The Chilean dialect of Spanish is not one to be underestimated. Full of slang, lazy pronunciation, and the occasional mysterious disappearance of certain letters, Chile’s version of “Castellano” takes some getting used to.
Now, clearly any gross characterization of an entire people is something that should be taken with a grain of salt, this is not meant to offend anyone. However, many of the quirks that make Chilean Spanish special are fully recognized by Chilean academia, including being specifically address in Spanish language classes taught in Chilean schools.
As a native English speaker who learned Spanish in U.S. classrooms, some of the hardest parts about understanding Chileans comes simply from a quick rate of speech (particularly between native speakers) and a slurring of words, something that comes up for every person who tries to learn another language. There are no good solutions, and the best way to learn is simply to practice: spend time with Chileans, ask them to repeat something if you get lost, and this will become less and less of a problem.
There are, however, a number of things to look out for to make the process a bit less confusing.
The first and most prominent of these will be a dropping of the letter “s,” similar to parts of Spain with a similar practice. This has led to a number of ingrained “Chilenismos,” including the saying “cachai?” to mean something along the lines of “you know?” Cachai is peppered inside sentences of the young and old, more as an off-hand transition than as a direct question, though it is used in the latter quite often as well. The dropped ‘s’ also has led to “como etai?” instead of “como estás?”, and a number of other terms, like “querí?” and “tení?” to mean “quieres?” and “tienes?” respectively.
The s-drop appears at random and drops off just as quickly. Often it comes in the form of words that are not hard to figure out (if somebody is talking about “nosotro’ ” or says “grácia’,” you can probably figure out what they’re trying to say). Sometimes somebody will say “dos años,” sometimes they’ll say “dos año,” sometimes “d’oh año,” or any combination therein.
Slang travels in packs. Sometimes people and their friends use it liberally and in every other word, while sometimes you don’t hear it all day.
The other grammatical device that struck me is the use of the diminutive suffix -ito. Ito, or ita for feminine nouns, is often used as a term of affection or, alternately, to indicate that something is small. In Chile, however, it’s not uncommon to have somebody at the supermarket offer you a “bolsita” (bolsa = bag) for your goods, or to hear that somebody is going to make your “camita” (cama = bed). It’s not a small bed. It’s a large bed, I’m actually quite a tall person. If somebody offers you a “tecito,” they probably want to give you a cup of tea, and not necessarily a small cup.
Understanding these first two items can make communicating in Chile a whole lot easier. Remember, next time you hear a word you don’t understand, try added an “s” and/or removing an “ito,” and more than likely you’ll be back to something you know and love.