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.
The Spanish spoken by a resident of Bogota, for instance, varies significantly from the sort spoken up on the Caribbean coast. And this is different again from the pronunciation you’ll hear in Medellin.
Describing the differences just with words is nigh on impossible. Instead, we’re going to go on a short video tour of a few Colombian regions to see how they all speak. On first hearing, I imagine you might not be able to tell apart absolutely all of the accents – though you’ll certainly notice how distinctive certain of the country’s dialects are.
[For tips on how to better imitate Colombian speech, see also my post on techniques for improving your accent in Spanish.]
Costeño (Caribbean Coast)
We’ll start off with an accent which is arguably the farthest removed from all others spoken in the country, and which is undoubtedly the least comprehensible for us foreigners: the costeño, or Caribbean coastal, accent.
When you have a watch of the videos below you’ll quickly see what I’m talking about. Costeño speech is a serious challenge to understand as it is heavy on local slang, is spoken impressively quickly and many of the words are only half pronounced.
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You’ll notice that costeños rarely pronounce the “s” at the end of words (so “más o menos” sounds more like “má o meno”) and that the “d” in words that end in “-ado” is generally skipped. You’ll hear this in the first video when the guy talks about his “pesca’o” (“fish”) and the “pela’o” (“boy” or “guy”).
At first, costeño Spanish always sounds to me like an indistinct blur. Tune your ear to it, though, and you should gradually start making out more and more of what is being said.
Costeño Accent #1: Córdoba
The following video is a compilation of clips from ‘classes on the Spanish from Cordoba’; a series of funny videos which aims to teach people from other parts of Colombia how to understand the slang from the Córdoba province.
The classes, led by a Colombian girl who goes by the name of “Martina La Peligrosa”, are very popular on social media (albeit mainly among Colombians themselves). Have a quick look at the clip, but don’t expect to understand much…
Costeño Accent #2: Coveñas, Sucre
In this second video, an old Costeño man chats happily away while wandering along the beach in Coveñas, a holiday spot popular with paisas.
He’s not saying anything profound, but watch about 30 seconds of the video just to see how you get on. A little tip before you begin – the word “cuadro”, which the guy uses repeatedly, is a local version of “bro” or “dude”.
Near impossible to understand, right?
From Colombia’s least accessible accent, we now move onto one of its clearest: the accent from Bogota.
Rolos or cachacos, as the city’s residents are sometimes called, generally speak slowly and clearly. So much so, in fact, that a common myth in Colombia that theirs is the ‘most neutral’ Spanish in the world.
I’m rather unconvinced by such a categorical claim, but it is certainly true that the speech of Bogotanos is generally far easier to understand than in many other parts of the world.
Noticeable features of the local accent is that the capital’s residents sometimes put a little more stress at the end of their words, and occasionally have a rising intonation at the end of sentences. Otherwise, their accent doesn’t seem (at least to me) to be hugely distinctive.
That said, the following two videos do serve as an excellent contrast with the accents featured in the above section.
Rolo Accent #1: Interview with Fonseca, a local singer
YouTube doesn’t yield much in the way of decent results for examples of strong Bogota accents, but most of the country’s TV output features presenters, journalists and actors from the city.
Below is an interview with Colombian singer Fonseca, which will give you an idea of what the accent is like. (Fonseca, by the way, is not the guy with all the hair, but the other one.)
Rolo Accent #2: Interview with Ilona (another singer)
Carrying on with the musical theme, here’s an interview clip with a female Colombian singer called Ilona.
I’ve included this video so you can compare how the voices of both male and female rolos sound.
Pastuso (Pasto, Nariño)
Continuing on our whistle stop tour of Colombia, we now move right down into the south of Colombia and to the province of Nariño. More specifically, we’ll look next at the accent of resident’s of Nariño’s provincial capital: Pasto.
The poor old Pastusos have a rough ride as they are the butt of many jokes in Colombia. Outside of their home town, they are largely mentioned in Colombia only as an example of a population that is a bit backward and stupid. They are thought of almost like local versions of rednecks in the US.
As Nariño is right on the border with Ecuador, the local accent bears a certain similarity to the one you’d hear in the more remote areas of Colombia’s neighbour.
All the more so in the following video, where this Pastuso song is accompanied by the kind of panpipe action you’d normally associate with Peru, Ecuador and the more southern parts of the Andes.
Paisa (Medellin and Antioquia)
The best description for Medellin’s accent is that it is “cantadito”. Sadly, we don’t have an equivalent word in English, but it basically means that it has a ’sing-song’ sound (the above comes from “cantar”, meaning “to sing”).
For me, it is one of the most pleasant of Colombian accents (perhaps because it is the one I’m most familiar with) and I’ve heard native Spanish speakers from elsewhere in Latin America express similar views.
Paisa Accent #1: Interview with Violeta
For an excellent illustration of the varying sing-song tone of the paisa accent, check out this next video, an excerpt from an interview I previously did with a local Spanish teacher (see the full post here).
Yet, the local accent is not always so pleasant sounding or so easy to understand. Residents of the city’s rougher parts speak differently and, sometimes, totally bizarrely. See exhibit 1:
Paisa Accent #2: Lord knows what’s up with this guy
A TV crew chanced about this strange chap when doing a pop quiz of passers-by on the streets of Medellin. After asking him if he knew what the capital of Bangladesh was, the guy goes on to give one of the strangest responses you can imagine.
Paisa Accent #3: An expletive-laden tirade
Another illustration of the existence of some less-than-beautiful paisa accents is the following video, which went viral in Colombia a little while ago.
It is a recording of a local woman travelling, for the first time, on the city’s metrocable (a ski-lift style gondola which is integrated into the local transport network). She is terrified of heights and is not shy about expressing it. I guarantee you’ll never again hear anyone swear as much as this woman does in the space of a few short seconds.
Caleño / Valluno (Cali)
One of the main things you’ll notice about the Spanish spoken in Cali is that locals like to use the “vos” form instead of the more usual “tú”.
This is conjugated differently – for example, caleños would say “vení” instead of “ven” for “come here” – and you’ll hear several examples of this in the below.
Caleño Accent #1: A scene from a local soap opera
In the following short clip, two characters from the mafia-based soap opera / drama “El Cartel de los Sapos” (“The Snitches’ Cartel”) have an argument in a local club.
Caleño Accent #2: At the Cali Festival
In this video, the film makers ask a load of Caleños why it is that the city’s residents are so good at dancing salsa.
Pacífico (Pacific region)
Just an hour or two to the east of Cali, the accent changes once again – and quite dramatically so.
The Pacific region of Colombia is home to a great diversity of ethnic groups and this is reflected in the range of accents you’ll come across here. To familiarise yourself with some of these, have a quick listen to some of the local residents that participated in this documentary about this part of the country.
And all together…
After having heard how all these accents sound separately, you can now hear how they sound all together (also accompanied by a few others we haven’t covered here).
In this final video, a Colombian guy reads the same paragraph several times over, mimicking how the passage would be read out by residents of each of the country’s various regions. As he exaggerates all of the accents, you should be able to pick out more clearly the variations between them.
How to improve your accent in Spanish
Now you’ve heard a few of Colombia’s different accents, you can start to begin imitating the sounds yourselves. Check out my extended post on the free resources, hints and techniques for improving your accent in Spanish. Don’t underestimate the benefits of obtaining a good accent in helping you strike up some rapport with native Spanish speakers.
Studying Spanish in Medellin: the City’s Best Schools
Colombia’s second largest city is smaller, more laid back and warmer than Bogota, and provides a great environment for perfecting your Spanish skills. Fewer long-term expats live in Medellin, but a steady stream of arrivals means that there is still a decent selection of Spanish schools and courses available in the city.
Is Colombian Spanish Really the World’s Best?
During my time in Colombia, I was frequently told by local friends and acquaintances that Colombian Spanish was the “best in the world”. This was invariably expressed as: “yo no sé, pero dicen que el español colombiano es el mejor del mundo” (“I don’t know myself, but they say that Colombian Spanish is the best in the world”) which led me to think this wasn’t just an opinion, but rather an objective fact.