One of the most difficult – and most important – choices for anyone thinking about studying Spanish abroad is where to select as your base.
Choose well, and you can find yourself in pleasant surroundings, with high quality tuition and plenty of opportunities to socialise and practice your new Spanish skills outside of class. Choose badly, and you might end up somewhere distinctly less enjoyable and, what’s worse, not even progressing much with the language.
Should I study in Colombia?
If you’re reading these lines it is probably because Colombia has made it onto your shortlist of country destinations. If so, you’re already headed on the right track.
Colombia is a great place to study for several reasons. The language is spoken very clearly here (some say it is even the ‘best’ Spanish in the world), classes are competitively priced, and the country is sufficiently modern to prevent inconvenience, but is not yet as inundated with tourists and language students as other destinations.
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This is a big place, of course, so you’re probably looking for a bit more of a specific recommendation about where exactly the best places to study in Colombia are. Most Spanish students head to either Bogota, Cartagena or Medellin for their Spanish classes and it is these three options that we will look at here.
I should say first that there is comparatively little between the three places in terms of the price and quality of language tuition on offer in each. That means that the main differences to take into account are those relating to the climate, culture and general environment of the three locations.
Studying in Cartagena
In theory, studying in Cartagena sounds like the ideal choice. The old town is incredibly picturesque, the climate is very warm and the city is situated right on the Caribbean coast. What could be better than combining a bit of Spanish study in the morning, with some Caribbean beach time in the afternoon?
Indeed, if your aim is just to have a bit of a vacation whilst learning some Spanish along the way, Cartagena would be an excellent location. For the more serious language student, on the other hand, there are a couple of serious drawbacks with this apparently perfect option.
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The first is that the city is hot, really hot. And humid. In this climate, the only thing you will really want to do is relax, take a dip in the pool or hang out at the beach. Knuckling down for some serious study of Spanish grammatical concepts (which can be a bit dry at the best of times) is likely to rapidly slip down your list of priorities.
The second potential problem is that opportunities to practice the language are comparatively limited here. The large number of tourists in the city means that more people speak English than in the rest of the country. Greater numbers of foreigners may also mean that your friendship circle ends up being dominated by gringos, not by Colombians.
It is additionally worth bearing in mind that the Spanish spoken in this part of Colombia is famously incomprehensible. This means it will be harder to pick up when you arrive and less useful to speak when you leave.
Studying Spanish in Bogota
For those wanting to make decent progress with their Spanish skills, Bogota is almost certainly a better place to study. Though the weather is disappointingly less tropical than at the coast (and beaches are pretty thin on the ground), Colombia’s capital has other plus points which work in its favour.
One the main advantages is that residents of the city tend to speak at a much slower pace than on the coast and have one of the clearest accents in the country (and arguably, even, the world). Being the capital, there are also many more cultural events, concerts, and other attractions which can help you enjoyably occupy your time outside of class.
It is also by far and away Colombia’s most cosmopolitan city, meaning its residents enjoy much greater diversity of culture, food, and music than elsewhere in the country. The large local student community also means that it is easier to meet younger people to practice your Spanish with. Popular English-Spanish language exchange events (the busiest of which is probably ‘Gringo Tuesdays’) can help on this front.
All in all, Bogota rates as a decent option for potential Spanish students and has quite a few decent language schools for you to choose from.
But my winning recommendation is…
The capital may have a fair amount going for it, but for me the best choice of a place to study Spanish in Colombia has to be Medellin. Perhaps I am a bit biased (this is where I studied when I first arrived in Colombia in 2007), but it seems to me that this city ticks all the boxes of what language students are after.
Medellin is an undeniably pleasant place to spend some time. Its weather is pretty much perfect all-year-round, with generally sunny days and temperatures consistently around the 26°C / 80°F mark (albeit with occasional tropical downpours).
Paisas, as the city’s residents are known, are famous in a country already known for its warm hospitality for being exceptionally welcoming and friendly. This makes it very easy to strike up friendships and engage in extended conversations with strangers: much more so than in Bogota. Though it is a city of around 3m people, the attitude of locals makes the place often feel more like a big town.
At the same time, Medellin still has more than enough bars, restaurants, shopping centers, and nightclubs to keep you entertained for many months of language study. It is true that the city is less cosmopolitan than Bogota, meaning that food, culture, music and even the outlook of the locals is much more Colombia-focused. Yet in the early months of your time in Colombia, at least, this all serves as a better introduction to authentic aspects of local life.
Highly pleasant weather, friendly locals and ample entertainment facilities mean that Medellin seems to me to be the best place to study Spanish in Colombia. The city has a very distinctive charm, and endless opportunities to practice your language skills, that other locations in Colombia struggle to match. (Here’s a list of Spanish schools in Medellin, if you’re interested in following my recommendation.)
Spanish school, university or private classes?
Settling on exactly which city to study Spanish in is an important first step. But once you’ve done that, you’ll still have to decide which institution to study with.
Of course, you’ll know all about investigating which places are within your price bracket and will well know about how to find reviews to assess the quality of study venues.
I’d like to suggest another factor that you should bring into your calculations: Time.
Why does time enter into this equation at all? Well, because it will dramatically alter what sort of institution you should look to study with (private teacher, language school or university).
As a general rule of thumb, here’s how the amount of time you have available for you should guide your choice of learning institution:
1. Short visit / limited free time
Your best bet will be to go for classes with a private tutor – combined with plenty of independent study.
It’ll be difficult to combine your schedule with group classes at universities and language schools as these run infrequently and have a set timetable.
You’ll also won’t make much progress in group classes in a short space of time. Better to get stuck in with a couple of hours a day with a private tutor and try to knuckle down outside of the class as much as possible.
2. Visit of 2 weeks – 2 months
Stay for a slightly longer period of time, and a language school will be an increasingly attractive option.
It’ll work out much cheaper than continuing with private classes, will provide some structured tuition and also give you access to cultural and social activities which help you integrate better into local life.
Study for a few weeks in this environment and you should feel yourself making some decent progress with the language.
3. Long-term stay (2 months+)
Stick around for a while longer in Colombia and it starts to then make sense to look at paying for courses at universities.
These are great for a number of reasons. Firstly, the courses can be the most comprehensive of all the options available, and led by the most qualified and experienced teachers.
Secondly, you’ll be able to use all the university facilities when you take part in their Spanish courses. In the case of many of the private universities this can mean access to swimming pools, fancy gyms and private TV and film booths.
Quite a few also let you attend any other classes being given on campus; so you can brush up further on your Spanish by listening in on classes on arts, culture, history, politics, design, or whatever happens to take your fancy.
Thirdly, and most importantly, you’ll be studying right among Colombia’s student community on a daily basis. This means you’ll have by far and away the best chance of making local friends than you would with the other options.
Oh, and one final note. If you’re planning on staying in Colombia for longer than six months – the maximum allowable on a tourist visa – universities are the main teaching institutions that can provide the necessary paperwork for you to apply for a longer-term student visa. Invaluable for anyone wanting to stay more than just half a year in the country.
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What Does A ‘Colombian Accent’ Sound Like?
In many ways, my choice of the name ‘Colombian Spanish’ for this blog was a bit silly. It’s difficult to talk about an entirely uniform sort of speech across the country when there are so many differences in language use between regions. Nowhere is this clearly than when it comes to the subject of accents. As you’ll soon discover, Colombians from one or other region of the country often pronounce the same words in sometimes very different ways.
Learning ‘Social Spanish’ in Medellin: An Interview with Violeta
Rarely do Spanish teachers embrace the philosophy of teaching their students to speak like a real native, instead of simply getting them to converse like some kind of living textbook. One of the few exceptions to this rule in Colombia is Violeta Bernal, a Medellín-based instructor, who runs an independent teaching outfit called “Social Spanish”.