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. That’ll do much more to help you make friends and fit in than will speaking exactly like the textbook has taught you.
Never is this clearer than when it comes to the English words that crop up surprisingly often in Colombian conversations. Obviously, it can’t be said that incorporating these terms into your repertoire is the way to speak Spanish 100% correctly, not least because the words you’ll be using aren’t even Spanish at all.
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But why get yourself tongue tied going through all sorts of linguistic contortions to say something in textbook Spanish, when you can simply get straight to the point by using the same word a native speaker would?
So, take a little time to familiarise yourself with the English words that Colombians use and the context in which they do so. This way you’ll speak more naturally and also be able to dramatically expand your ‘Spanish’ vocabulary, all with the most minimal amount of effort. A winning technique all round.
English Words for Colombian People
Forget referring to everyone as “señor” or “señora” and try working in a few of these English phrases into your speech instead:
Of all the English words that pop up in Colombians’ use of Spanish this is undoubtedly the most common. It means much the same as the English word, but it is much less formal – more similar to “guy” or “dude” than it is to “man”.
Colombians use the word all the time, and it can be used equally to talk about one guy or a whole bunch of them. I’ll just give a few sentences to give you the general idea: “ese man es muy alto” (“that guy is really tall”); “hay muchos manes aquí” (“there’s a load of dudes here”); “el man es como rarito” (“the guy is a little bit weird”).
Remember that the Latin pronunciation of the word is very slightly different in Spanish than it would be in English – the “a” sound in the middle is slightly clipped in the Colombian version. Imagine how we would say “mun” and you won’t be far off the mark.
No translation needed for this one. A nerd is a nerd. Add the “cito” bit at the end if you don’t want to be too mean, yet still want to communicate that the person you’re talking about is not the coolest guy alive.
For instance: “El man es muy querido, pero es como medio nerdcito”. Translation: “he’s a really nice guy, but he is a little bit of nerd I guess”.
Hippy / hippi
Our long-haired, vegetarian, pot-smoking friends are, in Colombia, referred to using the same term as you’d hear elsewhere.
If they smoke a lot, however, they might pass over into being described as “marijuanero/a” –a more disrespectful term for those who get through a fair whack of “marijuana”.
Technically speaking, a chef should be called a “cocinero”, but Colombians are quite partial to referring to them with the more term familiar above.
The only difference is in the pronunciation. In the Colombian version, the “ch” at the beginning of the word is said like we would say the “ch” in “chop”, rather than the softer “sh” sound at the beginning of our version.
Not an everyday bit of vocab, but if the zombie apocalypse should come, at least now you’ll know how to warn your Colombian friends.
This word is never used in reference to gurgling little human beings, but rather for their grown up relations. Colombians say “baby” only as a kind of pet name or term of endearment.
For instance, a girl asking her boyfriend what time they are leaving for a trip might say “baby, ¿a qué horas nos vamos?” (“What time we leaving babe?”).
Sexy / sexi
The English word “sexy” is commonly heard in Colombian conversations and has the same meaning, and is heard in the same contexts, as the original.
For example: “Ella no es tan bonita, pero sí es muy sexy” (“She’s not that pretty, but she sure is sexy”).
When talking about going out and other ways they like to spend their free time, you might hear your Colombian buddies utter a few other familiar-sounding words:
“Reality” is used in the specific context of “reality TV shows” e.g. “se volvió famosa después de salir en un reality el año pasado” (“she got really famous after being in a reality TV show last year”).
For all other circumstances when you want to talk about “reality”, you’ll have to stick to the traditional Spanish word “realidad”.
A term to describe the sort of music played in almost all Colombian nightclubs.
If the tunes are said to be “crossover” this indicates that the club plays music from a whole load of different Latin genres (vallenatos, salsa, merengue, rancheras, bachata and reggaeton), as opposed to just playing one type of music all night.
The “man” in charge of mixing the “crossover” tunes is, in Colombia, also called a DJ. The letters are pronounced the English way – so the “J”, for example, is said as “jay” and not “jota”.
Stand up comedy in Colombia is not a profession with a long history. So much so, that the English phrase “stand up” is used in local Spanish to describe it.
Can be used in same sense as the English word to describe an entertainment gig involving dancing and music and so on.
The phrase “hacer un show” is also heard to describe the scene when someone is making a big fuss about nothing; when something hasn’t gone their way and they make a “big song and dance” about it.
On a night out, you might hear one of your female companions saying that they feel a bit “happy”.
Probably, they mean they’re feeling a little tipsy, as in the following: “Siempre me pongo ‘happy’ después de un par de coctelitos” (“I always get a bit tipsy after a couple of cocktails”).
The English word is not really used for sober states of happiness, where it is more usual say “estar feliz” or “estar content”.
Apparently Spanish does not have its own word to describe the practice of eating some sandwiches out in the park, so use the English term instead.
Note that “to have a picnic” is “hacer un picnic” and not “tener un picnic”, as you might expect if you were to translate it literally.
The Good Stuff
A Colombian will most often describe something cool or fashionable as being “bacano” or “chévere, or the like. A handful of English terms are also used in these sorts of situations though:
In this part of South America, “play” is a term used in a way which is in no way connected with its English equivalent. Instead, it goes for things (and, less often, people) that are “upmarket”, “posh” or “classy”.
A couple of examples: “Montaron un nuevo bar por la 10 y se ve muy play” (“They’ve opened a new bar on 10th street and it looks really flash”) or “Su celular es súper play” (“She’s got a really fancy mobile / cell phone”).
Most frequently used to mean “really” or “very much” e.g. “es súper interesante” = “It’s really interesting”.
“Look” is heard only in the context of fashion. A glossy magazine, for instance, might say on the front cover “Natalia Paris estrena nuevo look” (“Natalia Pais [a Colombian model] shows off her new look”).
For all other uses of look, stick with the dictionary terms of “mirar” or “ver”.
A Colombian might describe something successful, like we do in English, as a “hit”. This can equally be applied to a hugely popular song or to something more mundane e.g. “preparé una torta para la fiesta y era todo un hit” (“I made a cake for the party and it went down great!”).
This last list features those terms which started out as entirely English, but then passed through a Colombian filter and emerged quite differently out the other side.
At first glance, you may not recognise the English connection with this word, but it is still very much there.
The term is a bastardised version of the words “cash” and “money” and is occasionally used (jokingly) as a way to refer to “cash”.
Club de fans
“A fan club”. It is fine to use the English word “fan” only in this specific phrase (notice that the plural is spelt “fans”, as in the English, and not with an “-es” as you would expect if it followed Spanish rules).
If you’re talking about being a “fan” of a particular sports team you can’t use this. Instead use: “hincha” e.g. “soy hincha de nacional” or “I support [atlético] nacional” – one of Medellin’s two main football (soccer) teams.
You may wonder how you can make an English word into a Spanish verb? Easy enough – just by shoving an “-ear” on the end.
Such is the case with “chatear”; a verb meaning “to chat”, but only when this is carried out via electronic communications like Whatsapp, Blackberry Messenger etc.
Now you know the way to convert words into verbs, you’ll barely need me to explain this one. “Zigzagear” is “to zigzag” e.g. “el man estaba tan borracho que cuando trataba de caminar, acababa zigzagueaba por todos lados” (“the guy was so drunk that when he tried to walk, he ended up zigzagging all over the place”.
I’m not sure if this is the correct spelling of this term as I’ve only ever come across it in spoken Spanish.
This term isn’t used much in country, so much as among Colombian expats and students living abroad in English speaking places. With job opportunities for young Colombians lacking in such destinations, “cleanear” crops up fairly often in conversation as it means “to work as a cleaner”.
The sort of “tip” that takes the form of advice, not a financial bonus, is also referred to by Colombians with the English word e.g. “Miss Colombia comparte sus tips de belleza” (“Miss Colombia shares her beauty tips”).
Again, a slightly funny spelling of a word which is essentially English. When you hear it spoken, you’ll realise that the pronunciation is almost identical to the original word “sandwich” from which it is taken.
Colombians are infinitely more likely to describe the famous combo of two bits of bread with something in the middle as a “sánduche” than they are to call it a “bocadillo” (like the dictionary says they should).
I’d wager that on reading this final term, you have no idea what kind of English word this could possibly be. I certainly didn’t when I first came across it.
Funnily enough, “Vivaporu” is the word that Colombians, and other Latinos too, refer to the menthol cream product, “Vicks Vaporub”.
Ask a Colombian friend to pronounce it for you – I guarantee you’ll enjoy the result.
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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.
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