Colombia’s national language is Spanish. The country has a rich variety of local expressions and slang words, but the Spanish spoken here remains mutually intelligible with that spoken in Europe and other parts of Latin America.
Can I get by without knowing Spanish?
With the exception of a couple of tourist destinations, the prevalence and proficiency of English spoken among the population is limited. Staff in hotels and hostels are generally able to communicate effectively in the language, but do not expect that you will always be able to get by with English.
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Unlike travelling in many other parts of the world, for example in South East Asia, in Colombia there is more expectation that you should speak Spanish, rather than that they should speak English. There's is a kind of unspoken understanding that you've stepped into the Latin world and that you should therefore be able to communicate in the main language of that region.
It is, of course, entirely possible to get around the country without knowing any Spanish. If this is your plan, then you should anticipate having quite a few interactions, for things like buying coach tickets, ordering food and shopping (in non-tourist areas), using just the the age-old methods of finger pointing and gesturing.
However, your experience as a tourist will be far more enriching, and you will be more widely welcomed, if at least one person in your group knows some basic Spanish. This needn’t be very extensive; by learning just a few of the numbers, a couple of greetings, and expressions (such as how much things cost or where the bus leaves from) you will find navigating the country significantly easier and more enjoyable.
Want to speak Spanish with Colombians as naturally as you'd chat in English with your friends back home? Well, you'll need to learn a load of local slang and expressions first.
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Learning a few such phrases is highly recommended, if not essential, for those seeking to access the more remote tourist locations and off-the-beaten-track destinations. If, for whatever reason, this does not prove possible, an alternative option is to download a translation application to your smartphone as a backup. These can be extremely useful if you find yourself in a situation where communication would be otherwise impossible.
If planning on staying in Colombia for a prolonged period, mastering some Spanish is essential
And, if you are planning on staying for a longer period than just a couple of weeks, learning some Spanish will be a useful way of integrating into local society and culture, making friends, and improving the ease with which you conduct your everyday interactions. There are a wide variety of Spanish-language courses available at university and Spanish schools throughout the country, which will provide you with an excellent basis in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary, and enable you to begin practicing on your own.
As you interact more with Colombian locals you will also begin to pick up on the local nuances and slang used in the country. Mastering a few of these phrases, in combination with the textbook Spanish, will enable you to speak more naturally.
Where will I find the most English speakers?
The two areas where English is most widely spoken are inside the walled city of Cartagena and in the Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia. In Cartagena, staff in upmarket restaurants, hotels and some shops in the former speak English to at least a reasonable level, as a result of the large number of international visitors arriving to the city. Restaurant menus and tourist information are also generally available in both languages.
Things are even easier for non-Spanish speakers on the islands on San Andres and Providencia. These tourist destinations, which are located far away from Colombia in the Caribbean sea, are populated almost exclusively by bi-lingual English and Spanish speakers. This is a legacy of the previous colonial presence of both English and Spanish settlers and means that you can confidently talk to locals in English without issue. That said, the overwhelming majority of signs and restaurant menus etc are all printed in Spanish. And if you try and eavesdrop on the locals, you'll quickly find that you understand little as their conversations invariable include a mixture of Spanish, English and the local creole language.