Learning Spanish in South America: Colombia

This is the second post in my new series on learning Spanish in South America – the first was all about learning in Argentina. If you’re travelling long term in South America, learning a little Spanish really will be invaluable: in many South American countries, even in the big cities and popular tourist destinations, almost no one speaks any English. There are some great apps and various language learning websites which you can use to learn a little of the lingo before you leave, but since the best way to learn is through lessons and practice, I really recommend taking Spanish lessons in South America when you arrive. Lessons over there tend to be much cheaper than in the UK, and are usually geared towards travellers – so the teacher will focus on exactly what you need to survive long-term in their country.

There are nine Spanish speaking countries in South America, but where to learn depends on a number of factors: where you’re starting, what your budget is, and – crucially – what the accent is like. So keep reading to see if learning in Colombia would work for you. If you’ve learnt in any South American country, please get in touch as I’d love to use your experiences in an upcoming post.

Colombia

Best Cities for Learning: Cartagena, MedellÍn, Bogotá. 

La Candelaria, Bogotá. Image by TEDxBogotá.

La Candelaria, Bogotá. Image by TEDxBogotá.

Colombia was easily my favourite country in South America, and almost every other backpacker I met on my trip agreed that it was the best. It’s a beautiful, vibrant, colourful country with gorgeous weather, dramatically varied cultures and landscapes, and genuinely lovely people. It’s also considered one of the best places to learn Spanish, not just in South America but anywhere.

This is mostly down to the accent, which is generally considered to be the clearest Spanish in the world. The accent is neutral and the Spanish tends to be very clean and grammatically correct; which is why Colombian presenters and actors are popular on TV/radio shows which air in multiple Spanish speaking countries. Of course, the accent does vary across the country, so people from certain areas are harder to understand, but the central Colombian accent – particularly in the capital, Bogotá – is a “a melodious and rhythmic accent, without too many strange contractions” (Rob from Spanish Obsessed), making it a great place for beginners to practice.

“Spanish speakers in central Colombia have a minimal accent and talk relatively slowly, making their Spanish among the continent’s clearest and easiest to understand.” GoOverseas.com

La Piscina Beach, Tayrona Park

La Piscina Beach, Tayrona Park

While the central Colombians have a crystal clear accent and slow speech, costeñas (people from the coast) speak very rapidly and can be more difficult to understand. The problem is mostly the pronunciation: many speakers have a tendency to drop the ‘s’ or ‘d’ sounds from words, and often don’t finish words. I noticed the word for careful, cuidado (usually pronounced kwee-da-do) was often pronounced kweed-ow in coastal Cartagena – making it hard to understand when someone is trying to warn you not to burn your leg on the exhaust of their motorbike (I still have the scar!).

“The accent in Colombia is different to Central America but it hasn’t been too much of a problem – harder was the fact that in Cartagena they don’t finish their words so you have to guess the second half!” Caroline Carey. 

That being said, Cartagena on the north coast is one of the best places to learn Spanish. This is mainly because the city gets a lot of tourists and therefore has more schools and tutors than other destinations, but also because it’s such a great, fun city on the Caribbean coast; providing the perfect mix of lessons, practice opportunities and downtime. Other great cities to learn in are Bogota, where the accent is cleanest, and also Medellín in the centre of the country. The accent here is also very clear, and the city is perhaps the most metropolitan destination in Colombia, with a great nightlife and a lot of cool places to visit in the surrounding area, making it really popular amongst backpackers. Personally, it was my least favourite destination in Colombia, but most people love it- so do some research about the area before choosing where to learn.

Bocagrande Sunset, Cartagena,

Bocagrande Sunset, Cartagena,

One final reason why Colombia might be the best place to learn Spanish: the people. Across the country, we met so many friendly locals who wanted nothing more than to introduce themselves to us (two blonde white people cause something of a stir in Colombia) and have a chat. The fact that almost no one in Colombia speaks English at all forces visitors to use their new language skills, and although it can be nerve-racking and very difficult, it really is great practice.

“Friendly, gregarious, outgoing people. These people will bring you out of your shell if you’re shy, and you’ll get to practise your Spanish a lot, no matter your level.” Rob from Spanish Obsessed

So, in conclusion, Colombia makes a great place to learn Spanish thanks to it’s clear, neutral accent, low cost of living, and amazing atmosphere. I chatted to a traveller who recently took a few lessons there about her experiences…

Spanish School

The Student: Caroline Carey, a 30 year old traveller from London who has spent a lot of time in South America. She’s taken lessons in Ecuador, Antigua, Mexico and most recently Colombia.

The School: Nueva Lingua (with teacher Jesús Fernando Pedraza Jimenez) in Cartagena. Also Learn More Than Spanish (with teacher Felipe Toro) in Salamina.

The Prices: At Nueva Lingua Caroline paid $220 for 20 hours of lessons in a group. At Learn More Than Spanish, she paid $200 for 20 hours one to one.

Old Town, Cartagena. Image from Flickr.

Old Town, Cartagena. Image from Flickr.

“The school in Cartegena was the best group classes I have taken – Jesús was an excellent teacher, there was a good activity programme and enough students that the classes were the right level.”

Cartagena is a great city to spend a week or two taking Spanish lessons. It’s a beautiful place with a chilled-out atmosphere, fantastic weather, Caribbean beaches and lots of other tourists. Nueva Lengua is one of the bigger Spanish schools in Colombia, with branches in Bogota, Cartagena and Medellín. Alongside one to one and group lessons, the school also organises homestays with local families, which are a great way to get some hands on Spanish practice, meet locals, eat traditional homemade food and learn about the local culture – something than can be hard to find in touristic Cartagena. You can also take additional courses like kitseurfing, scuba diving, dance or music alongside Spanish lessons, to really cement your new language skills and add an additional element to the learning process.

At the Cartagena and Bogota Nueva Lengua schools, students can take the test for the DIE Diploma Internacional de Español. Plus, the schools arrange weekly activities like visits to museums, natural parks, beaches, concerts, sighting seeing tours, hiking, restaurants, and sporting events – to encourage students to socialise, practice the language, and experience the culture of Colombia.

“Salamina [was the worst place I took lessons] – it just wasn’t very structured and the teacher spent most of the time on his phone.” 

Caroline also took lessons at the Learn More Than Spanish school in Salamina. It’s a small, pretty town in the centre of the country, at about 1,822m above sea level in the Andes. Although Caroline wouldn’t recommend the school, as it seems she had a pretty bad experience, I’d say Salamina looks like my ideal place to learn. It’s quieter and smaller than most popular destinations in Colombia, resulting in an atmosphere that would be perfect for learning. The school also arranges homestays, so Caroline spent two weeks living with a local family in Salamina, and has mixed feelings about the experience: “I was the only traveller so it was hard but I definitely learnt more about Colombian culture and got to practice my Spanish”.

Getsemani, Cartagena. Image courtesy of Louis Vest.

Getsemani, Cartagena. Image courtesy of Louis Vest.

Private Tutor

The Student: Caroline Carey, a 30 year old traveller from London who has spent a lot of time in South America. She’s taken lessons in Ecuador, Antigua, Mexico and most recently Colombia.

The Tutor: Lauren Peña in Medellín.

The Prices: Laura charged Caroline 25,000 pesos (roughly $12.50) an hour for one to one.

Image from Flickr

Paragliding in Medellin. Image from Flickr

Caroline started her trip in Colombia as a very rusty beginner – her last lessons were in Ecuador 8 years ago! After learning at two different schools and with this private tutor in Medellín, she says she’s really improved and is getting there slowly, although her writing and reading skills are better than her speaking.

“Lauren is an excellent one-to-one teacher and I learnt a lot with her.”

Private lessons tend to be a little more expensive than group lessons (although in this case there isn’t much difference), but they’re also more flexible as you can focus on exactly what you need to practice. Also, a private tutor can tailor lesson topics according to what interests you, which can help new information stick as it will seem relevant. It can be nerve racking learning alone, as the focus is all on you, but you’ll get a lot more practice and can spend a good chunk of the lesson speaking Spanish one on one with a native speaker who knows to speak slowly and clearly to help you understand.

Homestays

Colombian girl and her father at home. Image by Mark Koester.

Colombian girl and her father at home. Image by Mark Koester.

Caroline did homestays in both Cartagena and Salamina and says it really helped her practice her Spanish. A homestay is a great accompaniment to a stint at Spanish school as it gives you a chance to practice what you learnt as soon as you come home from school. You’ll also try authentic local food and get a chance to really learn about the local culture.

Based on my experiences with Colombians, I’d say this is one of the best places to try out a homestay. The people are genuinely the loveliest and friendliest I’ve met in any country, so a stay with a local family there would be a fantastic experience. You’re bound to feel welcome and at home with a Colombian family, which is the perfect environment for practising Spanish.

Have you learnt Spanish in Colombia? Let us know your experiences in the comments! And if you’ve learnt Spanish in any other South American country please get in touch to help out with the upcoming posts. 

About Emily

Emily Luxton is an award-winning travel blogger and writer with a special love for South America - her favourite continent and second home. A lover of slow, deep travel and really interacting with new cultures, she travels as often as possible on the hunt for new adventures.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Learning Spanish in South America: Bolivia | Backpack South America

  2. Pingback: Learning Spanish in South America: Ecuador | Backpack South America

  3. Hey, just to give you a heads up Lauren Pena has changed her rates to 35,000/hour now and she does not offer discount rates for packages (more hours)

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