There’s no getting around it, if you’re planning on living in Chile, you will have to learn to speak and understand Spanish. Most of the population does not speak English. If you want to get almost anything done, including buying groceries, talking with the Extranjería about your visa application, opening a bank account, finding an apartment to rent or even just buying a Bip! card for the metro, you will need to communicate in Spanish.
Spanish is the third most widely spoken language in the world after Mandarin and English, and it is spoken in almost all of Central and Southern America as well as much of the US and parts of Europe. It is very similar to the other romance languages, so a close familiarity with Spanish will also give you a head start in understanding both French and Italian. If you’re going to learn a foreign language, this is an absolutely fantastic choice.
Learning Spanish, especially if you are starting from scratch, will be a frustrating, painful and challenging experience. It is also a lot of fun and will cause you to grow immensely as a person. The best feeling comes when you find yourself deep in conversation with someone and suddenly realize ‘hey, I’ve just been speaking a foreign language for over an hour!’
If you are motivated, unafraid and willing to learn, you can become conversationally competent in three months and fluent in a year. But you have to be willing to…
Dive in and start speaking it!
There are two things you must do when learning Spanish:
- Spend as much time as possible around native speakers.
- Learn by doing, and be unafraid to make mistakes. If you need to buy a Bip! card, do it in Spanish. If you need to communicate with the Extranjería, go do it even if your Spanish sucks.
I learned Spanish from scratch by taking four hours of grammar/conversation classes every morning then working with a charity in the afternoon, whilst living with a native family. I spoke almost no English for several months and learned very quickly.
One great way to NOT learn any Spanish is to spend lots of time with English speakers and study grammar rules and vocab endlessly. You will never make significant progress this way.
Take regular grammar and conversation classes, live with a Chilean family, use Spanish as much as you can around Santiago in shops and when getting things done, and find an activity, job or sport that forces you to speak as much Spanish as possible, even (especially) if you think you are bad at it. If you do this, you’ll surprise yourself at how fast you pick It up.
I have nothing against taking a few classes before you arrive, but I guarantee that however many classes you take in your home country, you will not be prepared to deal with real conversations in Chile. You will learn about ten times faster within the country. So if you’ve never learned any Spanish before, don’t worry. Grab a phrase book and jump right on the plane.
Chileans speak pretty poor Spanish on the whole. They ‘eat’ the ends of their words, their accent is fast and can be damn near unintelligible. Even Argentinians and Peruvians complain that they can’t understand Chilenos sometimes. On the plus side, if you can understand Chilean Spanish, you can understand anything.
Speaking a language you aren’t familiar with can be nerve-wracking, but the fear only goes away with exposure. And to summarize, yes absolutely you need to learn Spanish.