Navigating Different Dialects in the Spanish Language

Hello! My name is Christal Juarez and I was a Benjamin Gilman scholarship recipient in 2019 when I studied human rights in Chile and Argentina. I later became a Gilman Alumni Ambassador in 2020, and am currently continuing with that role as I seek to help other students meet their global academic, personal, and professional goals! 

In the following excerpt, I will be discussing my relationship with the Spanish language, and how I improved those skills while I was abroad. I’ll further be reflecting on why language immersion was so significant to the appreciation of my own culture and background, and hopefully, provide helpful advice to future Gilman scholars hoping to maintain their newly acquired language skills upon returning home. Stay tuned!

Cerro San Cristobal, Chile (I ziplined for the first time here!)

Spanish has always been a significant part of my life and upbringing. Despite being born in the United States, Spanish was my first language until I learned English in school. I struggled with both languages for years, while I became familiar with the significance of tone and body language, and learned that not every word directly translates to another language in meaning, despite the similarity in wording. Many of my peers in school did not speak Spanish fluently, as not all descendants from Spanish-speaking countries speak the language primarily at home. I further struggled with a disconnect of explaining my home life to my peers and my school life to my family. Despite taking Spanish language classes in high school, I had difficulty with grammatical skills that I was never taught through my colloquial knowledge of the language. At my alma mater, UC Davis, I strived to deepen my knowledge but found that I couldn’t quite fit extra Spanish into my already busy schedule. Then I decided to study abroad. 

Parque Arauco, Chile (5-10 minute walk from my homestay location!)

I first studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland for one month in the summer of 2017. Though I had not known about the Gilman scholarship at the time and therefore did not apply, I do think that the experience I had in Geneva prompted me to study abroad again–and to do so in a Latin American country(s). Switzerland as a whole has three official languages: French, German, and Italian. Nonetheless, the first time I studied abroad in Geneva I was quite surprised at how many people enthusiastically spoke Spanish to me when they overheard me speaking the language with some of my classmates. I learned that Geneva too, is a great land of opportunity for people all over the world, and many immigrants come from Spanish-speaking countries that were thrilled to hold a conversation with us. I had a great time, especially in participating in the accent game, wherein Geneva locals would attempt to guess what country I was from according to my Spanish accent. Imagine my proud elation when I revealed that I am an American citizen in our first-generation move from Mexico! 

From then on, I aspired to connect with other countries in Latin America at a deeper level, in an effort to broaden my awareness of how Spanish is used differently according to location and culture. When I embarked on my program, Human Rights & Cultural Memory in Buenos Aires & Santiago, the differences in language usage were like jumping into a pool of ice-cold water. Despite speaking Spanish all my life, I had to diligently train my ear to listen to the Argentine accent and push down an onslaught of panic when I did not understand the first time around. One way to describe the intense difference in accent between Mexico and Argentina is with the example of “chicken”. While “chicken” is written the same in both countries, (pollo), Mexican Spanish sounds the word out as po-YO, and Argentine Spanish almost sounds like po-SHO, at least to me. During the beginning of my stay, listening to a local speak quickly was quite overwhelming. Another, potentially more significant difference between the two uses of Spanish is that Argentine’s employ the word “Vos” as a second person pronoun, whereas in Mexico –or within Spanish-speaking descendants of Mexico–, it is customary to utilize “Tu” in its place. While Spanish in Chile was less of a headspin, there were words such as “avocado” and “straw” (palta & pajita) that were entirely different from the words that I was used to (aguacate & popote), among many other changes. 

Estatua Virgen, Cerro San Cristobal, Chile, with my homestay roommate Marivi Avalos.

As you can see, my fluency in Spanish within the US did not guarantee me smooth fluency of that same language elsewhere. In this way, becoming immersed in that language abroad challenged me daily while also amplifying my interest in language practice. I learned that it was plenty okay to be proud of the skills I already had while striving to become even more well-versed. I spoke it daily with my host parents, while they too, inquisitively asked me for clarification on what was saying. It became a rewarding exchange of language skills! Instead of assuming that I was already sufficiently fluent, I took a step back and decided that my goal was to become professionally fluent, fluent across any country lines. 

This leads me to how to maintain the language skills abroad while returning home. I set goals for my language practice while I was still abroad. I think doing so while still in-country is important, as we are aware of more differences and nuances that we may stop being exposed to upon returning home, and are therefore potentially subject to forget with time. I set goals to learn Spanish professionally, beginning with learning the human rights language in Spanish. I also made a note to learn how emotions are verbalized differently in other countries, as I noticed that my way of expressing my emotions in Spanish did not always make sense to locals while I was abroad. Such little details I may not have remembered if I had not taken the mental space and time to write them down. I recommend it! 

Iguazu Falls, Argentina (this is one of the much smaller waterfalls there)

Other processes I built to sustain my language improvement was by making an effort to meet people of varying ages while abroad, and if appropriate, connecting with them on social media. Doing so is a great way to connect yourself to the environment that you are immersed in, while also building bridges for yourself to learn from these people for years to come! I still send happy birthday notes on Facebook to my host parents and friends I made abroad, or ask for book/magazine recommendations in the language I was practicing. This is also a great way to stay informed about new stories from your country of destination, as many of the locals I met (particularly of my age), often post current event news from their country on social media. 

Other ways to engage your language skills verbally after coming home are to teach other consenting friends and family of yours what you learned! Personally, my family was very intrigued to learn about how Spanish differed in Chile and Argentina. Don’t have loved ones who already know the language? Find a pal interested in learning new languages! I also try to watch materials of that language on platforms such as Youtube or TikTok, which has a search feature for you to do so. 

La Vaca Loca, Argentina (first dinner with my entire program!)

Most of all, be patient with yourself. Coming back home after a period abroad is already an adjustment! Give yourself time to rest if needed, before diving into your action plan. If you find yourself lacking a community to practice your language skills with, remember that you have a Gilman community located on the Gilman Scholar Network, filled with individuals who are equally as excited to engage with others as well. Good luck, and happy learning!

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