By Rose Delamare

27 January 2017 - 20:45

'Dancing with the locals has been one of the purest joys I have had.' Image (c) Rona Proudfoot, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'I never knew just how many genres of Latin music there were until I came here.' Image ©

Rona Proudfoot, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Rose Delamare describes how her view of Colombia has changed since she moved there to teach as an English language assistant six months ago.

Prepare to change your mind

Expectations about new places are curious things. In some cases you will be spot on, while in others you will be completely wrong.

I arrived in Manizales, a city tucked away in Colombia’s central mountain range, carrying a 23-kilogram suitcase and a few kilos more of preconceptions. Over the past six months, my understanding of this country has shifted, and I have discovered new things about myself.

How my language skills changed

When I arrived in Colombia, my only experience of Spanish was of the language spoken in Madrid: a thick, closed accent with a heavy lisp on every 'c' and 'z'. At 26, I had already spent two and a half years living and working in Spain where I had gradually picked up a madrileño accent and vocabulary, the kind spoken by people from Madrid.

One of my chief concerns was that I would lose my madrileño accent, as I thought it sounded more 'authentic'. I had developed a fondness for how people from Madrid spoke, and I enjoyed the challenge of saying words like Cercedilla, Zaragoza and cerveza with the Spanish lisp. I also worried that I would struggle with the grammar differences of Spanish vosotros vs Colombian ustedes - two plural forms of 'you'. However, within a month of being in Colombia, I managed to train myself into speaking like a local. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to forget vosotros and start using ustedes.

How did I do it? For me, the key to improvement in any language is listening. As I was the only person from the British Council's Language Assistants programme sent to Manizales, I didn't have an English crowd to hang out with, and all the friends I made were Colombian. This gave me with the perfect opportunity to listen to their intonation and learn regional vocabulary. Now, the local paisa accent comes more naturally to me than madrileño. I love the smiles of surprise on my Colombian friends' faces when I say 'Estoy muy amañadita aca' ('I am very happy here') or 'que hubo?' ('how's it going?'). It sounds funny to them to hear an English girl use their regional dialect, but they are also happy that a foreigner is making the effort to learn their Spanish.

If you are in a similar situation, I would recommend surrounding yourself with the thing you want to learn, and let go of old habits. It's always best to do as the locals do, and you will endear yourself a lot more to them if you give their ways a try.

How my understanding of the culture changed

As it was my first time in South America, the only preconceptions I had about Colombian culture came from music videos and other people's opinions. I expected a lively, musical atmosphere, but like most people around the world, Colombia's reputation for violence, drugs, and machismo had not escaped me. Many friends back in Europe told me that I, a lone, blonde female, would need to be on my guard at all times.

Because of this, when I arrived in Bogotá airport, I was so nervous and determined not to be taken advantage of that I may have been quite rude to my taxi driver, who told me about the city as he drove me to my hostel. In hindsight, I see that he was just being friendly and curious about what I was doing there.

If it hadn't been for a friend who had lived here herself and told me that I would fall in love with Colombia, I probably never would have come. But with her encouragement, I went and am so glad I did. In my six months of living and working here, I can honestly say that I have experienced only the kindest, most helpful, and generous people.

There are good people and bad people everywhere you go, and stereotypes are by no means the whole picture. My change in attitude has been brought about by the people I have met and the friends I have made. I have been treated to lunch more times than I can count, people have given me lifts home, and rarely a week goes by when a colleague doesn't offer me a little present of chocolates or coffee. Colombians know what a great country they live in, in terms of how friendly and happy the people are, and they are eager to show this bright, energetic and generous side to their national character.

For me, the key to making the most of another culture is to say yes to invitations, write down the recommendations locals give you about film, music or travel, and above all to get involved. Don't be shy if someone asks you to dance, or sing, or to go to their grandmother's house for lunch, even if your Spanish isn't too good. The more involved you are, the more respect you will receive.

How my professional skills changed

I’m 26 years old, so I already had some professional experience before joining the programme. However, the word I would have used to describe my CV before would have been ‘average’. I was keen to show prospective employers that I could do something challenging, personally and professionally.

So I got involved with the translation centre at the private university where I teach conversation classes. Working closely with the other teachers, my role is to check Spanish-to-English translations of academic articles that the university has been commissioned to work on. I have to make sure that the syntax and grammar are correct, and that the translation reads as naturally as possible.

This is not easy, but it has meant that my own knowledge about academic writing has grown a great deal. My name has even been credited in a published book as the 'native reviser': an amazing achievement for me, and something I can point to in my CV over the next years. I never expected that this would be part of my role when I first arrived, but opportunities can arise when you least expect them. I now have experience in the field of translation.

Image joakant, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.
'Dancing with the locals has been one of the purest joys I have had.' Image ©

joakant, licensed under CC0 1.0 and adapted from the original.

How my confidence changed

I have always been a person who enjoys dancing. My family is very artistic and has a broad taste in music, so I grew up listening to Latin sounds. But I never knew just how many genres of Latin music there were until I came here. Trying to discern between vallenato, champeta, ranchera, popular, merengue, bachata, and salsa has become one of my favourite hobbies. Each of these rhythms has its own specific dance, which must be strictly observed. In the case of ranchera, no dancing may occur at all, but instead you drink some aguardiente (strong Colombian distilled spirits) and belt out the lyrics to the rest of your friends, clutching your broken heart. And one cannot simply dance salsa steps to a bachata song - you would be laughed out of the room.

Since coming to Colombia, my confidence in public speaking has also grown. At first, I was nervous that teaching adults would be challenging, as I had only worked with children and teenagers before. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find my adult students an absolute pleasure to teach. I also learnt that it is better to let them do more of the talking, and altered my style accordingly.

How my ability to communicate changed

As well as becoming a more confident teacher, I also feel much more confident speaking in Spanish in public. For example, I was asked to give a presentation in Spanish about my experience in Colombia. At first, I thought it would be impossible for me to articulate it coherently. However, I worked hard on the presentation, and while I inevitably made grammatical mistakes, I was able to communicate my points and even made the audience laugh a couple of times. I also talked to parents in Spanish, at a meeting about the benefits of sending their children to an English conversation club.

Thinking back to how nervous I was at school when I had my Spanish oral exams, I know that I could only have achieved this level of confidence by coming to Colombia and immersing myself in its language and culture. My advice to prospective language assistants would be to make friends with the locals, listen carefully, and get involved in anything that sparks your interest. You will have an unforgettable experience and dance your year away.

Applications for the 2017-18 British Council English Language Assistants programme are now open and will close on 28 February 2017.

Follow #LanguageAssistant on Twitter for more information.

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