Living and Loving in Spanish

The Spanish language is currently enjoying unprecedented popularity and prestige. A legion of its fans are coming to Colombia to undertake the exciting task of acquiring in-depth knowledge of Spanish. Citizens of Japan, India, Korea, Laos, and Cambodia will delve into both Spanish-language literature and the tourism and business opportunities afforded by this beautiful tongue. “Spanish in Colombia,” an ambitious program of the Ministry of Culture, the Office of the President, and the Instituto Caro y Cuervo, boasts a fantastic ambassador who goes on tour to “sell” the language.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino


One ecstatically repeats the word “crepúsculo” (twilight). Another prefers the word “rumor” (rumor, murmur) and pronounces it as if it were a powerful mantra of enlightenment. Yet another whispers the word “arboleda” (grove) with eyes half-closed. One person repeats the word “verano” (summer) endlessly, and a girl with inquisitive eyes ponders the word “neblina” (mist). Others adore words like “efluvio” (outflow), “inmemorial” (immemorial), “resplandor” (radiance), “noche” (night), “prodigio” (wonder), “aguacero” (downpour), “eternidad” (eternity), “aparición” (appearance, apparition), “embrujo” (spell), “romance” (romance), “ausencia” (absence), or “ternura” (tenderness). Meet the international devotees of the language from Castile, a language in which they hope to experience part of their life journey. These adventurers want to live and love in Spanish.

Works by great names in literature like García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Antonio Machado, Juan Rulfo, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Vicente Huidobro; the faces and expressions of beautiful divas of Spanish-language song, cinema, and theater; the delightful festivals celebrated in Latin America to ease the grind of daily life; and exploratory walks through the streets of Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Bogotá, Lima, Asunción, and Santiago de Chile have inspired these admirers of our linguistic identity —Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, and many others— to join the legion of devotees of Spanish, and prepare for what might well be a defining life adventure.

One day a few months ago, after their initial flirtations with this ancient language metamorphosed into a true love affair, these language learners pinpointed on a map the faraway lands and cities that called to them; these were the places that would allow them to appreciate the melodic contour, the free-spirited lightness, and affectionate creativity of Spanish, as if these qualities were paving stones on the path to fulfillment.

As they lived their routines in Bombay, Beijing, Osaka, and Tokyo, they learned that Colombia, one of those fantasy worlds where people speak beautiful Spanish, had just launched a vast and ambitious project called “Spanish in Colombia,” precisely to provide lovers of this luscious language with a subsidy to enable them to spend some time in the land of their dreams. The majority of these charming foreigners distinguish between the Spanish spoken on the Iberian Peninsula and the less docile, more disquieting Spanish that emerged after the conquest of ancient Latin American cultures. This inherited language of memories, adventure, sensuality, allusions, and gestures completely bewitched these visitors.

Some people claim that the Spanish spoken in Colombia is the most direct, correct, imaginative, and creative of all the variants in Spanish-speaking America. Although this may be a bit of an exaggeration, this idea has led many researchers and students to immerse themselves in the everyday speech of this Andean nation, finding nuances of incredible beauty and freshness in the local language. For example, researcher Ana Beatriz Chiquito, who has devoted the better part of her life to Spanish —its origins, speakers, melodic contour, and anecdotes— carried out a painstaking two-year survey of the turns of phrase, idioms, wordplay, shadings, and nuances found across the length and breadth of Colombia. The results are a tide of ingenuity, a passionate journey through the country’s unique way of life, told through dashing, roguish, and humorous stories about the Spanish spoken on the Caribbean coast, the high plateau of the capital region, the plains, and the Amazon region.

“Spanish in Colombia” employs rigorous learning methods, but doesn’t squelch the spirit of the quest for a new language; the program is a golden opportunity for far-flung admirers of the Spanish language. These students left the rice paddies of Vietnam, the Buddhist sanctuaries and pagodas, the streets of mainland China teeming with dark rivers of proud inhabitants, the furniture workshops of Laos, the wood factories of Yemen, the fishing rafts of Cambodia, and the corridors of strict Taiwanese schools, and exchanged them for the turbulent routine of a distant nation.

The first wave arrived in Bogotá in the last week of August, after more than eighteen hours of flight. People witnessing the procession of perplexed travelers with warm, languid eyes disembark at the El Dorado airport in Bogotá might have thought they had been transplanted to a Chinese opera or an Akira Kurosawa film. Every step, every look into a shop window, every café, restaurant, taxi, street corner, supermarket, plaza, souvenir shop, waiter, and shop assistant became part of the flow of their beloved language; they luxuriated in the rich, full sounds that had attracted them to Spanish.

These illustrious visitors include scientists steeped in theories and hypotheses, biologists hoping to infiltrate the green labyrinth of our tropics, hoteliers, ecologists, and students of history and literature who idolize forgotten centuries. The coordinators of the program “Spanish in Colombia” believe that the learning experience should include the streets, local color, and daily life; they feel that only intimate contact with the heartbeat of a city, its people, everyday experiences, cuisine, habits, and needs will make students absorb the language until it flows through their veins and imprints on their psyches.

The Language Seller

A contemplative, ascetic looking man who long ago learned to appreciate the grace and subtlety of the Spanish language is responsible for promoting the great endeavor of “Spanish in Colombia” around the globe. Carlos Jaramillo resembles a literary character, rather like the hero of a fable. He is responsible for selling a language, a treasure trove of words, phrases, verbs, adjectives, and images steeped in nostalgia, yet looking to the future. 

“I used to behave like any traveling salesperson,” says Carlos as he looks through papers and shifts books around the colonial home housing the time-honored Instituto Caro y Cuervo. “The federal government was determined to turn the language into an asset and a source of national pride. I carry a language in my suit pocket and my executive briefcase.”

“While working with the department of cultural affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, in November 2012 I had an experience in Brazil. Representatives from seventeen universities in the principal cities, and entities like ICETEX, Proexport, APC Colombia, the Embassy in Brazil, and the Ministry of Education were all in Curitiba. It was a conjunction of forces representing the gamut of business, tourism, sociological, anthropological, cultural, entertainment, and historical possibilities. Amidst the fallen leaves of that splendid city, we could sense how close the Brazilians feel to the Spanish language, how they love it, develop it, and understand it.”

That experience turned Carlos Jaramillo, general coordinator of the Teaching of Foreign Languages program into a key element of the international tour to “sell” the Spanish language. In collaboration with a group of professionals from the Ministry and scholars from Caro y Cuervo; he has cast the net of Spanish around the world, observing the perplexed and star-struck faces of young people as they become familiar with the language of Cervantes.

“Soon I will be going to Turkey, Jamaica, Brazil, and the east coast of the United States. I sell words, and it’s wonderful. The words are like birds: ready to soar at a touch or a call.”

Spanish in Brief

• José Luis Acosta, Director of the Instituto Caro y Cuervo, and Luis Armando Soto Boutin, head of cultural affairs of the Foreign Ministry, are the brains and coordinators behind the program “Spanish in Colombia.” Thanks to their exceptional leadership, the fame of Spanish has even extended to the Far East.

• Spanish classes are given on the campus of each university, the majority of which have set up language centers with all the necessary technology.

• Teaching is complemented by other educational activities.

•The principal universities of Bogotá, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, Manizales, and Medellín participate in the effort to teach Spanish.

• The courses run from two weeks to six months.

• Classes are taught by teachers who specialize in teaching Spanish as a foreign language.

• The Instituto Caro y Cuervo and the universities train certified teachers, and also offer specialization and master’s degree programs.

• The universities validate each course and level, preparing students for the Diploma in Spanish as a Foreign Language (DELE) exam, validated by Spain’s Instituto Cervantes.

• The cost of each course varies depending on the university, but it runs from 650,000 to 1,500,000 Colombian pesos.

• Some 1,500 students take the courses every year, and that number is expected to double in the coming months.