One thing to consider when thinking about becoming an expat is the potential language barrier. When I began my journey looking to Medellin, Colombia, I went to the usual place to do research… you know what I mean, YouTube. Most of the videos showed I could get away with only knowing the basics, and several people touted how they were getting by knowing no Spanish. One guy even suggested I could learn a few terms on the flight down there and I’d be good… NOT!
Medellin – Spanish Or Bust
I’m here to tell you, Medellin is not bi-lingual country. I spent most of my days saying “No hablar Español”. After a while, it got to be very frustrating. Then I broke out my Google Translate, and that worked in some situations but. not very helpful when you’re in a tight situation and you need to respond or convey what you need rapidly.
My gut punch came when I was in immigration, applying for my resident visa. I did not know what the agent was instructing me to do. So one agent looked over at a young man who worked there and asked him to explain to me. I felt so embarrassed to know this young man knew my language in his country, but I didn’t know his.
The biggest challenge for me was understanding once I asked a question. Some Colombians speak super fast and have a kind of slang and blending of their words. I also learned there is a difference between Spain-Spanish and Colombian-Spanish.
So what’s a person to do? Glad you asked.
Oy Holá – Solutions to the Rescue
There are a few solutions to help ease your way into your expat journey.
1. You could hang out in El Poblado or Laureles neighborhoods, These communities have a large U.S. expat community who speak English. Some are also bi-lingual, so you can get help with translations when you need it.
2. Join FB (oh I forgot, Meta) group communities that are formed in Medellin and allow you to connect with English-speaking individuals. There are also English/Spanish exchange events at some of the local bars or restaurants where ex-pats gather for connecting and practice.
3. You can post out to some of these groups looking for bi-lingual Colombians who will act as paid translator for individuals to help them adjust to day-to-day living. I found the BEST person EVER who helped me. He ran a travel service, but offered himself as my translator for so many occurrences, from MacBook tech, to immigration issues, to DHL package delivery to the U.S. as well as my English-speaking driver. I couldn’t ask for a better service. You can read about it in my post Get Yourself a Julio.
4. Locate Spanish schools and classes. There are a few I’m familiar with, such as Baselang that provide immersive classes both online and in-person. There are also schools like OLSHA and www.toucan.com that ex-pats attend. I believe there are also free classes that are offered two days per week at the University in Medellin. You’d have to do your research on this one to determine if they still offer it.
5. You can also post and ask people in the groups if there are private tutors who will come to you. I had a tutor, before Covid-19 who worked with me, which I found very helpful. Unfortunately, once Covid-19 hit, I had to give that up.
6. It’s my opinion that you learn better by doing, not just one-way listening and repeating like apps such as Babble and Duolingo, but others have found these apps useful. Other apps like italki.com can be used for practice sessions with Spanish-speaking people.
The bottom line, if you don’t want to start every conversation with ‘no hablar Español’, and look like a deer in the headlights when trying to figure out what the immigration agent is saying, or you want to get fresh fruit and veggies from the local market, learn some Spanish before and during your stay in Medellin if your plan is to be there long term. It will make your life so much easier and enjoyable.
If you have other resources for learning Spanish, we’d love to hear about it.
by: Gail Turner Brown
Get Yourself a Julio
Things You May Find Strange In Colombia
Easy Tips for Learning a New Language