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. At least, that’s the hope.
I’ve always found Colombians to be very tolerant of those still brushing up their Spanish. At least, when talking directly to the gringo in question.
Between friends, however, the opinions expressed are more honest, sometimes verging on the brutal. For an insight into how your Spanish skills are really progressing, keep an ear out for these neat locally-favoured phrases that covering ever level of linguistic prowess.
In the early days, the whole language learning process is pretty painful. It takes an age to get out even a short sentence, which is anyway riddled with mistakes.
No hablar nada or hablar cero
Proud as you may be of the 100 words of Spanish you’ve killed yourself learning, a native’s assessment of your ability probably won’t be that generous.
This phrase completely undermines your accomplishments in one stroke. It means that “you don’t speak any / speak zero” Spanish.
Literally, this means “to speak in knots”. As you might have guessed, it is not a compliment. Rather, it is basically a way to say that someone “speaks funny” or “speaks weird”.
I confess that in my early days in the country I had several conversations which went along the lines of:
Random Colombian: “¿De dónde eres?” (“Where do you come from?”)
Me: “De Inglaterra” (“England”)
Random Colombian: “¡Con razón hablas tan enredado!” (“Oh, so that’s why you speak so wierd!”).
Never great for your self-confidence that one.
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Tener un español bien macheteado
If a Colombian is feeling particularly uncharitable, they might describe your Spanish in this way.
Given that the last word comes from the verb “machetear”, meaning to “to hit something with a machete”, I needn’t tell you that this is not a compliment. It is, rather, a way to say that you are completely butchering the language.
Persevere a little longer and you’ll work your way up to the intermediate level. At this stage, people might describe your abilities as follows:
A straightforward phrase: “to speak well”.
This can be used as an alternative for “hablar”. So, “¿manejas bien el español?” means “do you speak Spanish [to a reasonable degree of proficiency]?”.
Se defiende (bastante)
The verb “defenderse” literally translates as “to defend oneself”.
In this context, it would mean “to get by” e.g. Q. “¿Hablas español?” A. “Sí. Pues, me defiendo” (Q. “Do you speak Spanish?” A. “Yea. Well, I get by at least / I do OK”).
If someone says to you “te defiendes bastante” this is a clear indication that your Spanish is coming on rather well.
Tener un buen español
Fairly self-explanatory: “to have a good [level] of Spanish”.
Progress with the language is not automatic, and you’ll almost undoubtedly feel around the intermediate stage that you’ve got a bit stuck in a rut.
“Estar estancado” is a good phrase to describe this plateau you’ll reach after the first month or two of learning. It means that you’re making little progress with the language – kind of staying in the same place by just using the same couple of hundred words and verbs you already know.
The English word “fluent” is such a perfectly precise way to describe someone who is highly proficient in a second language. Sadly, there is no precise equivalent in Spanish.
Some suggest “hablar con fluidez” as the local alternative, but to my ears this sounds like a clunky translation and not a natural phrase Colombians would use.
Te fluye el español
“Te fluye el español” is, I think, the closest we can get. The meaning, in Colombia at least, seems to be that “you speak Spanish with fluidity” rather than you are necessarily “fluent” in a bilingual kind of way.
Hablar a la perfección
“To speak perfectly” – high praise indeed.
Hablar demasiado bien
This means something like “to speak really / amazingly well”.
¡Ya se colombianzó!
For the really advanced stages of Spanish, where you are waxing lyrical and making frequent use of local slang, people might say this of you. It means “s/he’s become a Colombian already!”.
A variant heard in Medellin is “ya se empaisó” i.e. “s/he’s become a paisa [resident of the Antioquia region] already!”.
However good you get at Spanish, the sad reality is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. If you need to explain away your poor Spanish at any stage, here’s how to do it:
Lo tengo muy olvidado
This basically means that you have been neglecting your Spanish of late (this same phrase can also be used to talk about a person who you have been neglecting too).
Saying, “yo sí hablo español, pero lo tengo muy olvidado” would mean “I do speak Spanish, but it’s very rusty”.
Se me pega la lengua
A way to say that you are tongue tied e.g. “se me pega la lengua cuando trato de hablar” = “I get tongue tied when I try to speak Spanish” (the literal translation is something like “my tongue goes and gets stuck on me when I try to speak”).
Se me bloquea
A bit similar to the above, this means essentially that you experience a mental block when wanting to chat in your second language.