Teaching English and Learning Spanish in Chile: Brett Gastineau

I first got to know Brett Gastineau during his application to the English Opens Doors Program last February. Recently, I was able to catch up with him to ask a few questions about his experience learning Spanish while participating in this program.

What was your level of Spanish when you began the English Opens Doors program?

While I had several years in high school and college under my belt before entering the program, it had been well over a decade since I spoke the language or engaged with it in any significant fashion.  So the best classification for me would be as a “re-” beginner with previous words lost in my head and the know-how to structure them completely obscured through the years.

How long have you been/ were you in Chile?

I’ve been in Chile for a little over nine months now and for the majority of those months living in a small town that is roughly eight hours south of the capital in the Bio Bio region.

What is your current level of Spanish?

I would classify myself at the intermediate level.  My basic vocabulary has greatly improved, but I still struggle with structure.  Additionally, learning abroad entails picking up on contextual clues and colloquialism that abound here.  Spanish isn’t simply Spanish; it morphs depending on the locale.  Keep that in mind when you travel.

Was learning Spanish one of your goals during the program?

Yes, I did want to learn more Spanish during my time here.  Ample opportunities have presented themselves to aide in this–mostly, the host environment and being removed from the more cosmopolitan capital helps since one sinks or swims when you leave Santiago.

How did participating in the English Opens Doors program help improve your Spanish?

As mentioned above my host family has been a great asset over the previous months.  Additionally, I have found most, if not nearly all, Chileans that I have encountered to be a curious lot, as well as, patient and wanting to understand the “gringos.”  People want to communicate here.  They are lively, friendly, and boisterous.  So dive in, you’ll be fine!

In what ways did you improve your Spanish on your own?

I think the main aspect in which my use of the language improved is simply comfortablity with the tongue.  Most class time learning that I encountered in the past did very little to prepare me for actually conversing.  The atmosphere out on the road in the “living” has made all the difference.

What tips can you give to Spanish language learners?

Advice that I would give to Spanish language learners that are considering coming to Chile is understand that the language won’t be what you’ve seen in textbooks, nor will it conform to any previous conversations rules you might have brought with you.  Chileans speak extremely fast.  Emphasis on the extreme part!  However, this while challenging will be a good way to bolster your listening skills.  I highly recommend participating in any and all “inter-cambio” activities you can find wherever you go.  Additionally, immersion is the key.  This is a bit easier outside of Santiago since the “gringo” community away from the capital tends to be smaller.  Language learning, like all types of learning, requires commitment and practice.  This type of experience is what you make of it.  Additionally, there are a plethora of Spanish slang books you can get prior to coming south for various countries down here that you might want to invest in just to better acclimate and gain some contextual knowledge.  I recommend the use of LiveMocha and Memrise websites to aide in your learning.  Further, all things you can get your eyes, hands, and ears on during your time here that are in Spanish will only help, especially the news outlets.  Lastly, simply put—the best preparation prior to coming and while you are here is just to embrace the fact that you’ll mess up, but don’t embrace the fear or lack of confidence.  You’ll learn a lot about laughing and relaxing down here.  Let that guide your sentiment and pepper your studies.  Cheers.