Somewhere in Latin America – Spanish with a Smile

Manuela de Mendonça is a 23 year old geographer, traveller, writer and runner currently backpacking through Latin America.

She is documenting her adventures across the continent and sharing her experiences of food, history, culture and nature with us. Expect to read about ancient temples, local restaurants and the best places in the world to go walking.


17 December 2018: Somewhere in Latin America: Spanish with a Smile

To be honest, my Spanish is not great. Nor is my general ear for languages. At school I threw French and German out the window as soon as I could and despite my best efforts at Spanish, upon landing in Costa Rica there was not a whole lot in my head. Parts of Central America are so well set up for British tourists that you can speak to someone in schoolgirl Spanish and receive a reply in English, but Colombia is different.

Here, it doesn’t matter how bad your Spanish is, it’s met with a smile 99% of the time. That said, I felt it was important to actively improve if I was going to spend the next five months in exclusively Spanish speaking countries, both for ease and respect. So I signed up for a language course as I’d heard that Colombia is one of the best places for this, probably better than Spain. The culture is welcoming and easier to practice, and the speed of speech is much slower than in Europe. The accent is a little different, but easy to pick up.

I dashed through the country in just a few days after landing in Cartagena in order to reach Medellin on time, eagerly anticipating that I’d soon be fluent. However, sat in the classroom with four classmates, my teacher opened with “voy a hablar en Español por todo de semana” – we are going to speak in Spanish all week. No English. Ni una palabra – not a word. My palms started sweating as I had flashbacks to language lessons at school: long silences, low marks and the disapproving gaze of my teacher. However, the atmosphere at the Toucan Spanish School, Medellin, is totally different. There is no exam at the end of the week and no pressure to answer every question correctly. At school, shaming is a well-used tool for keeping a class on track, but there is no need for that here. My classmates – two Americans, a German and an Australian – are here for themselves and nobody else.

I’m half way through my two week stint in school now. I’d only planned a week but my Spanish has advanced with such clarity and speed I can’t justify leaving yet. My teacher, who hails from Bogota, is called Camilo. He is a calm, ageless ex-school teacher, who always speaks slowly, always speaks twice, and wields his coloured pens with expert efficiency. I’ve tried improving my linguistics several times in the past decade and I’ve never advanced as rapidly as I have after this week’s twenty hours of classes.

One day, I hope I’ll be able to speak well enough to keep up with the gossip of the women working in hair salons as a pretty good definition of fluency. But for now what I’m after is a solid foundation on which to build.  The time delay between hearing and understanding is around three seconds, and the time it takes to form a sentence is roughly the same, so conversations are proceeding at a snail’s pace, but the point is they are happening.

The biggest difference I have noticed is the look on others’ faces when Spanish comes out of my mouth. I have become the darling of hostel employees and get to hear much more about their lives. I learn my receptionist is from Venezuela, he moved here eight months ago and when his mother arrives in Medellin, I am introduced. While planning my next few weeks here, I can turn my gaze off the tourist trail and off the beaten track, safe in the knowledge I can actually take care of myself. I feel like several more layers of Colombia have opened up to me.

My two takeaways are this: spending two weeks at Spanish school is the best decision I’ve ever made; and languages at school are completely different from languages as an adult. Immersion in a language is the same as immersing yourself in a culture. It is a game changer anywhere in Latin America.

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