The Spanish you’ll come across in the workplace is as different from the textbook version of the language as it is from the sort you’ll hear used on the street. You’ll need to get used to littering your work emails with the kind of long, flowery and ever-so terribly polite expressions that the locals enjoy.
One of the problems I faced as a Spanish learner in Colombia was that the meaning of many of the words I heard in everyday conversation didn’t appear to match what the dictionary said they should. Any attempt to translate such things literally proved extremely unenlightening.
Inspired by a recent reader query, I thought I’d add some new posts explaining more advanced local expressions, which you may come across after talking with Colombians for a longer period. One is “pelar el cobre” or “mostrar el cobre“, which is broadly similar in meaning to the English “to show one’s true colours”.
In some parts of Colombia, people use “vos”, instead of “usted” or “tú”, when addressing others. In a guest post, Avalon from the Colombia Immersion language school explains how, when, where and why this happens.
August brings the famous “Feria de las Flores” (or “Flower Festival”) to the city of Medellin. While you will find a couple of events which are rather flower-heavy, most are not. Instead, music, celebration and fun take centre stage, all washed down with a healthy serving of “guaro” (or “aguardiente”), the favoured local tipple.
Today’s slang word is “parche”; a term the dictionary would have you believe just means “patch”. In Colombia, it has an altogether more useful meaning too. While no exact English translation exists for Colombians slang use of “parche”, it roughly means: “a group of friends getting together to do something”.
As far as possible, on this blog I try to examine slang phrases which are used in the whole of Colombia. However, some expressions are so essential for anyone staying in a given city or area, that it’d be remiss of me not to explain these too. This is most definitely the case for the phrase “¡qué oso!” in Bogota.
Colombians do enjoy a good bit of exaggeration. Not seen a friend for a week or two? “I’ve not seen you in like a thousand years!” (“hace como mil años que no te veo”), a local will most probably decry. Pick up a bargain in the sales, meanwhile, and our Colombian friends are just as likely to describe their purchase as “given away” (“regalado”) as they are to say that it was merely cheap.
“Chévere” is a popular word for “cool” that is heard throughout Colombia, though it is not exclusive to that country. The population in neighbouring Venezuela, for instance, also enjoy using it a fair old amount. Understanding the types of context in which this term is heard is a straightforward affair, given that it is used in almost exactly the same way as its English equivalent.
Latin America’s friendliest inhabitants – the Colombians – have long claimed that theirs is the most ‘neutral’ Spanish on the planet. Ah, if only that were so. Chat to the locals during your stay and you’ll quick find that this beautiful sounding version of the language contains as many funny linguistic quirks as it does bits of local slang.
I often receive messages from readers of this blog, covering various aspects of studying Spanish in Colombia: from logistical questions about visas, costs and the availability of Spanish schools in the country; right through to queries about how to use specific bits of slang or idiomatic expressions. I’m publishing here a selection of a few recent questions I’ve received about learning and studying Spanish in Colombia.
When it comes to Colombian slang, oftentimes there is no one definitive translation of a given term that will fit all situations and all contexts. Confusingly enough, the meaning of many of these words shifts about a lot depending on the situation in which they’re used. This is true of “vaina”; a highly versatile and multipurpose Colombian slang word that is generally held up as the most widely used and most typical of all “colombianismos”.
One of the most famous Colombian slang words, especially in Medellin and nearby areas, is “parce”, or “parcero/a”; a word whose meaning is roughly like “dude”, “bro” or “mate” in English. It is a word which you’ll hear in near enough every informal conversation between young(ish) Colombians, and is especially popular among guys. Less commonly, you might come across “parcerito”; the diminutive version, which sounds a little too cutsie for most people’s taste.
A classic area to study in Spanish class is how to describe people. The sad thing is that often the focus is very narrow. More often than not you’re just taught how to describe a few physical characteristics. The result is that you can only ever provide a highly superficial explanation of how somebody is. You can say that they are tall, thin, have blue eyes, and so on, but can’t even hint at what they are really like as a person.
Even accomplished Spanish speakers can be perplexed by some of the conversations between Pablo Escobar and his associates in the popular Netflix series ‘Narcos’. Based mainly in the Colombian city of Medellin, most of the characters speak using the distinctive local brand of Spanish. This features a liberal sprinkling of parlache; a specific strand of slang which originated among Medellin’s criminal underworld.
Of all the many Colombian slang terms explained on this blog, one of the trickier terms to get your head round is “berraco”. It is extremely easy to get confused with this one. Technically, a “berraco” is a sort of pig, but if you hear this word in Colombia, it is almost certainly not being used to refer to the animal. But it is not always an easy matter to figure out what the word is being used to mean.
Speaking natural-sounding Spanish is all about learning how to use the exact same words that locals do, in the exact same contexts. Your teacher or textbook might tell you the correct way to speak, but on the streets of Bogota or Cali, many of these phrases just won’t cut it. Rather than obsessing over how to say things in a technically perfect way, my advice would be to embrace the local variations and imitate them as far as possible.
The whole time you’re in Colombia — studying, attending classes and practicing your Spanish out in the big wide world — you should be constantly improving. I’ve always found Colombians to be very tolerant of those still brushing up their Spanish. Between friends, however, the opinions expressed are more honest and verge on the brutal.
I’m never entirely sure of the source of this claim, but I’ve been told on many occasions that Colombian Spanish is the world’s most ‘neutral’ sort. While I can certainly vouch for the fact that the Colombian accent is clear and undoubtedly pleasant sounding, the actual use of Spanish language is not 100% ‘neutral’ in the strictest sense of the word. There is a lot of slang. Chat to any local and you’ll quickly see what I’m talking about.
Often has it been said that the best way to improve in a foreign tongue is to start dating a local. There is, it must be said, much truth to this. Even students who, in the classroom, can barely be bothered to string together a coherent sentence, suddenly have boundless enthusiasm for improving their language skills as soon as they chat to a guy or girl they like.
Hang around with Colombians for any length of time and you’re sure to notice that religion continues to play a large part in their lives. In fact, faith is so strong, and religious belief so widespread, that many Colombians often take it as read that most everyone they meet will be a Catholic. This is reflected in surveys and polls, where the vast majority of the population report that they are religious.
We’ve all seen those language courses which guarantee that you’ll be speaking “fluent Spanish in 60 days”. Sound great don’t they? Yet — in common with ‘get rich quick’ schemes or ‘effortless’ weight loss programmes — these courses, more often than not, promise much, but deliver little. To obtain real fluency in another language there is, regrettably, little substitute for hard graft.
Listen in to a conversation between Colombians and you are likely to hear quite a few references to a variety of animals. Outside of the countryside, however, such terms are not often used literally. Rather, Colombians have incorporated a large number of animal names into colloquial expressions and slang, which have meanings quite different to how they initially appear.