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Interesting and confusing aspects of Colombian Spanish

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A few years ago I had an amazing trip to Colombia. I spent a quick weekend in Bogotá, almost two months in Medellín, and my last days were spent in Cali.

I talked about a few ways I was speaking many languages as part of my mission here, but of course the one I was using the most was Spanish, since the vast majority of my socialising has been with Colombians.

My Spanish was already quite good before arrival, (I have a C2 diploma from the Instituto Cervantes, and was even interviewed live on the radio in Spanish several years ago) but of course the dialect I was most familiar with was Peninsular Spanish (mainland Spain).

My Spanish has also been highly influenced by two months in the Canary Islands (I'd describe their Spanish as halfway between Peninsular and Latin American; it's quite Spain-like, but they pronounce c/z as “s” & use ustedes rather than vosotros for example), and two months in Argentina. I've also had many friends from various South American countries, so I've picked up many aspects of those dialects over the years.

I thought nothing could really surprise me any more in the language I have the most experience in, until I came to Colombia!

Colombian Spanish

Like in any language, you can't simplify it to just “Colombian” Spanish, as there are many dialects within the country. When most people say “Colombian Spanish” they actually mean the standard dialect usually spoken in Bogotá (ignoring the rest of the country).

This dialect is generally well known for being probably the clearest Spanish in the world and telenovelas, hearing Shakira, and meeting several Colombians I had met in my travels confirmed this. But living in the country itself has changed my mentality about all Spanish in Colombia being so easy to understand.

I would still say that the “standard” Colombian dialect seen on TV and spoken by those in the capital, Bogotá, is the easiest to understand and I can confidently say that it's the clearest Spanish I've ever heard. But leave the capital and formal conversations, and things start to get messy pretty quickly!

For example, I had a friend whose accent I had such trouble understanding that I had to ask him to repeat what he had just said. (Pronunciation rather than actual vocabulary was the problem). This means you can expect huge variations within the country!

I didn't have problems understanding accents of pretty much everyone else though. “Paisas” (residents of Antioquia, with Medellín as its capital) are easy enough to understand, but colour up their speech quite a lot. Because of this I actually found it way more fun talking to them!

¿Qué más parce?

As expected in any dialect, you'll find words they prefer to use over the standard. For example “¿Qué más?” is how they say “How are you?” – it's confusing when you consider the usual translation of “What else?”

And they say “¡Qué pena!” for Sorry! (in most dialects it means “What a pity!”) Hearing these two terms that I was already used to for completely different meanings took some time to get used to!

Next, the term “¡A la orden!” is something you'll hear a lot when near shops and the like. It's kind of an “At your service!” way of getting your attention to lure you into shops, but also a way to conclude business and a kind of “thank you!” that I'd hear after paying taxi men for example.

Then “friend” is parce or parcero/a, “party” is rumba (or “to party” is rumbear), “cool” (awesome) is chévere etc. These are preferred over amigo/fiesta etc. and you can find a great list of them on the Wikipedia entry on Colombian Spanish.

There were others I was already more familiar with – bacán / bacano/a is the same in Brazilian Portuguese (also, “cool” but in a different context), “joder” the verb means to “tease” or “take the piss” like in Peninsular Spanish (but is not used as an exclamation like in Spain for “fuck!”)

And especially in Medellín, “pues” would appear at the end of so many sentences when talking informally. It doesn't necessarily mean anything; kind of like the stereotypical valley girl “like”. ¡Hágale pues!

Then “coger” is “to take” (bus/taxi etc.) exactly like in Spain, even though it has sexual connotations in many other Latin American countries. Many sources I had read on Spanish mislead me to believe that “coger” was universally a taboo word in Latin America. The more I learn about each country, the more I think “Latin American Spanish” generalisations fall apart.

Also, Colombians prefer to use “-ico/a” as the diminutive when the word usually ends in -to/ta. So you get un momentico (if you're told to wait this amount of time in Colombia, then make sure you have a good book with you).

Usted vs tú vs vos

While there are many aspects of Colombian Spanish I love, I have to say this one caused me endless frustration. Before I came here, I was under the impression that “usted” is used in formal situations (although how you define “formal” depends on the culture), and tú is used otherwise with friends and family.

The one exception I had already come across was “vos” in Argentina, but this just replaces “tú” as the informal version of “you”.

Getting used to “vos” isn't that bad; if you know Peninsular Spanish, then you would be familiar with the “vosotros” conjugation; “Vos” just removes the “i” from the -ar/-er vosotros conjugation. So vosotros sois => vos sos, vosotros habláis => vos hablás, vosotros tenéis => vos tenés etc. (“ir” conjugation is the same for vos & vosotros). If you aren't familiar with Peninsular Spanish, then most of the time all you have to do is say the verb like the infinitive (“to” -ar/-er/-ir form), but replace the ‘r' with an ‘s'.

So when I found out that Colombians (not those in Bogotá) use “vos”, having to use the actual conjugation was not that big a deal for me, since I learned it in Argentina. The question is… when do you use it instead of tú?

Various sources explained that “vos” is the usual informal one between friends and “tú” is much more intimate (between lovers for example), but my experience over the last weeks tells me otherwise.

To make matters worse, “usted” is NOT exclusively formal! I heard mothers talking to children using “usted” in normal situations, and the costeño friend I hung out with (despite my indignation) would address me with “usted”, or conjugate his verbs for that word. He also used it with his other close friends and insisted that for him it's more natural to use “usted” with pretty much everyone.

I've never had a conjugation drive me so crazy! If anything, as time went on I got even more confused about which “you” to use! It seems each person or family just happened to stick to one or the other. But even when I thought I had established a particular “you” choice with someone, they'd switch for no apparent reason.

I'd start to respectfully use the “usted” form with a taxi driver, but he'd reply with “tú”, then I'd use “tú” when out with some Couchsurfers, but they'd all start voseando-ing me.

Another confusing aspect of the use of “vos” for me personally, was that I kept hearing my name everywhere! Benny Benny vení vení!! (Spanish v & b are pronounced the same; this is the imperative “come (here)!”).

Very polite and affectionate

Although use of formal “you” was confusing, I found Colombians to be extremely polite with how they spoke to me! Some people I'd pass in the street, and the security of the building I was living in would always greet me with a cheery “¡Caballero!” (Gentleman), and they would always try their best to make you feel good.

Many of them told an American I met, whose Spanish was abysmal, (i.e. he was barely mustering up the courage to say “hola”) that it was very good. Such exaggeration is great for morale, and can help you make progress quicker.

(Since they presumed I was Spanish most of the time, they didn't feel the need to compliment my level; this stage of not being complimented is actually what I ultimately aim for in my languages).

And the terms of endearment! Waitresses (who were old enough to be my grandmother mind you), my married salsa instructor, girls I had just met who would have their boyfriends right beside them etc. would constantly call me “corazón” and “mi amor”, with no romantic implications at all. They are just that affectionate in general!

I always like it when I see a culture treat strangers as close friends like this, especially from a traveller's perspective. Colombians were so warm and welcoming, that I can definitely say I will be missing it a lot while travelling in more distant countries.

I've tried to change the way I speak to be more Colombian, but all the time I spent in Spain has burned that accent into me, so much so that I was confused for a Spaniard on several occasions! Despite this, it was fascinating to learn about the various dialects and the people of Colombia.

Spanish will always have a special place in my heart and I look forward to learning even more about the language in future travels!

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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