This is a guest post by Peter Low, author of the book ‘Colombian Spanish: Phrases, Expressions and Tips to Help you Speak like a Local’, released this week.
During my years living in Colombia, local friends have often told me that theirs is the ‘most neutral’ Spanish in the world. This assessment, it seems to me, is only half correct. Few foreigners would argue that the slow and steady speech of “rolos”, or the lilting accent of “paisas”, is harder to understand than the indistinct volley of words which, say, a Chilean might unleash upon you. However, delve a little deeper into the actual terms uttered so beautifully by your Colombian companions, and you’ll rapidly discover that the Spanish spoken here is far from neutral.
I first learnt this the hard way, back in 2007, when I decided to leave my home in London and relocate to the Andean city of Medellin. While I was convinced I had a good handle on the basics of Spanish prior to my arrival, it was only when I started to socialise with locals that I saw that much of what I thought I knew about the language, apparently wasn’t true at all. Relying on my literal translations of their conversations, I would often look on in complete bafflement as they appeared to be chatting away happily about throwing dogs at old women (“echando los perros a esa vieja”) or how they had met a monkey on a goat (“conocí al mono en la chiva”).
It took a while for me to transition away from speaking and understanding ‘classroom Spanish’ to interacting more comfortably in real life Spanish, or Spanish “de la calle”. Below are a few quick tips for those who have recently arrived to Colombia – or who are considering a move there – to help them leave their gringo Spanish behind and start speaking like a Colombian:
If you want to sound much more like a local right from the outset, forget asking people how they are using the textbook phrase “¿Cómo estás?”. Colombians do use this, of course, but there are many more interesting local varieties available. These include: “¿Qué más?”; “¿Quiubo?”; “¿Bien o qué?”; “¿Bien o no?”, or even, “¿’ntonces?”. The literal translations of these are not so important – not least because they don’t make a great deal of sense – but it is sufficient to note that all are popular ways to say “how’s it going?” / “wassup?” / “what’s happening?” etc.
2. The Good and Bad
The good things in life may well be best described as “bueno” and the bad things as merely being “malo”. Yet if you stick to just these two terms, you’ll quickly find that your emotional expression becomes very limited.
The most popular words Colombians use for “really good” or “cool” are probably “bacano” and “chévere”. If you’re looking for a more enthusiastic description you could also say something is “bien bacano”, “demasiado bacano” or “bacanísimo”. Alternatively, you could refer to it as being “lo máximo”, “brutal”, “una nota”, or “una belleza”, amongst others.
Descriptions of the bad things in life tend to involve a few expletives, but for a more family-friendly term you could opt for the word “maluco”. This essentially means the same as “malo”, though can sound very slightly more natural to Colombian ears.
3. Talking about People
In standard Spanish, men and women are, of course, referred to as “hombres” and “mujeres”, “señores” and “señoras”. In social situations in Colombia, you are much more likely to hear people refer to a man as a “man” (the English word, but pronounced in a more Latin way); while a woman between the ages of around 16 and 50 is usually called a “vieja”. Friends are often described not as “amigos”, but rather as “parceros”, and teenagers and young people might be termed “pelados” or “chinos”.
4. Forms of Address
We’ve all been taught that we’re supposed to address friends using the informal “tú” form and reserve the use of “usted” for our elders and betters, right? Not necessarily so in Colombia.
In some regions, locals speak to everyone – including their closest family, best friends, lovers and spouses – using the supposedly polite, “usted” form. In parts of the Caribbean coast, on the other hand, “tú” is heard even in fairly formal situations. To make things more confusing still, Cali and Medellin use an additional conjugation – that of “vos” – in addition to “tú”; and in Bogota and its surrounds you may hear people use “su merced” instead of “usted”.
Perhaps the safest course of action for foreigners in Colombia is to keep an ear out for what forms of address locals use in various circumstances, and try and do likewise.
5. Adjusting to Local Time
Latins are not famed for their love of punctuality and Colombians are no exception. It is perhaps fitting then that their use of terms referring to time is also rather flexible. Probably the most important thing to note is that the word “ahorita” (which technically means “now”) is actually generally used to mean “later”. There are other strange phenomena too. Listen to a Colombian talk about a period of one week and he is very likely to describe this as containing “ocho días”, rather than just seven. Similarly, in their excitement about Christmas, they may happily remark, from the beginning of November, that “it’s December already” (“ya estamos en diciembre”).
Charting Your Progress
When you first get to Colombia, the chances are that people will say that you “speak in knots” (“hablar enredado”). Worse still, they may even joke that your Spanish is “macheteado” i.e. that it sounds like someone has taken a machete to it. Clearly, this is not the greatest review of your language skills, but don’t be put off. Persevere and before you know it you’ll be chatting away like an authentic local. Master some of the slang, learn not to turn up on time, and begin to swing your hips to Latin rhythms, and it won’t be long till your friends proudly remark: “uyy, ¡mira, cómo se ha colombianizado!” (“ooh, look what a Colombian he is become!”). What higher praise could you hope for than that?
About the Author
Peter Low is a British journalist and author who has lived in Colombia, on-and-off, since 2007. He regularly contributes articles on Colombia to various subscription publications and is currently conducting research on the country on behalf of University College London. Colombian Spanish is his first feature length book.