Spanish is the official language of the country and is spoken everywhere. Chileans use their own dialect, Castellano de Chile, with many differences in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and slang. Spanish-speaking foreigners will have no trouble understanding it and will simply think it is funny, but non-native speakers often have trouble understanding it, even with years of practice. For example, Chileans tend to omit the “S” sound at the end of their words. They replace this sound with an “H” (for example, the word “tres” is pronounced “tréh”). On the other hand, Standard Spanish is not the first dialect of choice, but people generally speak it quite fluently.
Here are two of the most common Chilean expressions:
- Huevón (usually pronounced as way-OHN) can be translated into different words depending on the context. Originally a swear word meaning “idiot”, it can also be used as “friend” or “boyfriend”.
- Cachar (pronounced ka-CHAR) comes from the verb ‘to catch’ and means ‘to understand’. It is also often used in a strange conjugated form as cachai’ at the end of sentences, similar to “y’know”, and colloquially it can also be used for sexual intercourse.
English is widely understood in the major cities, notably Santiago, and to a much lesser extent in Valparaíso, Concepción or La Serena. English is now compulsory at school, so young people are much more likely to speak English than older people. Most Chileans over 40 are unlikely to speak English unless they work in the tourism sector.
Indigenous languages such as Mapudungun, Quechua and Rapa Nui (on Easter Island) are spoken in Chile, but only by indigenous people, who represent less than 5% of the population. Many people who identify with one of these groups are unable to speak the language of their ancestors and speak only Spanish.
Many Chileans understand some French, Italian and Portuguese, and there are also some German speakers, especially in the south of the country, where many German immigrants arrived in the second half of the 19th century and some at the time of the Second World War.