During my time in Colombia, I was frequently told by local friends and acquaintances that Colombian Spanish was the “best in the world”.
The way these statements were phrased – 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”) – led me to think this wasn’t just an opinion, but rather an objective fact.
To me, it sounded as if somewhere out there, an authoritative study had been done on the various sorts of Spanish spoken globally, and that a group of learned experts had confirmed that Colombia’s version was indeed the greatest of all.
Now, if you’ve ever spent much time in the company of Colombians, you’ll know what enthusiastic patriots they can be and how keen they are to highlight the admittedly many great things about their country.
Knowing this context, I was always left wondering whether it really was true that Colombian Spanish was somehow superior to other versions, or whether this was just a patriotically-fueled myth.
To put the issue to bed once and for all, I decided to do a little digging.
Sources? What Sources?
A quick bit of research revealed that my friends were not alone in bigging up their country’s linguistic skills – the same boast appears in endless blog posts, online articles, and comment sections, mainly written by Colombian authors. However, as far as I’ve seen, no reference is ever made to an independent source which verifies this claim.
As far as I’ve seen, no reference is ever made to an independent source which verifies this claim.
The closest thing I found was an article from Caracol radio, a large and respected media outlet in Colombia. The post summarises an interview with Víctor García de la Concha, director of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (RAE), which was given shortly before the organisation held an international conference in Colombia in 2007.
If you’re not already familiar with the RAE by the way, it is the centuries-old Spanish institution whose job it is to act as guardian of the Spanish language; to decide which words and terms are accepted; and to make pronouncements on ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ usage of the language.
Much as the Oxford English Dictionary is the accepted standard of (British) English, so the RAE dictionary is the international gold standard for Spanish. Suffice to say that an endorsement from the Real Academia would certainly be an authoritative source for Colombia’s claim to linguistic supremacy.
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In the by-line of the story accompanying the Caracol interview, the editorial team declare that García de la Concha “reported that the reputation Colombia has for speaking the best Spanish is correct” (“dijo que es cierta la fama que tiene Colombia de hablar el mejor español”). Convincing stuff, you may well think.
Listen to the actual interview, however, and the story is a little different. The only time the RAE director says anything along these lines is when jokingly reporting that his hairdresser told him a couple of days earlier that “Colombia is the country where the best Spanish is spoken”.
Interestingly, this misquote from Caracol has since been re-posted far and wide. It appears, for example, as the most popular response on a Yahoo! Answers post about the world’s top Spanish. No doubt, such reporting is part of the reason that locals continue to say that their Spanish is the best.
What is ‘Colombian Spanish’ Anyway?
Clearly, tracking down a proper source to verify the Colombia claim is a little tricky. Difficulties in confirming the Colombian-Spanish-is-best school of thought mount further if we examine whether there even is such a thing as ‘Colombian Spanish’.
There is as much which divides Colombians in their language usage, as which unites them
While certain patterns of speech, expressions and slang words are common to residents across the country, there is as much which divides Colombians in their language usage, as which unites them. Indeed, many would argue that no uniform language exists in Colombia. (The irony of this being pointed out by the author of a blog with the very title of ‘Colombian Spanish’ is not lost on me.)
Accents are probably the clearest illustration of the ample regional variations. If you were to put a resident from Bogota, for example, in a room with someone from the coastal city of Monterrey, even a Spanish novice would easily be able to hear the significant differences between their respective accents.
Slang, and even everyday vocab, likewise change a lot from region to region. And in Colombia, as anywhere, individuals in any given area will speak markedly differently depending on their level of education, life experience, age, social groups etc. All this means that it becomes rather problematic to generalise about the quality of the Spanish spoken by some 50m people.
Rival Claims for the Prize of ‘World’s Best Spanish’
Complicating matters still further is the fact that Colombia is far from the only country which claims to possess the best Spanish in the globe. Over the years, I have variously heard or read reports saying that the way of speaking in Spain, Mexico or Peru (among others) is superior to all others.
Over the years, I have variously heard that the way of speaking in Spain, Mexico or Peru is superior to all others
For instance, a Mexican recently told me that their version of the language was definitely the most neutral because Mexican actors were always chosen to play the lead roles in dubbed Hollywood movies.
Peruvians, for their part, can cite a 2013 survey by the Faculty of Linguistics from the University of Chile which found that their countrymen spoke most clearly and had the most correctly pronounced Spanish. In this same poll, Argentinians and Chileans were deemed to speak the least comprehensible Spanish of any nation.
Yet, none of these claims really have any more validity than do Colombia’s. Mexican actors are chosen for roles in dubbed movies mainly because Mexico is nearest to the US and it is the largest Latin consumer of its neighbour’s entertainment output.
Respondents in the Chilean poll, on the other hand, appeared to just consider the Spanish of the nations with which they had most contact. It can be no coincidence that all countries named in the results as the best and worst speakers of the language lie immediately along Chile’s borders.
A Subjective Affair
So what’s the explanation for all this? Why do so many people claim to have the highest quality español? And who, if anyone, is right?
In a recent El Tiempo newspaper article, Jairo Valderrama, professor of communications at Universidad de La Sabana, provides a possible explanation (for Colombia, at least).
He writes: “one would like to believe, like many optimists, that in Colombia we speak (and write) the world’s best Spanish…[However, this] is the result of the conviction of many of our fellow countrymen that their way of doing things is best, precisely because it is their way”.
If pushed further as to what they mean about their Spanish being ‘the best’, Colombians will often say that it is because theirs is ‘the most neutral’ form of the language. But, neutrality in language is an entirely subjective phenomenon and will always depends upon your starting point.
Neutrality in language is an entirely subjective phenomenon and will always depends upon your starting point
Take my case as an example. I learnt all my Spanish in Medellin and when speaking in that city nobody much bats an eyelid. To them, it is, I suppose, fairly ‘neutral’ sounding. However, if I’m in Bogota, or travel up to the coast, all of a sudden my Spanish loses its neutrality and becomes ‘paisa’ (or, more precisely, paisa with a touch of gringo). Across the border in Ecuador, my Spanish is viewed as ‘Colombian’, while in Spain it just becomes ‘Latin’.
On this basis, it is difficult to say that one style of Spanish is more neutral, or better, than another. As another director of the RAE, José Manuel Blecua, stated more categorically in 2011: “No one way of speaking is better than another. Nowhere do they speak the best Spanish in the world”.
I’m afraid then, my Colombian friends, that the result of all this is that there are no objective criteria by which Colombian Spanish can definitely said to be the best in the world. It is simply one of many different varieties available.
But Is it Good for Language Learners?
Such philosophical musings are all well and good, but aren’t of much practical use if you’re trying to decide whether or not to choose Colombia as the location for you to learn or to perfect your Spanish. On this question, I am very happy to give a straight answer and whole-heartedly endorse the place as a great destination for language learners.
I’ve always found the Spanish spoken in Colombia to be significantly easier to understand than many other varieties
In my experience, I’ve always found the Spanish spoken in Colombia to be significantly easier to understand than many other varieties heard elsewhere. (One small caveat: I am referring here specifically to the central and southern parts of the country. To my ears, there is nothing easy to understand about the often garbled and slang-filled Spanish spoken by residents of the Caribbean coast.)
In the majority of the country, the population speaks slowly and clearly – much more so than is the case for places like Chile and Spain. Locals are also much more friendly and welcoming than residents of other Spanish-speaking areas. This means you’ll have far more opportunities to practice and improve than you would living among less hospitable populations.
In terms of accent, there are undoubtedly some sounds and types of speech intonation which are relatively distinctive, albeit more so in some parts of the country than in others. But, in my view, these add to the richness of learning the language here, as opposed to detracting from it.
The twang and lilting speech, which is particularly strong in places like Medellin for example, is very pleasant to listen to, and can give your Spanish a bit of an interesting edge when compared to that spoken by people who have learnt in more mainstream destinations.
And despite the existence of local variations and slang usage (a feature, incidentally, which is common across all countries), the Spanish spoken in Colombia is entirely intelligible to nationals from Spain and, even more so, to other Latins. It is very far from being – as a non-Spanish speaking acquaintance of mine once seriously tried to claim – “dirty Spanish”.
The Final Verdict
The long and the short of all this is that impartial evidence confirming that Colombian Spanish is the world’s best is thin on the ground. As is, for that matter, objective verification that any kind of language is better than another.
Be that as it may, for language learners, it remains the case that the Spanish used in Colombia is largely clearly spoken and pleasant sounding. In other words, while we cannot say that it is definitely the ‘best’, it is undeniably pretty damn good.
If you’re looking for the optimal place to learn or improve your Spanish language skills, you could do far worse than Colombia.
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The Perplexing Mystery of Colombian Culture
As you settle into your time in Colombia, you’ll most likely find local cultural values and social customs to be at once familiar, and refreshingly different, from what you’re used to back home. Colombian culture contains plenty of contradictions, which means it’s difficult at first to get a coherent picture of what life in the country is really like. But then figuring all this out is part of what makes the place so enjoyable.
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.