Spanish lessons from a former Bogotana

common expressions used in spain

I arrived in Colombia with only a handful of Spanish phrases at my disposal. While I knew it would take me a long time to be able to speak and comprehend fluidly, I received some very good advice about where to focus my energy: learn how to speak like the locals.

But, a language is a living thing. Even among countries that speak the same language accents and dialects are wildly different. It’s like an American saying they’re wearing pants to a Brit. The British person probably gets their meaning, but they’ll also be holding in a chuckle. That said, after a few sideways looks in Madrid I realized I had some linguistic housecleaning to do.

Keep reading for the words I had to leave behind in Bogotá and what to swap in to sound more like Spain.

Out: chévere

In: guay

Ooh, chévere is SO Colombian and is one of the first ‘local’ words anyone learning Spanish there will pick up. It means cool. If you want to make people chuckle, use it in Madrid. Almost every time I use it (because it’s so ingrained in my vocabulary), people tell me that no one says that here or it’s old-fashioned. I’ve also heard that if you’re a dude, using it is effeminate. Guay is the Spanish way to say cool.

Out: listo

In: vale

To most Spanish speakers listo means intelligent. In Colombia however, it has morphed into a word used more like ok. Ready to head out? Listo! Finished with work? Listo! Can you meet for coffee later? Listo! Use it in Spain and you may get a confused look. Replace it with vale and you’ll fit right in.

Out: hola  

In: buenas

Ok ok, so you can still say hola. Also, it doesn’t have a different significance in Colombia. One thing I have noticed in Spain, however, is that buenas and hola are used interchangeably to say hello. Buenas, ¿qué tal is something I hear all the time and it’s an easy little word to pop into your repertoire.

Out: me regala…

In: me trae…

The verb regalar means to give, as in to give a gift. While in Colombia, though, I learned it as the way to ask for something at a restaurant or in a shop. For instance, if you want a beer, it’s me regala una cerveza. Go ahead and give this a whirl in Spain and see what you get, because I guarantee your drink will never come! This is another instance where you must revert to something more traditional like traer, which means to bring.

Out: gringo

In: guiri

You may think that gringo has a negative connotation. Well, sometimes it does. However, it all depends on context. For the most part in Central and South America, it’s just a slang reference for foreigners. Guiri is the Spanish version.

Out: aca/alla

In: aquí/allí

Most of us learning Spanish in the U.S. learn aquí and allí as the way to say here and there. Colombians use aca and alla. After a few perplexing exchanges with cab drivers, I’ve had to switch back.

Out: pola

In: caña

I’ve heard a couple of things about the original meaning of pola, both that it is a fermented corn drink and also the nickname of a heroine who assisted Colombia in their independence from Spain. Either way, it’s become a Colombian synonym for beer. I haven’t used this term in Spain, but I’m pretty sure I’d be met with quizzical looks. You’ll have an easy time remembering the Spanish counterpart, though, because caña is plastered on the outside of every tapas bar.

Out: rico

In: chulo

In Colombia, everything is rico. Your food is rico (i.e. delicious, the traditional meaning) but so is your vacation, your date last night or the weather outside. Its meaning is more like lovely or neat. Chulo is a good substitute here.

Out: ¿Qué más?

In: ¿Qué tal?

¿Qué más? literally means what more? and I used it all the time (following the example of my Bogotano friends) to say what’s up? In Madrid, ¿qué tal? is used the same way.

Out: qué pena

In: perdóname

Qué pena is Colombia’s equivalent of I’m sorry. Much like the U.S., it’s so overused that its true meaning is diluted to something like oh, what a shame. In other Spanish speaking countries it retains that original significance, so if you bump someone on the subway make sure you reach for another term. You may go to your Spanish 101 roots and want to say lo siento, but that too is more of an actual apology. Discúlpeme or perdóname are a better swap.

Now that I’m looking at this list, I’m so sad to see all my Colombian colloquialisms go! Do you have favorite expression unique to Colombia or Spain (or any other country, for that matter)? This post is by no means comprehensive, so please feel free to share yours in the comments below.

(One last little thing! If you want to read a bit about my experience learning Spanish, you can check out the two posts here and here.)

2 thoughts on “Spanish lessons from a former Bogotana

  1. After living 16 years in Venezuela and only 5 years in Colombia, many of the words you list here still sound odd to me. Hurts my brain to think of moving to another country with new vocabulary!

    1. Even worse is that I feel like I was just getting the hang of some of it as we were leaving! I suppose it keeps your brain young, haha!

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