learning a language through using it (with a little bit of instruction on the side), has lead to enough humorous moments and light bulb realizations to have kept me laughing the entire semester. Here are a few examples of the language battles I’ve faced.

Sometimes I have to read a word out loud before I know what it means because my brain doesn’t recognize the spelling, but it does recognize the sound. Preba was one of those because it sounds more like preva.

I make funny spelling mistakes. Mida instead of mira because that’s how it sounds.

I use words that I couldn’t translate or even define because I’ve only heard them in context. I have no idea what ‘¿cómo amaneciste?” actually means but I ask it in the morning because my host mom always asks me then.

I’ll learn the grammar rules behind why I say certain phrases after. “Que le vaya bien” was part of my daily conversation long before I knew what subjunctive was, and when we did finally learn the basics, I had no problem remembering the irregular conjugations because, like “vaya”, I use them.  

I’ve made some really silly mistakes and had some bizarre problems. One time I was trying to say “you’re going to like this,” and although I’ve conjugated the verb gustar a million times, I didn’t know what it was in its infinitive form.. So it came out more like, lo vas a emm ahh emm gusta gustar?


So how is my Spanish then..?

On the airplane down to Chile, I was proud I remembered tal vez (maybe). On the way back, a young Chilean guy and I had a lovely five hour conversation, completely in Spanish. And I understood everything.

We read a book in French Five, and I depended heavily on my dictionary. I read the same book in Spanish after three months, and while there were words I wasn’t familiar with, it was an easy read.

About two and a half months into my stay, I was working on homework in my host mom’s room when I realized I had understood the conversation on TV. I flipped out. It was the first time I had understood more than a word or two. Now I can watch Vampire Diaries with my host sister and understand almost all of it.

Basically, I understand lots; I can write some; I can say enough; and most importantly, I’m addicted to the language. I can’t wait to learn more!


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