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[Listen to an audio version of this blog entry here.]

‘Wow, your Spanish is very good.’
‘Well, I’ve been based here for over ten years.’

A sign in Spanish at a bar in Cúcuta, Colombia informing of the need to show a covid-19 vaccine cert to enter. Some things are better off left misunderstood!

Some things are better left misunderstood.

That’s how the conversation generally goes when I meet a new Spanish-speaking acquaintance in these parts. The initial positivity that this “gringo” (I’m not a gringo, I’m Irish!) can speak Colombian Spanish fairly well is tempered by my longevity in the country.

Plateau effect
Indeed, the initial boost received from being told I converse well in my second language can often rapidly bomb when some appear baffled as to why my Spanish doesn’t sound more Colombian after all these years. (At times, when the mood takes me, I think I can do an OK Costeño [those from Colombia’s Caribbean coast]/Venezuelan accent. I think, that is.)

Having never taken any official classes, the Spanish I have has been largely down to my own dirty work — self-taught. Somebody said to me self-learning, but isn’t all learning, in effect, done by the individual? It’s not learning if it’s not!

My general understanding of the language is solid. I can read it fairly well — I’ve got through a novel and a couple of academic history books in Spanish — while my speaking is, well, fine, depending on how one views it, as we’ve determined above.

‘My observations suggest that on many occasions the locals aren’t really listening to each other.’ They don’t care about what others have to say.’

Nonetheless, I’ve certainly plateaued in the last few years. I usually feel I’ve enough to get by, especially considering that I use Spanish predominantly for socialising, thus the drive for further advancement is low. Indeed, I used to make it my business to regularly listen to Colombian talk radio. Now, I rarely do.

That I’m not using Spanish too frequently in a professional setting is key here. Basically, my true comprehension doesn’t really get tested. There’s no “tienda test” at the end of the month. How I’d fare if I had to answer questions on recent conversations and engagements, I’m not so sure.

It’s not all that uncommon to find myself nodding as to signal that I understand, uttering the odd ‘entiendo’ or appropriate exclamation when I’m actually at best only getting half the conversation.

Of course, in the barrio tienda, there’s plenty of colloquial “Castellano” (the official tongue of Colombia after all) used. It can be almost like a language in itself.

Alongside this, I can at least take comfort from the fact that most of the time I am genuinely trying to listen.

‘You say it best when you say nothing at all’
I say this because my observations suggest that on many occasions the locals aren’t really listening to each other. This manifests itself most blatantly when the supposed listener’s attention is taken up by his/her phone.

However, even when there’s no device distraction, the body language — the distant look — tells me that the message isn’t really being received.

When this happens to me, when I feel somebody’s not really listening, I’ll say it. I’m not a major fan of talking to myself — when there’s company about anyway.

In these parts, though, it seems that some people don’t care too much whether those they are addressing are listening or not. ‘Ah sure, even if they only get a word or two, it’ll have been worth it. I’ve had my say.’

It could point to a grand indifference on all sides. The person doing the talking doesn’t care if nobody’s taking in what he/she says and the supposed listener(s) equally couldn’t be bothered if such nonchalance is noticed.

Sure as the song puts it, it’s only words.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.

Facebook: Wrong Way Corrigan — The Blog & IQuiz “The Bogotá Pub Quiz”.

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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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