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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Double Major Studying Abroad in Chile


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success… 

Meet Matt—a  Butler University double major in English (Creative Writing emphasis) and Spanish, currently studying abroad in Chile. 

Matt with surf board

1. You’re an English major, and a prolific poet: How do your major and your specialization contribute to your interest in learning languages?

I think I’ve always been fascinated with words. I was one of those kids who was always reading growing up—on my way to football practice, before school, at the pool, you name it. Majoring in English was really never a question for me, and I’ve been blessed to have parents and teachers who have always been supportive and helpful on my journey. Along with studying English, though, I came into college with the hope of leaving it bilingual—and I hope I still will today.

The root of my interest in learning Spanish is due to my own family history—my grandpa was born in Cuba, so Spanish was his first language, and I know my dad grew up hearing Spanish on a daily basis.

Although there is no “need,” per se, for me to learn Spanish, I do feel like there’s a certain homage I can pay to my grandpa, who was an incredible man, by learning his native language.

As far as always having an interest in creative writing—and poetry, for the last four or five years—learning a new language seems to be an extension of that part of me that loves to play with words, to twist meanings, to create something out of a series of symbols, marks, and squiggles on paper. Each language has its own unique set-up and its own quirks. Spanish, for instance, has the adjectives always following the nouns whereas in English we put the adjectives before the nouns—that is to say, we describe something before we learn what that something is. Surely this influences how we communicate. These kinds of interlanguage differences are really interesting to me as a poet.

2. Is your study abroad in Chile you first immersion experience? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken from living immersed in another culture and language?

Yes. I’ve taken short-term trips to countries with other primary languages, but I’ve never been both by myself and completely immersed in another language until arriving in Chile this past February.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned has been more of a reminder of how similar we all as are people, no matter how far we travel away from home. It’s easy, at first, to be surrounded by people who look different and speak a different language and feel so isolated from them, so “other,” but after almost two months of immersion in Chile and daily interaction with people here, it’s awesome to see how quickly barriers break down.

3. Can you tell us a funny or poignant anecdote about speaking Spanish in Chile?

Besides not always understanding the Spanish here, I also struggle to understand when someone from Chile uses English words, or brands, but pronounces them in a way that only makes sense if you’re a native Spanish speaker. Let me explain: a few weeks ago, my host brother asked me, “¿Te gusta papayon?” “Papayon?” I thought. “I have no idea what ‘Papayon’  is.” After he was completely baffled that I had never heard of “Papayon” or “Papayonpizza,” it hit me: Papa John’s! The “J” sound in English is hard, whereas it’s completely soft in Spanish, thus making the Papa John’s sound completely different.

These little differences can lead to moments that are really confusing at the time, but funny to look at in retrospect.

4. In your blog you talk about the challenges you have experienced abroad, including everything from trouble navigating public transportation to overcoming language barriers. Do you have any advice for students who are hesitant to go abroad?

If there is even an ounce of you thinking about going abroad, look into it!

While I do think there is a false stigma about studying abroad being rainbows, butterflies, and weekly travel to different wonders of the world (it’s hard living on another continent!), studying abroad has been an awesome experience. I’ve met people I never would have met otherwise, am learning a new language, eating great new food, and growing a ton as a person.

If I run into a problem here in Chile, I need to figure it out myself—I can’t drive a half hour back to my parents’ house and ask them about it, you know? While this is tough, it allows you to grow so much, to problem solve on your own, and to not be afraid to ask those around you for help.

Also, there are many different time periods you can study abroad. If a semester is too long, look into a summer abroad, or even just a spring break abroad. And, I think people make study abroad trips only seem possible during undergrad, which isn’t true. Look into teaching English abroad on Fulbright after college, if that’s something that interests you. There are tons of options.

5. What role do language and cultural skills play in your future career plans?

They’re both essential. As someone hoping to get an MFA in poetry after graduating from Butler, my ability to create art from language (or at least how other people perceive my ability) is going to determine whether or not I get into grad school. After that, as someone interested in things such as teaching, translating, writing, and blogging, language skills are going to continue to be at the forefront of whether or not I’m successful. Actually, let’s be honest—if there was no such thing as language, none of those jobs would even exist. So, the fact that language does exist (and my level of skill in utilizing languages) is absolutely at the forefront of importance regarding my career!

How can I use language to captivate my class, to inspire my students? How can I use my knowledge of language to be the go-between for people who speak different languages to have a successful conversation? How can I use my writing to evoke feelings, thoughts, and emotions that I cannot otherwise convey? These questions are always going to be in the picture for me. Similarly, being able to quickly adapt and be both appreciative and respectful of all cultures I come in contact with is so important, especially if I end up teaching and/or translating.

BONUS QUESTION: You’ve done a lot in your time in Chile thus far, from touring Valpo to visiting Cerro de San Cristóbal. What other travels/experiences are you planning for the rest of your time there?

This weekend I am heading to Patagonia, which I’m very excited about. I’m also planning to go to Pucón to hike up to a volcano, to northern Chile to the Atacama Desert, and will hopefully do a trip near the end of my time here up to Lima, Peru, and Cusco to see Machu Picchu. There is a ton to do in both Chile and South America, so it’s hard to choose what to do and what not to do! I’d love to go to Buenos Aires as well.

Being from Indiana, one thing I’ve never experienced before is having much of anything as far as geography goes. Chile has it all, from mountains to the ocean to the desert. Every morning on my metro ride to school, I get a view of the coastline, which is beautiful. Also, living in such a hilly and mountainous part of the world, while involving a lot of winding roads and uphill walking, leads to some incredible views. Valparaíso is beautiful lit up at night.

Have you considered an immersion experience—be it a full year, a semester, or a shorter stay, as Matt suggests—to boost your language skills? Check out our Study Abroad Programs page for ideas to get started, or our Lead with Spanish page for study abroad blogs by other Spanish speaking students. You can also read more about Matt’s Chilean travels on his personal blog, SplashBox. Then tell us  your story @LeadWLanguages on social media!