Studying Spanish in Colombia – Your Questions Answered

The logistics and linguistics of studying Spanish in Colombia

I often receive messages from readers of this blog, covering various aspects of studying Spanish in Colombia: from logistical questions about visas, costs and the availability of Spanish schools in the country; right through to queries about how to use specific bits of slang or idiomatic expressions.

It occurs to me that some of these questions and answers might be of interest to other readers. So, rather than keeping the exchanges hidden, I’m publishing here an edited selection of a few recent questions I’ve received about learning and studying Spanish in Colombia.

Having previously gone through this process myself, I know it’s not always that easy to get clear answers to your questions about study trips to Colombia and I’m very happy to help out if I can. If you have another question that isn’t answered here, please feel free to drop me a line at [email protected] Alternatively, you can try get an answer from our community by putting up a query in the ‘Learning Spanish in Colombia’ Facebook group.

Someone out there will have the answer you’re looking for – there’s no need to suffer in silence. Up next, your queries:

I’m travelling to Bogota in a couple of weeks and will be staying for a few months. I’ve got a basic understanding of Spanish and am keen to improve, but don’t want to spend a fortune on classes.

I’ll have plenty of time to spare – just not much cash. Do you have any recommendations of how I can improve quickly on a budget?

The good news is that you’ve got plenty of options of easy ways to improve if you’re already out in the country. An obvious place to start is with one of the many online platforms and apps for Spanish learning, which you can progress through even before getting to Colombia. At the same time, you can try listening to local music, and watching Colombian TV series and movies – always following along by reading the Spanish subtitles or song lyrics.

I’ve outlined a few sample resources to get you started in another post. Most of these are free and let you get decent contact with the language how it is actually used and spoken (not the artificial Spanish of your textbook). As songs and movies usually deal with dramatic topics, they won’t be much help for building up your basic, everyday vocabulary, but you can always focus on that after you arrive. That way, you need only learn the words you need, rather than boring yourself by rote learning long lists of Spanish words for kitchen utensils and the like.

The main thing to do when you get to Colombia is to you maximise the time you spend with locals

The main thing to do when you actually get to Colombia is to ensure you maximise the time you spend in the company of locals. My best advice on this front would be to get stuck in with the language exchange groups and events as much as possible.

They offer the easiest environment to meet and chat to locals properly. Also, in my experience, any Colombian who goes to a language exchange is more likely to be patient with your faltering Spanish, as they know what it’s like to be learning a second language. Quite a few universities and language schools offer these exchanges, but also try looking on meetup.com or search for groups on Facebook etc to find them.

I’ve been travelling around Latin America and want to stay a while in Colombia to get my Spanish fluent. Problem is that I’ve run out of money.

I’m looking at working part-time in Colombia as an English teacher to get some cash together, but I’m worried it might slow down my Spanish progress. What do you think?

Plenty of people do this and get on fine; I can certainly see the temptation of it. My personal view, though, is that you’re better to avoid teaching and studying at the same time if you’re really serious about making rapid progress with your Spanish.

The problem with teaching English is that, unless you’ve done it a lot before, you’ll have to read up and think about English grammar more than you ever have in your entire life. Spending hours a day trying to figure out some tricky grammatical concepts in your native tongue, so that you can later explain them to your students, is hardly the way to get ahead with Spanish.

There is the additional issue that if you’re teaching English, you’ll most likely be working at an institution along with other native speakers. It then becomes tempting to stick in your comfort zone and stay speaking your own language with your fellow teachers. Every minute spent talking to them is a minute that you’re not practicing your Spanish.

If you’re teaching English, it is tempting to stay in your comfort zone and stick to speaking your own language

For me, full immersion is the way to go. Wherever possible, I’d advise working and saving up before you get to Colombia so you can go head first into the cultural and linguistic integration when you arrive. Get yourself into scenarios where you have to use your second language for 90-100% of the time, and I promise your progress will be positively stellar compared to your English-teaching buddies.

I’m looking for a place to study Spanish in Latin America and a Colombian friend recently told me that the Spanish spoken in Bogota is the most neutral sort in the world. Is that true? Does that make it a better place to learn than somewhere like Mexico?

You might want to read the more detailed post I wrote about whether Colombian Spanish is the world’s best / most neutral sort. The short answer, though, is that no Spanish can objectively be described as the best in the world – this is just an opinion based on personal preference.

However, I suspect your friend might have meant that Colombian Spanish is easier to understand than many other sorts of Spanish spoken elsewhere in the world. I’d be inclined to agree with that. With the exception of some coastal areas, I’ve found that Colombians generally speak clearly and deliberately, with a relatively unhurried pace of speech. This makes it a great place to practice the language.

Whether or not it is better than Mexico is again down to your personal taste and will depend mainly on what you want to be doing with yourself outside of class time. I love both countries, but my (somewhat biased) vote would go to Colombia as study location.

Looking at the websites of different Spanish schools and universities in Colombia, the information about whether I’ll need a visa to study is all very confused. Some sites say that I do, while others say I don’t. Would you know the answer, by any chance?

I’m no immigration lawyer, but as far as I understand it, if you’re studying for less than six months, you probably won’t need a visa. If you’re planning on staying for more than six months, you definitely will.

For short-term study visits, you should be able to get the 90-day tourist visa on arrival and later extend this for a period of another 90 days. Hardly any Spanish language schools or private tutors will ask about your visa situation and will just let you study with the tourist permit. Some of the universities will, however, demand a proper student visa even before letting you register for a short course.

Stay in Colombia for over 180 days and you’ll definitely need to apply for the full student visa. Universities are the best study venue, in this case, as they often have better infrastructure for helping you get the relevant visa. It’s a bit of hassle, but can be done when you get in the country (after already having entered on the tourist permit).

Do you have any thoughts on what Spanish course to go for if I’m in Colombia for a short visit (of less than a month)?

I’ve listed all the available Spanish courses, teachers and classes on the Spanish school directory page which you can have a look through.

For such a short visit, I doubt you’ll have time to get on one of the university courses. These start infrequently and most are designed for longer periods of study. You’d be better to look into the various listings for Spanish schools and private teachers in each of the cities you’re thinking of studying in. You’ll find their contact details all listed on the above page too.

I don’t really know much about Colombia – could you please give me an idea of what the main cities that people go to when learning Spanish?

The three places with by far the greatest selection of Spanish courses and teachers are Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin. The price of tuition does not vary greatly between cities (though it does between individual schools in any given destination), so the option which will best suit you depends on your individual study aims.

Cartagena mainly attracts backpacker students and travellers who like the idea of combining time in the classroom with being at the beach. Those studying for a longer period at a more sustained rhythm tend to gravitate towards Medellin or Bogota.

Integrating with locals is arguably easier in both these cities than in Cartagena, which is heavily populated by tourists. Medellin’s great advantage over Bogota is that its weather is dramatically better. The capital’s main strengths over Medellin are greater population diversity and a broader variety of cultural and entertainment facilities.

I’m planning on going to Medellin to study and was hoping you might recommend a good area of the city to rent a room. I’m thinking that Laureles/Estadio might be the place for me. Do you have any thoughts?

I’ve tried living in a few different districts of Medellin and I have to say that Envigado is definitely my favourite. There’s a lot of life to the place, and its well connected to the universities and nightlife, while still retaining a welcoming, community feel. It’s kind of like living in a large pueblo, but one adjacent to the main city. I’ve always felt much more integrated into local life in Envigado than I ever did in other areas (especially in El Pobaldo). As for Laureles, plenty of friends live there and think it’s great, but I never got on as well there personally. Envigado gets my vote every time.

I’m studying in Cali and have noticed that people here use the word “” at the beginning, middle, and end of their sentences. It doesn’t seem to add much meaning of the sentence and I can’t quite figure out it’s appropriate use. Could you explain how it’s used as I’d like to sound more like a local when I speak?

As you’ll know, “ve” is technically the way to ‘order’ someone to look, and comes from the verb “ver” or “to see”. In practice, though, it’s meaning (when used by caleños) is different depending on whereabouts in the sentence it is used.

If heard at the beginning of the sentence, like in the famous caleño phrase “mirá ve“, it is meant to get the attention of whoever you’re talking to. So, rather than translating it in these contexts as “look”, a better way to think of it might be how we use “hey”, “oi” or “listen” in English e.g. “hey, by the way, did you pick up some food when you were out?” or “listen, we need to talk”.

If it’s used in the middle of phrases, it’s often just used as a filler word / to make sure the other person is still following / to get them to nod along with you. A bit like the English phrases “right?”, “you get me?”, “you know what I mean?” or “you see?”.

If heard at the end of a sentence, it can serve the same purpose, but also works as a way to soften orders (the ‘imperative form’, if you’re into your grammar terms) – as in the expression “¡Hablame ve!“, which sounds a bit softer than just “¡hablame!“. Incidentally, in Medellin, they would use the word “pues” for much the same purpose e.g. “¡hablame pues!“.

All these rules are not hard and fast, of course. Sometimes caleños just put the word “ve” into a sentence without any apparent rhyme or reason. But I’m sure you’ll get a good feel for when and when it’s not used the more time you spend in the company of locals.

Do you know of a good dictionary to use that is focused exclusively on Latin American Spanish?

I move around a lot so I generally use online dictionaries only. These include both mainland Spanish and the Latin American variety. A couple of good sites that I still refer to a lot are wordreference.com and linguee.es (which is great for translating set phrases). For Latin American slang, I’d also recommend you check out asihablamos.com.

For printed dictionaries on Latin American Spanish, you could try the Random House onealt (affiliate link). Personally, when I was doing a lot of translation work, I got extensive use out of the Oxford Spanish Dictionaryalt (affiliate link). It’s a bit of a beast in terms of size, but it is impressively comprehensive, including a huge long list of idiomatic expressions and sample sentences for each word covered.

I’ve got a couple of weeks free after finishing my Spanish course in Bogota. Where would you say are the not to be missed tourist spots?

There’s a ridiculous amount of stuff you could go and visit in Colombia. For a great trip of 3 weeks or so, you should check out a couple short travel itineraries that I’ve compiled on our sister site, LatinTravelGuide. My personal favourite is the second travel route on the above page as it takes you through a few of the amazing beaches along the Caribbean coast.

Remember that if you’ve got a question you’d like answered, you can do so by asking the community in the ‘Learning Spanish in Colombia’ Facebook group, or by messaging me at [email protected]

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