A great way to expose yourself to the Spanish spoken in Colombia is by watching, reading, listening to and generally enjoying the country’s entertainment output.
The amazing thing about doing this is that it feels like much less effort than consulting textbooks or studying in class. It is also fun and can be done for minimal cost, whether or not you’re physically located in Colombia.
TV and Film
Colombia TV firms produce an endless stream of ridiculously dramatized soap operas (telenovelas). These could be a good source for language learners if you are able to stand the ham-fisted acting. Personally, I struggle.
The good news is that novelas represent only a small fraction of the country’s TV and movie output, and much higher quality productions are available. A lot of these deal with real-life stories related to drugs, organised crime and the country’s conflict.
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While this can be a little hard-going at times, it is also useful in helping you to understand the local context, as well as how far the country has come since the worst of its troubles in the 1980s and 1990s.
The speech heard in all of the below is fast-paced and slang-laden so if you’re at the early stages of learning, try and find a copy of them which includes Spanish subtitles. Reading along while you watch will definitely enable you to learn a lot of new slang, very quickly:
Los Colores de la Montaña (“The Colours of the Mountain”)
A moving film set in the countryside of Antioquia at the height of the conflict. It tells the story of a group of kids who are trying to enjoy their childhood and play football (soccer) in the fields near the village of Jardin. All around them, however, rebels from the FARC and the paramilitaries are struggling to take control of the town and its population.
A subtitled version of the movie is available for free on YouTube.
Escobar, El Patron del Mal / Pablo Escobar: The Drug Lord
If you enjoyed Narcos, you’re sure to enjoy this Colombian TV series, from 2012, which charts the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, over a hefty 74 episodes.
As well as being an excellent language source, it is an accurate depiction of a fascinating, if depressing, chapter of Colombia’s recent history. El Patron del Mal is one of the best sources for those wanting to become more familiar with the accent and vocabulary of Medellin.
The series is available to watch on Netflix in some countries. If you can’t get it where you are, it’s well worth investing in the DVD series, as you won’t be able to watch it all on YouTube. The DVD version should have both English and Spanish subtitles.
Maria Llena Eres de Gracia
Also released under the English name ‘Maria Full of Grace’, this is a 2004 film jointly produced by US and Colombian firms. The movie tells the story of a young girl from Bogota who is forced by circumstances to become a drugs mule and smuggle cocaine into the United States.
This award-winning motion picture charts the difficulties and dangers faced by Maria after getting involved in this high-risk trade.
La Estrategia del Caracol
A mixture of bizarre, but endearing, characters are the protagonists of this 1993 comedy drama. The film focuses on the efforts of a rich and snooty landlord to evict the long-standing, poverty-stricken residents of a rundown house in Bogota.
The inhabitants put up spirited resistance to the landlord’s repeated legal and extra-legal attempts to get them out. When all hope appears to be fading, the residents finally hit upon an ingenious way of getting one over the money-obsessed property owner.
Colombia Vive: 25 Años de Resistencia
An excellent documentary which, while it contains little in the way of slang, does feature news stories, video clips, and interviews with people from all across the country.
As such, it is a useful way to get acquainted with some of the differences between regional accents. The documentary details the often unbelievable events of Colombia’s recent history, beginning from the early 1980s and finishing in the mid-2000s.
One technique I used when learning was to listen to a ton of Latin music and look up the song lyrics. This is a handy to quickly improve your vocab, especially if you’re into talking about love, heartbreak and infidelity which are the bread and butter of Latin song lyrics.
Listening to Colombian music has the added bonus that it will get you familiar with the Latin rhythms. If you’re staying in Colombia for any amount of time, you’re going to have to get used to dancing to these so it’s best to arrive prepared.
The music I most listened to – a random mix of groups like Aventura, Calle 13, Orishas and Cultura Profetica – was not actually Colombian. However, if you want to hone your Colombian Spanish skills in particular, have a look into the work of some of the following groups and artists:
A hip hop group whose members come from the Pacific coast / Cali region. They have some good tunes in which you can also hear some distinct characteristics of pronunciation in the Pacific region.
Take, for example, the song “pescao envenanao” – this shows the way that the “d” is often not pronounced at the end of words ending “ado” (the ‘correct’ title would be “pescado envenanado” or “poisoned fish”).
From Colombia’s other coast, comes the hugely popular music genre of vallenatos: an often upbeat folksy sort of music, heavy on the use of the accordion and other percussion instruments, such as the guacharaca.
Silvestre Dangond is one of the most celebrated musicians in this genre. For a simple-ish and famous song to follow along, try “me gusta”: one of his earlier classics.
Orquesta La 33
Colombia is, of course, the world’s capital of salsa and no music list would be complete without one of the local salsa collectives. Orquesta La 33 is a band, originating from Bogota, which mainly produces the more upbeat and fast rhythms of salsa movida.
Another artist from the Caribbean coast, Carlos Vives is, along with the likes of Juanes and Shakira, one of Colombia’s iconic pop music figures. His music largely draws on influences from his home region, but fuses together various styles including vallenatos, porro, cumbia, rock and pop.
Reggaeton hits are not the sort of songs which will go down in music history, but they remain extremely popular in Colombia’s discotecas. Many of the biggest artists are from outside the country, especially Puerto Rico, but the Medellin-born J Balvin is a popular Colombian star.
If you’ve not been studying Spanish for too long, you might want to make a start by working your way through my eBook guide to Colombian Spanish.
If, on the other hand, your Spanish is more advanced and you’re wanting to lose yourself in a good story, you are in luck; Colombia has a rich literary tradition. Below are a few of the titles which I can personally recommend:
“Crónica de una muerte anunciada” (“Chronicle of a Death Foretold”): Gabriel García Márquez
The Nobel Prize winning author is undoubtedly one of Colombia’s most famous. While Márquez’s most celebrated tome is “Cien años de soledad” (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”) the complexity of the text, the vivid nature of the descriptions, and highly diverse vocabulary employed by the author make it really difficult for non-native speakers to read.
“Crónica de una muerte anunciada” is much more accessible. It is an engaging and highly enjoyable novel, which traces the events preceding a murder in a small town. Though everybody knew the violence was imminent, nobody did anything to prevent it…
“Delirio” (“Delirium”): Laura Restrepo
Restrepo’s highly acclaimed book explores the story of a husband who, after a three-day trip, returns home to find his wife has gone mad. In an effort to figure out what has happened, and to bring his wife back to normality, the protagonist begins delving deeper into her life and background. As he does, he rapidly uncovers that his spouse has been keeping secrets from him about deep traumas in her past.
“Empresas y Tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero” (“The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll): Álvaro Mutis
A series of seven novellas which chart the trials and tribulations of the eponymous character as he travels across the world. The book follows Maqroll “El Gaviero” (“the lookout”) as he gets into a whole host of adventures on both land and sea, which cover the full range of human experience: love, life, death, friendships and scrapes with the law.
“El ruido de las cosas al caer” (“The Sound of Things Falling”): Juan Gabriel Vásquez
This novel, set in the Colombia of the 1980s and 1990s, was a deserved winner of the prestigious Alfaguara literary prize in 2011. It traces the fate of a lawyer in Colombia in this violent era as he seeks to learn about a stranger whose murder he unwittingly witnesses.
In 2013, the author released another recommended novel ‘Las Reputaciones’, which tells the story of a fictional political cartoonist who publicly accuses a Colombian Senator of child abuse.
Online and Reference
To finish, a few more light-hearted reference resources on Colombian slang:
This excellent website has a very extensive list of Colombian slang from all across the country. All the explanations provided are in Spanish however, so this might not be such a useful resource for beginners.
This is an academic-style dictionary that contains thousands of Colombian terms and their explanations (in Spanish). It’s a bit dry, but very comprehensive (and free), so can be a useful reference tool.
The downside is that, as a foreigner, it is tough to know which words and phrases are used all the time, and which are heard only rarely. To save yourself wading through a load of stuff that isn’t really relevant, you can, of course, always refer back to my own eBook, which contains only those terms that’ll help most in everyday life and social situations.
Martina La Peligrosa
The Instagram and YouTube accounts of this Colombian singer have gained a great many followers, mainly among Colombians, thanks to her “Classes on Cordoban Spanish”. Cordoba is a coastal region of Colombia and her videos give humorous, bite-sized insights into the many particularities of the distinctive Spanish of the region.
Don’t be concerned if you can’t understand much of what she says; part of the popularity of the videos in Colombia is that even locals (from other parts of the country) struggle to understand some of the slang used.
Colombians communicate a lot non-verbally and there are a whole load of specific hand gestures which have defined (and otherwise incomprehensible) meanings. This useful blog entry has photos and explanations for the major gestures which you’ll come across.
This interactive ‘online documentary’ allows you to take a virtual tour of downtown Medellin from the comfort of your own home. While wondering about, you’ll meet a load of colourful characters in the form of the market stall owners and street vendors who ply their trade around the city centre. Stop and ‘chat’ to each and you’ll learn their various life stories – all while practicing your Colombian Spanish listening comprehension, of course.
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