My experience with learning Spanish

The first time I spoke Spanish was on a plane from Barcelona to Bogotá. I was equipped with a few basic phrases, so I managed to order a bottle of water and say ‘Thank you’. The next few weeks in Colombia proved to be rather tough in terms of communicating with people. Moving on my own to a new country without really speaking the language was pretty dumb.

In my defence, I didn’t have a lot of time to learn Spanish. In April, I made the decision to move to Colombia and immediately bought my ticket so that I couldn’t change my mind. I quit my job at the end of May. Then I took a month-long CELTA course, and in July I was on the plane. During that limited time I went through a few lessons on and Practical Spanish, so I had a vague idea about the way Spanish nouns and verbs behave in sentences.

Learning Spanish isn't always easy

My original plan was to stay in Medellín, where I booked an apartment for a few weeks. I got lucky because the guy managing the place speaks English, and he and his brother helped me a lot. Obviously, they couldn’t stay with me all the time, so I had to sort out many things on my own. Even simple stuff like getting a local SIM card and a public transport pass was a bit tricky. For the first week in Medellín, I spoke exclusively in English to other people and when they responded, I just said ‘no hablo español’. Such a strategy proved to be very ineffective and it only made me feel stupid. I quickly realised that it was time to change my approach.

The first point to note is that Latin America isn’t known for high proficiency in English. Most people don’t speak the language, even at places where you would expect it. Talking to people in English will clearly mark you as a tourist, so if you want to integrate into the society, you have to take that into account. In fact, now I speak English only at work. Colombia’s low level of English proficiency makes the country a great place to learn Spanish because it offers you an opportunity to have an effective immersion experience.

Even though I never took a Spanish class, I managed to make progress quite fast. Six months after my arrival, I had an interview with a psychologist before getting a new job. A few months after that, I led a parents’ meeting on my own and talked to them about their kids’ performance. Both of them took place completely in Spanish and I felt really comfortable.

I believe that it’s necessary to start speaking Spanish right from the beginning. Even if you make loads of basic mistakes in your speech, it’s still preferable to speaking English. The locals will appreciate your effort and try to help you. Jumping in at the deep end is challenging, but it can be fun as well. You can start with transactions in supermarkets, where you will learn numbers and short phrases. It will be difficult at first, but then you’ll inevitably celebrate small victories. I don’t like using apps like Google Translate when talking to people since it takes too much time and I don’t want to attract attention to myself by taking out my phone. I prefer to check new words in the Span¡shD!ct dictionary at home. Many words and structures are similar to English, so learning the basics isn’t that difficult.

One of the best things about living in Colombia is eating out. You don’t really need to cook at home because there are so many places where you can have lunch for an affordable price. I am a big fan of small restaurants that offer ‘menú del día’. Those places are great for practising Spanish because you are forced to talk to people who tell you very fast what dishes are available that day. Some places make it trickier because they have many options for different prices. At first, I had no idea what those words meant, so I just ordered random food and learnt it that way. When you get more confident, you can ask the waiter or waitress to describe the food to you. Restaurants are great for learning Spanish because the conversations there aren’t that predictable and you can also practise small talk.

Making local friends is helpful as well, but talking to them isn’t always easy. At the beginning, I really struggled in big groups because my Spanish wasn’t good enough to react quickly. It took me approximately three months to start participating. I found one-to-one chats more effective thanks to having more time to organise my ideas. You can find some tips for finding communication partners on Real Fast Spanish. Even better, finding close friends or a romantic partner will inevitably lead to amazing progress in your Spanish.

Speaking the local language has other practical advantages. Travellers to Colombia are always told not to hail taxis on the street. Well, I have done that in every city I have visited without any bad experiences. I communicate with taxi drivers exclusively in Spanish and usually drop a few hints that I have been living in Colombia for some time. This seems to work well because I have never had any unpleasant taxi-related issues.

I recommend that you read this article on Medellin Guru about the likelihood of being charged extra money for goods or services on account of being a foreigner. I usually avoid places that cater for foreign tourists, so my experience is limited. In fact, I am aware of only one attempt to overcharge me. It happened when I ordered a few drinks at a Playa Blanca beach bar for me and my companions after confirming the price with the barmaid. Suddenly, the bar’s English-speaking manager appeared and tried to charge me a ridiculously inflated amount. I called him out on that and paid the original price.

I am now reasonably happy with my Spanish because I can comfortably communicate with other people. I know it’s far from perfect because I still need to work on expressing hypothetical situations and in the past, and some irregular verbs still drive me crazy. Some accents (Bogotá) are easier to understand than others (Santander), but that’s part and parcel of living in such a diverse country.

Learning a new language can be very frustrating and you will feel completely lost at times. However, such experience is very useful for teachers because you develop sympathy for your students. I know I will never be mistaken for a native Spanish speaker because of my accent, but I don’t lose sleep over that. As a result, I believe that it’s beneficial for my students to have realistic expectations when it comes to their accent in English. Intelligibility is much more important because it is necessary for successful communication, and I think that’s where our priorities should lie.

Ndana Chibanda: ELT in Colombia is a mix of fun and hard work

Welcome to a new section of the TEFL in Colombia blog! After receiving positive feedback on the first few articles, I decided to get a little more ambitious in terms of my posts. I plan to conduct a series of interviews with professionals involved in teaching English in Colombia. My intention is to talk to people from different parts of the country and cover a variety of teaching contexts. I have no idea if I will succeed, but I believe this idea is worth pursuing.

My first interviewee is Ndana Chibanda, a Zimbabwean-born English teacher. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Botswana, majoring in Sociology and History. Her teaching career began in 2001 in Manizales. After spending three and a half years working for Centro Colombo Americano, she moved to South Africa to work in the healthcare industry. Ndana was involved in training staff members and designing learning materials. She then decided to get a teaching certificate from Global Language Training before accepting an offer to return to Colombia for a second stint with the same employer. She has been teaching English at Centro Colombo Americano Manizales since May 2016.

Ndana Chibanda

Let’s start with an obvious question. Why did you choose Colombia?

I decided to participate in the AIESEC exchange programme. They offered me three options: Egypt, Colombia and India. When I was at university, I met a lot of Colombians. Then I travelled to Scotland and Switzerland for two of our international conferences and made so many friends there. They recommended Colombia to me, so I decided to choose it.

How did your family react? Colombia is now a fairly popular destination, but that definitely wasn’t the case in 2001.

They hoped I would choose one of the other two countries. I remember they told me to be careful, especially with my luggage, and they mentioned the usual stereotypical stuff that was common all those years ago. They were more open to my coming back in 2016, though.

Why did you return to Manizales? Most teachers look for a job in major cities like Bogotá or Medellín.

I spent 12 years living in Johannesburg, where life is very fast-paced, so I needed a change. I actually considered going to Panama, but I didn’t know anybody there. Besides, Centro Colombo Americano’s director contacted me on Facebook because they were short of native English speakers, so I decided to come back. It was an easy choice because I love the people from Manizales. It’s great how small the city is and that everything is in such close proximity. I also appreciate the sense of security that I feel here. The only thing that gets on my nerves a little bit are the constant rains. I am not saying that I will stay in Manizales forever, but I am happy where I am now.

What are the best places you have visited in Colombia?

I loved the weather in Ibagué. I am a summer baby, so the sun and I are best friends. Cartagena’s old city is beautiful. There are absolutely stunning beaches in Capurganá, which is a remote village close to Panama. I enjoyed the island life on San Andrés as well, but after five days the heat was just too much.

Let me ask you something about your daily life. I stick out like a sore thumb, so everybody knows I am a foreigner. How do strangers treat you?

Being Black African, I tend to blend in a lot. When I was in Capurganá, I blended in even more. Most people in Manizales think I am from the coast until I open my mouth and start speaking Spanish. My accent gives me away!

In my case, people aren’t surprised at all by my foreign accent. Speaking of that, do you think our students should aspire to speak English with a perfect “standard” accent?

I don’t think so. They should aspire to be understood. I believe people have accents for so many reasons and that’s the beauty of learning a new language. Of course, if sounding like an American, British, Australian, South African or another native English speaker is their goal, then by all means they should go ahead and try to achieve it.

What are your long-term plans? Do you plan to stay in Colombia?

This is my fifth year on an employee visa, so I am going to apply for a resident visa next year. I am not sure what will happen, though. I had plans to visit my family in December, but Colombia is one of the countries that South Africa hasn’t opened to. I love Colombia, but not being able to see my family is tough.

I planned to go to Europe for Christmas, but that’s out of the question now. Let’s hope the situation improves and we will be able to see our families soon. By the way, you appeared in Reshaping Our Destinies, a short film dealing with the lockdown in Manizales. How did that come about?

The film was made by our theatre group at Centro Colombo Americano Manizales, which was created two years ago. I decided to join them at the beginning of this year and we started working on Reshaping our Destinies in June. There are some impressive indoor shots that were made using a cell phone. It was a really amazing experience and I am very happy to be involved with the group. We are currently working on a new project.

It’s great to hear the theatre group is active even though the institute’s doors are closed. It has been more than seven months since we last taught in a physical classroom. How do you feel about that?

To be honest, at first it was hard for all of us to adjust to having to teach from home. We were all navigating foreign waters in a sink-or-swim situation, but things have definitely gotten much better and I have been enjoying this “new normal”.

Do you think this long period of online classes will lead to changes in teaching English in Colombia?

It definitely has to. The future is uncertain because we don’t know how long we will have online classes. However, from my experience in Manizales, a lot of students prefer face-to-face classes, so there has to be a mental shift too. Also, we need to consider the rural areas and how much access to the internet they may or may not have.

Ndana Chibanda in Reshaping Our Destinies

Has the way English is taught in Colombia changed since your first stint in early 2000s?

Oh, for sure! Back then, we didn’t use laptops in the classroom. We used just the hard copy books, blackboards, and tape recorders for listening exercises. We didn’t have the apps and online tools that we have today, so we had to be super creative in the way we taught. I am grateful for the advances in the teaching field, but I miss the calibre of students we had back then.

I think there is a fine line between a meaningful use of technology in the classroom and a gimmick that isn’t that helpful in terms of language learning. Playing with robots and electrical circuits is fun, but many of those activities can be done in silence or using only the mother tongue. What is the best way to utilise this hi-tech stuff in ELT?

That is a very difficult question. I totally agree that, at the end of the day, most people learning a language want to be able to communicate effectively; so hi-tech tools should be used to achieve this. However, in the same breath, things like the Maker movement have been gaining reactions and we have seen our students trying to communicate in English while doing these kinds of activities. There are many tech tools out there that do help students improve their English, and those are the ones we should be taking advantage of.

That’s a very good point. And finally, what advice would you give to those who are thinking of teaching English in Colombia once this pandemic is over?

To be honest, I would say be prepared to work a lot. ELT is a lot of fun, but a lot of long hours too. Also, I would say immerse yourself in the Colombian culture and learn the language. You should most definitely travel around the country. Colombia is incredibly diverse with so much to see and do, so don’t miss out on it! Doing all this will definitely make your experience more enjoyable.