I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you’ve been told that by moving to a Spanish speaking country, you’ll “just pick up” the language, then you’ve been lied to.
Unless you’re below the age of about 12, there is nothing passive about learning a foreign language. Much as we might wish it were so, having daily contact with these alien words and expressions does not mean that they will magically and effortlessly seep into your brain.
You have to work hard to get them there.
Undoubtedly, your progress will be more rapid if you stay a while in Colombia, or any other Spanish-speaking country, as you will be exposed to the language much more frequently than you would back home.
But you still have to get out there and make a conscious effort to study, learn and practice. And, along the way, there will be times when things get tough.
The most enjoyable parts of your Spanish studies are undoubtedly in the first few weeks, when you advance quickly from knowing little or nothing, and then again at the stage when you start getting properly conversational.
Want to speak Spanish with Colombians as naturally as you'd chat in English with your friends back home? Well, you'll need to learn a load of local slang and expressions first.
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Between these two periods, though, you've got to pass through a bit of a a linguistic no-man’s land. Progress will not be as stellar as it once was, and you still won't have reached a standard where you can converse easily in almost any social setting. Expect to get frustrated.
with sufficient motivation absolutely anyone – and I do mean anyone – can reach fluency
Perseverance is the only medicine for this condition. With sufficient motivation, absolutely anyone – and I do mean anyone – can push past this point and reach fluency.
As nobody enjoys this depressing period of language learning, I thought I’d share a few ideas and techniques which will help minimise the amount of time you’ll spend in this rut.
The below techniques and tools are the ones that I used before heading to Colombia for the first time a few years ago. It worked great for me and I hope it’ll do the same for you too.
Pre-Departure Learning Techniques
The learning curve will be steepest when you arrive to Colombia and start having conversations with real people. You may suddenly discover at this stage that all that Spanish you thought you knew really doesn’t amount to a whole lot.
The awakening will be rude whatever happens. But you can prepare yourself by getting stuck into some studying prior to arrival. Start now and you’ll save yourself a lot of time (and money – on expensive tuition) when you get to the country.
Let’s take a look at a couple of the best ways to prepare pre-departure:
1. Nail the grammar
Grammar is certainly not the sexiest part of language learning. People are rarely motivated to learn a foreign tongue by a burning desire to get to grips with the intricacies of indirect object pronoun usage or the conjugations of the imperfect tense in the subjunctive mood.
I completely understand that you probably want to jump straight into having full on conversations. But it’s not going to be easy to do so without first building a decent understanding of the basic grammatical concepts.
Try to skip this and you’ll always suffer, to some extent, as you won’t have the necessary mental tools to adapt and deploy the Spanish that you do know to situations that you don’t. You may be able to make yourself understood, but you will consistently make mistakes when you speak.
to be perfectly frank, it is a waste of money to pay someone else to teach you Spanish grammar
Understanding grammar is hugely important, but, to be perfectly frank, it is a waste of money to pay someone else to teach you it. This is one area of Spanish learning which can be done perfectly well by yourself – and, in my view, it is actually better learnt this way.
Every imaginable Spanish textbook covers grammatical concepts, but they do not always do so in an easily digestible way. Often they take the approach of providing a verb conjugations table and brief list of grammar rules, and then expecting you just to stare at the page until you’ve committed it all to memory.
I’ve never been a big fan of rote learning in this way - mainly as I don’t have the patience for it - so I looked for some alternatives. I enjoyed much more success in developing my understanding of grammar simply by skipping straight to practical exercises. Instead of gazing at the rules, I worked my way through hundreds of simple exercises which tested my knowledge of each grammatical concept and helped me identify any areas of weakness.
I had some assistance in doing so. The particular book I used for the exercises was this one, from the "Practice Make Perfect" series, but I’ve also heard good things about the grammar lessons in this book (I'm sure there are countless other resources which would work just as well).
If you do likewise, you'll find that you're at a huge advantage when starting formal classes in Colombia. In my case, though I could barely speak more than a few words when I arrived to the country, I already had a solid understanding of the language’s main structures before beginning proper tuition. This helped me progress notably faster than my fellow classmates who had done less preparation prior to their arrival.
2. Familiarise yourself with real life Spanish resources
It’s never enough just to examine Spanish grammar and textbook rules in isolation, however. As we all know, the way the language ought to be spoken and the way it is actually used in everyday situations by native speakers are very far from the same thing.
For that reason, it’s a wise idea to complement your grammatical studies with some real life contact with the language. It’s difficult to get personal contact with native speakers in your home country, but don't let this be an excuse to your progress. There are hundreds of other media sources readily available for you to work through.
The best of these resources – like Spanish-language movies, music, TV and books – are also the most enjoyable to engage with. When I was first studying, I got really into listening to Latin music (of pretty questionable quality) whilst reading and learning the song lyrics.
Others prefer watching TV shows or movies, while reading along with the subtitles. Still others swear by watching Spanish soap operas; even arguing that you can learn great Spanish exclusively by binging on telenovelas.
This last claim might be stretching things a bit far. Yet, there is no denying that all these sorts of sources provide excellent exposure to how the language is actually spoken in real life. Start familiarising yourself with them now and you’ll be in a good position when you finally make the transition abroad.
Post Arrival: Mission Fluency
Having worked through the above, you’ll arrive to Colombia well prepared and ready to make some serious progress. Aim for maximum integration into the local culture to ensure that you’ll practice the maximum amount of Spanish on any given day.
Below are a few ideas on how to go about achieving the best results in the shortest amount of time:
3. Sign-up for Spanish classes
When you first arrive, it’s a wise move to attend to sign up for a minimum of a few hours a week of structured Spanish tuition, rather than just trying to learn out on the streets. This will keep studying and improving at the forefront of your mind, as well as giving you regular access to a qualified teacher with intimate knowledge of how Spanish works.
While your new Colombian friends can help you improve some aspects of Spanish – especially by giving you language practice, correcting your worst mistakes and teaching you some local slang – in most areas they will be nothing short of useless.
Sure, they can always tell you whether something sounds correct or not, but will rarely be able to offer any decent explanations as to the reasons why your peculiar phrasing was right or wrong. A qualified Spanish teacher, on the other hand, will.
Later on, when you've advanced a bit further, you’ll be able to dispense with formal classes and just rely on improving by immersion. At the beginning, though, they really are a must.
4. Move on from textbook Spanish
Even formal tuition will have its limitations if undertaken in isolation. The major issue is that your teachers will explain how to speak Spanish absolutely 100% correctly; too correctly, maybe, for you to be funny, make friends and fit in.
To learn the little Spanish turns of phrase, slang terms and idiomatic expressions to rectify this problem, you’ll need to turn to other sources. Addressing this gap is the aim of my own eBook and blog (which I'd obviously recommend), but these are far from the only tools at your disposal.
your teachers will explain how to speak Spanish 100% correctly - too correctly, maybe, for you to be funny and make friends
One guide that I found to be of huge help when learning was a little book called "Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish". This publication spells out the lessons learnt by a long-term (US) expat in Latin America about how to ditch textbook Spanish and start speaking more naturally.
Given that the book is based on the author’s experience of life in Mexico, there are one or two terms in there which aren’t used all that often in Colombia. However, the overwhelming majority of its content is language gold for those who have already got past the early stages of Spanish. I can't recommend it highly enough if you serious about working towards fluency.
5. Live with Colombians
To hear the phrases from the above sources in their natural context, and to get a decent feel for when each is used, there is no substitute for living with Colombians. Having a local flatmate also has the added bonus of giving you a proper foothold into the local culture and of potentially providing the basis for some lasting friendships.
Even if you don’t get on as well as all that, living with Colombians will mean, at the very least, that you’re honing your Spanish small talk, and building up some important (if seriously dull) vocabulary about kitchen utensils, plumbing, management of bills and the like.
Having a local flatmate has the added bonus of giving you a proper foothold into the local culture
You can always find short-term rentals through conventional sites like AirBnb, but a better place to look if you’re staying a while is on compartoapto.com. This is the Colombian version of better known international sites, like Spareroom.com, which help you find rooms to rent in other people’s houses.
Fortunately, it’s much easier to actually get a room in Colombia than it is in big cities like London. Quite a few of the available options, though, are run by overbearing “amas de casa” (“housewives”) and offer an “ambiente familiar” (“family atmosphere”).
If you see either of these phrases mentioned in the room adverts, I'd suggest you run a mile. These places always have a LOT of rules about how their guests should behave in the apartment; more, even, than my own parents ever put on me when I was growing up.
Better instead to look for the more relaxed living atmosphere offered by apartments of Colombian students or young professionals. This’ll be more fun and is much more likely to end in you getting introduced to a whole new social circle than if you live with an ama de casa.
6. Milk language exchanges for all they’re worth
Having a Colombian roommate or two is a great way to start integrating into local society, but you’ll still need to make other efforts to get out there and meet others if you want to become a Spanish master.
Admittedly, you can practice quite a bit of Spanish just by making the most out of everyday opportunities that present themselves; for example, by chatting away with your taxi driver whilst stuck in traffic, or by getting involved in the local dating scene.
You can also be a bit more proactive in looking for more structured platforms, such as language exchange groups, to help you practice. When I arrived to Colombia, for instance, I dived headlong into the conversation partnering scheme offered by the language centre at EAFIT University in Medellin.
You can be proactive in looking for structured platforms to practice your Spanish, such as language exchange groups
In an effort to get to know as many people as possible, I worked my way through the dozens of students listed in their database, arranging to meet several a day for informal conversation practice after my classes. Granted, there were more than a few awkward sessions, but I also met a whole bunch of people I got on well with; some of whom I remain friends with to date.
The cooler characters I met were the ones who subsequently invited me out on nights out, and even on trips away, and did their utmost to help me integrate into local society. All these interactions were conducted in Spanish which, of course, proved a linguistic boon too.
Fortunately, these days, these types of language exchange programme are run via a whole bunch of platforms so you can get involved even if you’re not studying at a university. There’s a load of them spread across Colombia – to find them, all you need to is go to Facebook or Meetup, and search for the name of your city, together with “language exchange” or “intercambio”.
maximise these sorts of opportunities and you’ll quickly see the results reflected in your growing Spanish skills
A quick search like this will immediately provide a range of places and events where you can practice your Spanish techniques, grammar and expressions to your heart’s content. Maximise these sorts of opportunities and you’ll quickly see the results reflected in your growing Spanish skills and your expanding social circle.
True fluency will follow shortly thereafter.