It’s a great pleasure to share with you our interview with Peter Low, co-founder of Colombia travel guide website, LatinTravelGuide.com. Today we’ve asked Peter to share his experiences of learning Spanish and living in Colombia for over two years.
Peter, thanks for taking the time out for this interview. Tell us a bit about yourself, for those that don’t already know you.
Hi Aleja and MosaLingua readers! I’m Peter from England and I’ve been living in Colombia, on and off, for a total of about 2 and a half years. I first came to Medellin in 2007 as a backpacker intending to stay for 3 days, but something about the city caught my attention and I’ve since searched out ways to be able to come back here to live. After first studying Spanish here for six months, I found work as a political analyst, writing about security and human rights issues in Colombia and other Latin American countries. Over the past few months however, I’ve decided to look more at a slightly cheerier area – that of international tourism in Colombia – and recently launched the new website on this subject.
Peter, something that really grabbed me when I first met you was that your Spanish was perfect, with a native accent. Could you tell our readers how you reached that level of Spanish? How did you get on learning the Spanish grammar?
Thanks, but I’m not sure there is any particular trick to getting good at any foreign language. I
just studied hard and practiced a lot over a fairly prolonged period. Before coming to Colombia I worked through several books of grammar exercises by myself so I had a reasonably good grasp of that by the time I arrived here. My spoken Spanish was pretty terrible though, so I signed up for classes at a university here in Medellin, and sought out every opportunity to practice with friends, classmates and just random people I’d meet out and about. I’ve always been very interested in the news and politics here so I read a lot and that definitely helped to develop my vocabulary and learn more about how the language is used in different contexts. I guess the key was to immerse myself as far as possible – I’m sure I would never have got to the level I have today had I tried to learn in England, or somewhere else where I wasn’t using the language all the time. I still find it interesting to see how people use the language here and always remain alert to the different expressions and twists you see within Colombian Spanish. I don’t think I’d ever describe myself as totally ‘fluent’ as I feel I am still learning new things about the language every day. There is always more you can learn and an infinite number of ways to improve both your written and spoken use of Spanish, but it’s a process I still greatly enjoy to this day.
A lot of people learn Spanish these days. Do you have any advice for those who hesitate to learn a language or think it’s difficult to learn?
From my experience of learning Spanish I think it’s a huge myth that some people are ‘natural linguists’ and others are not. I always thought I would really struggle to learn a foreign language, mainly because of my experience at school. We were made to study both French and German for several years and I never enjoyed either and never progressed very far. But I think that was just because I had no particular interest or affinity with these countries, languages or cultures. Coming to Latin America made a huge difference for me as I realised that every bit of vocabulary or grammar I learnt in class could be immediately applied outside of it, and that this would make my life easier and more enjoyable. Learning a language well does take a lot of effort but it is hugely satisfying to see yourself progress from not knowing anything, to being able to have some basic interactions, to some simple conversations and finally to be able to confidently communicate in almost any situation. I firmly believe that everyone is entirely capable of achieving a high degree of fluency in the foreign language they choose. You just need the motivation (and time) to be able to do so. I guess my advice for those that really are interested in learning would be not to hesitate, and to just go for it!
You’ve just launched your website, Latin Travel Guide. Tell us a bit what it’s about. Why did you decide to focus on Colombia?
The website is designed to give free and impartial information on Colombia’s major tourist destinations, together with practical advice on how to travel to and around the country, master the local slang, integrate into the culture, and stay healthy during a trip here. The reason why we decided to create the page was to try and help people find out more about Colombia, and to address the outdated perceptions of the country abroad. Many people continue to think of Colombia as being very dangerous and overrun with drugs gangs and armed groups. While the country has changed a huge amount over the last 20 years or so, international perceptions of it really haven’t much. Through the site we want to encourage people to overcome any lingering doubts they have about visiting and to come and see for themselves all Colombia has to offer. It really is a great place and it seems such a shame to me that anyone should miss out just because they have an inaccurate image of what the country is like today.
On your website you have a section called “How to speak Colombian Spanish”. You’ve got a number of very Colombian phrases there, that only someone who has spent as much time here as you would understand. What local expressions and phrases did you most notice when you started learning Spanish?
One of the things which first struck me here was the wide variety of greetings used in the country. A very common slang expression to say ‘how are you?’ or ‘how are you doing?’ is to ask ‘¿qué más?’, literally meaning ‘what else?’. I had no idea of this when I first got here and was always confused by why no-one seemed to be satisfied with my responses as to how I was. I’d arrive somewhere and an acquaintance would say ‘Hola Peter, ¿qué más?’ and I wouldn’t know what response they’d want from me. ‘What do you mean “what else?”’ I’d think. ‘I’ve not said anything yet!’. It turns out that a simple ‘muy bien, ¿y tú?’ works fine as a response.
Another thing it took me a little while to get used to here is the way people use tú, usted and also, here in Medellin, the conjugation vos. I’d always been taught that you only use the usted form in formal situations or with people you don’t know very well, and that the verb form should remain consistent throughout the conversation. However, in Colombia people change from addressing you as vos, tú or usted from sentence to sentence. It seemed particularly bizarre to me when some of my best friends, and even former girlfriends, would address me as ‘usted’. After a while though you realise that it’s just the way people speak here, and you get used to the subtleties of when to use one form or another.
I know that you really like ‘bachata’ music. Is there any song you can recommend that has helped you to learn Spanish vocabulary?
Haha. Yes, well when I first started learning I listened to songs like ‘¿Cuándo Volverás?’ and ‘Los Infieles’ by the group Aventura. I enjoyed the music and would also read the song lyrics on the internet to try and understand what they were singing about. The topics covered in the songs are all fairly similar to be honest, but they certainly helped increase my vocabulary about love, heartbreak and infidelity – all very important areas of Latin culture!
Are you planning on learning another language? Why?
I’d certainly like to. Learning Spanish is something that has altered my life in such a profound way – in terms of opening me up to a whole world of new personal and professional relationships, experiences and opportunities – that I’d love to repeat this with another language. I’m giving some consideration to learning Portuguese – I actually recently downloaded the MosaLingua app for this to help me get started – but I’ve not fully committed to it just yet. At the moment I haven’t got a compelling enough reason to learn so I’ve not yet found the motivation to get going on it properly. Perhaps if we later expand Latin Travel Guide to look at Brazil I will have the perfect excuse to spend some time there and to learn Portuguese!
Thanks Peter for the interview. I’m sure your advice will be a great help to our readers who are learning Spanish.
For further information on the Spanish spoken in Colombia, please see Peter’s blog and eBook (co) on the subject.
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