Interview with Global Bachelor's Student, Allison Arbuthnot, on surviving Chile without Spanish
Allison Arbuthnot is part of the Global Bachelor's Program cohort that spent the Spring 2022 semester in Santiago, Chile with the GW Chile program due to continued pandemic restrictions preventing travel to Shanghai. Allison came to Chile without any prior knowledge of Spanish. She took an introductory level Spanish course as well as other GW program courses and a direct-enroll course at Universidad de Chile’s School of Economics and Business. She also had the opportunity to live with a bilingual host family.
Allison: It’s been my host family…I honestly love my host family so much and I genuinely feel like I’m a part of this family. My host mom emphasizes this all the time—making sure I’m super comfortable. I think my family is definitely going to be the aspect I’ll miss most about Chile, and being able to talk to my host mom every day about anything and everything.
Other than that, just crazy travel experiences! I think one of the greatest accomplishments of my life is climbing to the top of the Villarrica volcano (in Pucón). That was probably the most physically strenuous thing I’ve ever done in my life and I’ll never forget that. It was incredible.
How would you describe the experience of being in Chile as a non-Spanish speaker?
A: I was extremely nervous to come to Chile [...]. But as it turned out, my first couple weeks here I was picking up the language like a sponge—and I still am. I think being in an immersive environment, and also learning to love the culture, has honestly made it so much easier to pick up the language.
I think if it weren’t for the connection I have with [my host mom] my experience would have been so different. But I think it was also about my willingness to put myself out there and practice the language.
A: This question was hard for me because pinpointing just one aspect of an entire culture, which is so diverse, was hard to do. I’m going to be generic here, but they’re super friendly and welcoming. If you’re giving that energy out, they’ll receive it and give you more. When I think about Chileans I’ve met, they ask what we’re doing here, why we’re in Chile…they just strike up a conversation. They’re friendly and they want to get to know you, where you’re from, why you’re here… the whole culture is super warm. My host mother (and other host mothers, too)—it’s different from what I’m used to back in the States.
What do you think you’ll miss the most about Chile?
A: My Chilean family. Also the friends that I’ve made here, at FEN. One interesting from socializing with Chileans, and all the Venezuelans that are here too, is that I don’t get the sense that there’s any social hierarchy, and I’ll miss that when I’m back in the States, because I feel it all the time there—that sense that “Oh, those people are so much cooler than me.” And here I haven’t felt that at all. And maybe it’s just me being a foreigner and all foreigners are cool, I don’t know… but I’ll miss everyone being on the same level, and everyone socializing, and not having any of those preconceived stereotypes. That was something very prominent to me. Everyone wanted to be friends with everyone else.
A: All the traveling I’ve done in Chile and around Latin America have been incredible and unforgettable. I feel so, so fortunate to have had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling during my time here. The domestic trips I’ve been on—I’m so amazed by the different scenery you get in Chile. Foreigners who don’t know much about Chile don’t really realize. I also took a trip to Buenos Aires, Paraguay and Río, and that trip has also been a highlight.
What advice do you have to students thinking of coming to Chile as part of the English track in future semesters?
A: The more effort you put into embracing Chilean culture and learning the language and just putting yourself out there, the more you will gain from the whole experience. I didn’t know anything about the country—the first thing that came to mind was “I don’t know Spanish!” So how to resolve that? Start learning the language. Once you get there, take advantage of all the opportunities you have to speak to people, because overall you’ll gain so much more than if you’re just staying at your host home all the time. The more you put into embracing everything, the more you’ll gain from the whole experience. I think because I’ve been very proactive about that, I now feel like I really have a deep connection with Chile and an appreciation for all of Latin America and its culture and its history, and I want to learn more about it and spend more time here. I honestly have so many more travel plans in the future and I would love to come back down here.
Designed for students who want to go abroad in Latin America but who might not have experience in the Spanish language (yet!). Located in Santiago, Chile our students have the chance to directly enroll in English language classes at the Universidad de Chile’s School of Economics and Business (Facultad de Economía y Negocios or FEN) and take classes alongside local Chilean students and other international students. As a GW Study Program, we also offer support in the form of onsite GW staff, GW Resident Director Lise-Anne Strohschänk, who will organize a weekend trip and a variety of cultural activities and excursions.