Rarely do Spanish teachers embrace the philosophy of teaching their students to speak like a real native, instead of simply getting them to converse like some kind of living textbook.
One of the few exceptions to this rule in Colombia is Violeta Bernal (also known as Violet Bloom), a Medellín-based instructor, who runs an independent teaching outfit called “Social Spanish”. The focus of her classes is on equipping students with the kind of Spanish they’ll need to survive in informal and social situations in Colombia.
Given that this is a goal which I also share, I thought it’d be interesting to get Violeta’s expert perspective on the potential advantages and pitfalls of studying Spanish in Colombia. In a recent interview, she shared a few ideas about why to study in Colombia; the most useful bits of local slang; some tips on how to improve quickly; and common mistakes to avoid when learning (there are apparently quite a few…).
As well as the interview summary outlined here, I’d highly recommend you also check out the video links to her original Spanish-language answers to my questions. It’s a handy bit of listening practice for Spanish learners, not least because Violeta’s accent is a superb example of the pleasantly lilting Spanish for which paisas are deservedly famous.
Q. Let’s start by talking a bit about your background. Why did you first decide to become a Spanish teacher?
If I’m honest, I never ever imagined that I’d wind up being a Spanish teacher. At university, I had studied dentistry, but by the time I was 25 I knew that that really wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life.
Back then, I was working at a hostel. One day one of the guests suggested that I taught him some Spanish in exchange for him buying me a drink. I really didn’t know much about teaching, but as we went through a few things he started to take down some notes in a little notebook he had. I didn’t think much more about it.
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It was like I’d suddenly found my calling in life - to teach Spanish to foreigners
A few months later, when the same guy was leaving Medellín, he handed me a sealed envelope and said I could only open it when he was gone. When I eventually did, I saw that it contained his notebook, with all the notes from our classes together. I don’t know how to describe the feeling exactly, but his gift really had an impact on me. It was kind of magic; like I’d suddenly found my calling in life, which was to teach Spanish to foreigners.
The transition wasn’t easy – I had to study for a bunch of new qualifications and faced a lot of difficulties along the way. It was a tough road to go down, but I’m so happy I did. I love my job – teaching doesn’t even feel like work.
Q. Could you tell us a bit about your classes? What do you different to other teachers and schools in Medellin?
My focus is on the social aspects of Spanish. In other words, I concentrate on real life Spanish, rather than the overly formal sort which nobody ever really speaks. I take that approach because when I was learning English it annoyed me that we were always taught stuff that wasn’t even useful.
When I later started to actually talk with native English speakers, I couldn’t understand some really simple things, like people greeting me by saying “Hey, what’s up?” “What’s going on?” “What have you been up to?” etc. My teacher had never taught me any of these phrases so I’d try to just translate them literally. Obviously, they’d never make any sense.
My English teacher had never taught me any slang phrases so I’d try to just translate them all literally
I didn’t want that to happen to any of my students so, in my classes, I mainly focus on teaching the Spanish which I and other Colombians would use in our daily lives, when speaking with our friends and family.
Other schools are afraid to do this, because they think that this isn’t the “correct” way to speak. But how can that possibly be true when it is the way that the vast majority of native speakers talk most of the time? I want my students to learn the most useful stuff so that’s exactly what I teach them. I think that’s what makes my classes a bit different from the rest.
Q. Why should foreigners come to Medellin, and Colombia more generally, to study Spanish?
First off, because Colombia is amazing! It’s the best! There are lots of great things to see and do here and the people are very kind and friendly too. That it makes it much easier to meet people and practice your Spanish.
Colombian’s pronunciation – at least, in Medellin – is also a lot clearer than that in other places like the Dominican Republic where they don’t pronounce the “r” properly (they say it more like an “l” there). Colombians also speak much more slowly than people from places like Chile, where even I struggle to understand what they’re talking about sometimes.
Colombians speak much more slowly than people from Chile, where even I struggle to understand what they’re talking about
Another reason to come here is that the standard of teaching is high, while the classes are still reasonably priced. Other places, like Guatemala, may be cheaper than Colombia, but the quality of tuition doesn’t seem to be as good. A few of my students have studied in Guatemala before and these tend to be the people who make more mistakes or who haven’t been taught some key bits of the language.
Within Colombia itself, Medellin is a great place to be because the weather is perfect. It’s springtime here for basically the whole year. And because it’s a bit fresher than somewhere like Cartagena, which is roasting hot, it’s much easier to study.
I think Bogota might also be a cool place to study, but it’s not as good as Medellin because it’s harder to make friends there. Here, random people will happily start talking to you, almost everywhere you go. Our taxi drivers, for example, will talk at you for ages even if you barely understand what they’re saying.
Q. Do you have any tips you can share with our readers as to how they can learn to speak in a more natural way?
The main bit of advice I’d have would be to search on the internet for videos called “praxias erre” [a sample video is available here]. These videos show exercises that are used by speech therapists to help train up Spanish-speakers who also have problems pronouncing the double “r” sound.
The exercises are a bit funny to do, but they’re really great. I guarantee if you practice them for five minutes every day -- for example, before going to work or going to bed -- you’ll rapidly notice a big difference. And it’ll help you stop speaking like a gringo!
Q. As foreigners, we make a lot of mistakes when speaking Spanish. Can you think of some examples of funny things your students have accidentally said during your classes?
The first (of many examples) that occurs to me now is something one of my students said to my mum, who is a dentist. He had gone to her for some dental work and, when trying to show his appreciation for her being so nice, he turned to her at the end of his appointment and said “Ay señora, ¡me gustas mucho!”.
My mum just looked really confused as she tried to work out why on earth this foreign guy had just suddenly confessed a romantic interest in her. I laughed so much, before later explaining to him that he should have said “me caes bien” (“I like you [as a friend]”) instead of “me gustas” (“I like you [romantically]”).
At the end of his appointment, one of my student's turned to his dentist and said “Ay señora, ¡me gustas mucho!"
Another time, a student of mine said to me “profesora, necesito exitar [sic]”. I didn’t know exactly what she meant, but I did know that this sounded a LOT like the verb “to make someone horny” (“excitarse”). I eventually figured out that she was trying to say – that she needed to “exit”, as in “to get out”, but had said “exitar” instead of “salir”.
One final funny mistake is when people confuse the verb “introducirse" (which in Spanish means something like “to insert”) with the English “to introduce oneself” (or “presentarse”). Just before going to talk to a random girl, a student of mine once said to me “me voy a introducir a esa chica”. And that means something quite radically different from what he was trying to say.
Q. Lastly, could you tell us a few examples of the most important slang that foreigners need to learn if they want to integrate into local life in Medellin?
The first one that springs to mind has to be “parce” or “parcero”, which is Colombian for “dude”. So, you might greet people by saying “hola parce” (“hey dude!”) or “¿qué más parce?” (“what’s up dude?”). It’s a term that we use all the time.
A second word is one you’ll need to say something is “cool”. Throughout Colombia, people use the word “chévere” for this, but in Medellin specifically we more often say “bacano” e.g. “¡qué cosa tan bacana!” (“that’s so cool!”) or “me parece súper bacano” (“I think it’s really cool / really great!”).
Another very common slang phrase in Medellin is “hágale pues”. This expression doesn’t have an exact translation, but means something like “sure”, or “OK” or “go ahead”. If your friend asks if you want to go drink a few beers, for instance, you can respond by saying “¡hágale pues!”.
There are loads more I’m sure, but these few expressions are ones that we say most and so are the most important ones for foreigners to learn to use properly.
For more information on Violeta’s classes, as well as some other useful language learning tips, please visit the Social Spanish Facebook page.