The curious case of native speakerism in Colombia

A lot has been written on the topic of native speakerism. In short, some people believe that a teacher’s passport is more important than their actual qualifications and experience. That kind of thinking obviously isn’t very enlightened, but it’s something non-native English speakers have to deal with if they decide to get involved in teaching.

Fortunately, there are people who fight against this type of prejudice. If you aren’t familiar with the work of Marek Kiczkowiak from TEFL Equity Advocates & Academy, you can watch him being interviewed on the subject of native speakerism in English and Spanish. I believe that he provides relevant arguments to support his point of view. Most of that is common sense, but convincing people to change their long-held beliefs is the tricky part. I think Hugh Dellar made some great points in his post The curse of native speakerism, which was published just a few days ago.

Dealing with native speakerism

My own experience with native speakerism has been rather peculiar. When I got my first teaching position in Colombia, another teacher and I delivered classes to professionals involved in tourism. Both of us were referred to as ‘nativos’, even though neither of us qualify as native English speakers and we wouldn’t be able to get a visa in some Asian countries. I just figured that it was probably a marketing ploy to promote Colombia Bilingüe, which is an ambitious programme run by the Ministry of Education. Our classes were free of charge, so I just let it go.

Fast forward a few months, and I started teaching in a private language institute. When I introduced myself to my students, I openly talked about my origins. I described some traditions from my country and taught a few Czech words to my students. After the course had finished, the students were asked to fill in a survey and evaluate my performance. To my surprise, quite a few of them said that it was great to be taught by a native English speaker. Hold on, that doesn’t make much sense…

Then I realised that it wasn’t just my students who thought that way. I had sent my CV to the language centre of a university, and its director decided to interview me via Skype. It was quite an ordinary conversation until the director said, ‘Our new teachers have to take a language proficiency exam, but since you are a native English speaker, you don’t need to do that.’ I didn’t want to take the job anyway, so I didn’t respond to that. I guess they didn’t even bother to properly read my CV.

It all got even stranger when I spoke to a teacher born and bred in the USA who told me that some Colombians didn’t believe that she was from her country of birth. Then I read Cristine Khan’s research paper that focused on the same issue, and it confirmed my suspicions that it’s not just about your passport or accent. I think it’s obvious why I am incorrectly considered to be from an English speaking country while genuine native English speakers have their identity questioned. In many people’s eyes, a ‘nativo’ is simply a white foreigner.

I think this misconception stems from the way stereotypes work. If you look like a native English speaker, then you must be a native English speaker. To be honest, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable at times. I often get asked by students or their parents for private classes because they want to be taught by a ‘nativo’. When I tell them that I am not a native English speaker, they can’t get their head around it. If I am too busy to offer private classes, I recommend that the students contact some of the local teachers who might be available. Of course, there are many amazing Colombian teachers here. Some of them actually grew up in the US and their accent is more “native-like” than mine. Sadly, my suggestion usually isn’t met with enthusiasm.

As you can see, we are dealing with something completely irrational. If you wish to get involved in TEFL in Colombia, you need to be ready for the fact the country is still a bit conservative in some respects. I have already mentioned that your CV should include a photo when applying for a job. It’s really strange to see that some irrelevant features can be so advantageous. I know these stereotypes won’t disappear in the near future, but I feel it’s important to share my thoughts. When someone brings up this subject, I always say that looking at someone’s passport and complexion is a pretty unreliable way of judging their ability to teach English. We need to move on from those unhelpful ideas and make sure that teachers are given equal opportunities to prove their worth.

ELT Concourse is a priceless resource

A year and a half after completing my CELTA, I decided that it was time to upskill. I chose a Delta Module One course with one of the major providers and was accepted after a successful application. However, when I tried to pay for the course, the payment didn’t go through. No matter how many times I tried, the portal didn’t allow me to send the money, so I gave up. In the end, that payment portal’s malfunction turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Even though I didn’t pay for any course, I managed to pass the exam.

What happened was that I stumbled upon a free Delta Module One course on ELT Concourse and went through all the content in addition to my own background reading. I found the course extremely useful, and there is no doubt that it positively contributed to my passing the exam with a very good grade. Saving quite a lot of money was a nice little bonus as well.

ELT Concourse

ELT Concourse is a website on which you can find tons of materials related to teaching English. It takes some time to click through the sections because there are so many of them. For example: CELTA, TKT, phonemic transcription, a glossary of grammar, lexis and phonology, A-Z training index, etc. Anyone involved in ELT will find someting valuable on the website.

The content is heavy in terms of information, but it is written in a concise way. In addition, you can check your knowledge using various tests. This 100-item test in terminology is a personal favourite of time.

You won’t find ELT Concourse advertised on social media. The person responsible for running the website prefers to stay out of the spotlight. Although the content is undoubtedly worth a lot of money, it remains completely free for non-commercial use. High-quality professional development courses are usually quite expensive, so I find the fact that someone provides so much useful information for free really commendable. Thank you, ELT Concourse!

How to obtain a partner visa

If you want to work in Colombia, you need to have a valid visa. Getting an employee visa is reasonably quick and simple as long as you find a decent employer. However, that type of visa has its disadvantages because it is tied to your employer and you can’t work for anyone else with that document. Apparently there is a process of adding another employer to your work visa. I have heard anecdotal evidence of people who have been successful with that, but also of those whose application was denied. Another potential issue is the fact that when you leave your job before the end of your contract, you have to apply for a new visa or leave the country within 30 days.

Fortunately, there is another kind of visa that gives you more options. According to Article 20 of Resolución 6045, partners of Colombian citizens have an open work permit, which allows them to perform any kind of work in the country. That gives you the power to negotiate better work conditions because you are permitted to work for as many employers as you wish. Another benefit is that this visa is valid for three years and you can ask for a resident visa only after two years.

Disclaimer: This article is based on my own experience. The requirements and processes may change in the future. Make sure to check Cancillería’s website before starting the process. You can also contact the visa office directly and ask for more details.

This visa is awarded to a spouse or a permanent partner of a Colombian citizen. If you are interested in information about getting married, you can read about it on Medellin Guru. I am going to focus on becoming a permanent partner, which is a bit simpler. Colombia allows partners (of any sex) to enter something called unión marital de hecho. Basically, it means signing a document confirming your permanent partnership in a lawyer’s office, so there is no wedding ceremony. Your partner then has rights to your assets that were obtained after signing the document. 

There are two main ways of getting the document. You can go to a notary and ask them to formalise your partnership as a notarial act (escritura pública). The problem with this option is that you will probably be asked for the same documents that are used in case of a marriage. You will need to get your birth certificate apostilled in your country and then have it translated in Colombia by an official translator. Only certificates issued within the last three months will be accepted because for some reason Colombian birth certificates include the holder’s marital status. My country’s certificate doesn’t have that kind of information and issuing a new one won’t change that, but most officials don’t care and they will ask you to get a new document. You may be lucky and find a more lenient notary, but in most cases this option is really time-consuming.

Fortunately, I encountered an alternative option  in this article. You can simply go to a Centro de Arbitraje y Conciliación, which belongs to Cámara de Comercio, and get the unión marital de hecho done with just an ID: that means your partner’s cédula de ciudadanía and your passport (or cédula de extranjería if you have one). Sounds great!

Well, it seems this service is offered only in Bogotá. I unsuccessfully tried to get it in Pereira, Ibagué, Manizales and Medellín. Curiously, all of them had different requirements. In one case I even asked the employee to call the Bogotá office. They actually confirmed that it is possible to get the document only with an ID, but still refused to help me. It seems local offices aren’t used to dealing with foreigners, so they just make up their own rules. You may try your luck there and hope you find a reasonable person to talk to.

Anyway, you will still have to go to Bogotá to pick up your visa, so getting your unión marital de hecho there is just a minor inconvenience. I recommend that you contact them in advance to confirm that you can get the document only with your passport or cédula. I was given the choice of going to the following offices: Calle 76, Chapinero and Cedritos. The process is very quick and simple. At first your and your partner’s personal information is collected and you pay a fee of 459,000 pesos. Then a lawyer double checks all the data and you sign the document in their presence. The whole process should take approximately one hour. You may need to wait a little bit before receiving your copy, and then there is nothing more to do. Congratulations! You have just entered a permanent partnership according to the Colombian law.

Going through the Centro de Arbitraje y Conciliación is rather expensive, but you pay extra money for the speed of processing and the fact that you don’t have to submit other documents. In order to apply for the partner visa with Cancillería, you will need just a couple of more things. Your partner has to write two documents that need to be authenticated at a notary. The first one is a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explaining why you should get the visa, the other one grants you the power to submit the application on their behalf. You also need to attach a copy of their cédula de ciudadanía. The authentication costs just a few thousand pesos.

The usual visa application process applies. You have to upload your photo, passport and the four aforementioned documents. Then you will pay the application fee and wait for a reply. Most likely you and your partner will be invited to attend an interview. Couples are usually interviewed together and asked questions about their relationship. Having some photos in your phone is definitely a good idea. If your application is approved, you will pay the fee and get your shiny new visa in your passport on the spot. Don’t forget to apply for a new cédula de extranjería within 15 days of getting the visa.

Please note there is one extra requirement that is not listed on Cancillería’s website. If you currently hold another type of visa and wish to switch to the partner one, you will probably be asked for a document proving that you are currently involved in the activity related to your visa. For example, if you have an employee visa, you should have a document that shows that you indeed work where you are supposed to.

Getting this visa represents a huge advantage because it will make your life easier. It gives you the opportunity to start working for any employer without additional paperwork. Just make sure that you and your partner are completely sure about entering unión marital de hecho because it is a serious act that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Valle de la Samaria: Colombia’s hidden gem

I am a big fan of Salento, the colourful town visited by scores of tourists every year. Many of them travel to the nearby Valle del Cocora, which is one of the most impressive places in Colombia thanks to its wax palms. You can find plenty of information about that online, so I am going to focus on something else today. If you have some spare time to explore the country, I would like to recommend a destination that is just as impressive, and it has the added bonus of not being crowded at all.

Valle de la Samaria is absolutely breathtaking. There are countless of wax palms set in beautiful scenery and yet many Colombians have never heard of it. If you travel there, you will be one of few visitors; you may even get lucky and be there just by yourself.

The reason for Valle de la Samaria’s lack of popularity is very simple: it is not that easy to get there. The closest city is Manizales, which is not the most accessible location itself because its airport often gets closed in bad weather. Then you have to go to Salamina. A bus from Manizales takes three hours, or you can take a shared taxi, which is faster but more expensive. Both leave from Terminal de Manizales.

Another option is to take a bus from Medellín’s Terminal del Sur. There are two routes available (via La Merced or Aguadas) and both should take approximately five hours. The problem is that the closer you get to Salamina, the worse the road becomes. Travelling by bus on an unpaved winding road isn’t exactly a comfortable experience. The road becomes unsafe in bad weather conditions, and there have been some tragic accidents on the way to Salamina. I don’t think the town will have to deal with mass tourism in the foreseeable future.

Salamina is a nice town with colourful houses. It is worth spending a night or two there so that you can enjoy its atmosphere and try some traditional dishes. There is a possibility of hiring a jeep to take you to the valley. Since I don’t like paying exorbitant prices, I opted for a bus. I recommend that you check the schedule at the small station on the corner of Calle 10 and Carrera 6. There were only two options when I was there: one bus early in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Don’t forget to ask about the return journey to avoid being stranded in San Félix, which is the closest village to Valle de la Samaria.

San Félix is a sleepy little place with a nice church and no amenities for tourists. If you arrive in the morning, you may find it almost completely deserted. There is a small grocery store at the corner of the main square where the path to the valley begins. The 6-kilometre walk is really pleasant. At first you pass bright green cow fields, and then beautiful hills covered with wax palms emerge.

There is just one place that caters for tourists. Fortunately, it is a great one! Mirador is a mountain cottage, which is run by the Abril family with the idea of promoting sustainable ecotourism. The facilities were built from scratch only a couple of years ago, and I actually became the first visitor from the Czech Republic there. The owners are amazing people with big plans for the valley, and they are involved in planting new palm trees. You can go for a guided hike and enjoy delicious food afterwards. There are even rooms for guests in case you wish to stay overnight.

Mirador reopened its doors a few days ago, but you should call them or get in touch through their Facebook page in advance to make sure that you can be attended. Don’t forget to take a jacket with you because the highest point is at almost 3,000 metres above sea level. It is also very easy to get sunburnt at that altitude, so it is necessary to apply sunscreen!

There are a lot of beautiful places to visit in Colombia, but Valle de la Samaria stands out thanks to its serene atmosphere. It is a perfect destination to escape the noise and pollution of major cities. Going there requires a bit of effort, but I highly recommend it to every nature lover. You can spend time in an amazing fairy-tale landscape and support a conservation project that is worthy of our attention.