Last updated on March 17th, 2022 at 02:06 pm
My name is Frank and I run a travel agency in Bogotá, Colombia. Have fun while reading!
Have you ever thought about traveling to Colombia but aren’t sure what language Colombians speak? What you need to know is that there is not only one language all nationals speak. And even the official language is not spoken alike everywhere in the country. So read on to learn about the language diversity in Colombia.
Colombia or the Republic of Colombia is a country in northern South America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, as well as Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador. Today it has over 50 million inhabitants, of which most are mestizos and white people, 7% are Afro-Colombian and 4% Amerindian.
So what language is spoken in Colombia then? The official language of Colombia is Spanish. The reason is that the country was colonized by the Spanish, who imposed their customs over the natives. But there are plenty of native languages that make up the country’s identity and we will go further into this in a moment.
History of language in Colombia – Why do Colombians speak Spanish?
Let’s do a quick recap of Colombian history to understand the evolution of language there.
Colombia was inhabited by several indigenous cultures as early as 1,500 BC, San Agustin and Tierradentro stand out. For millenniums, various groups appeared, thrived, and disappeared, migrating and settling in different regions.
By the 16th century, the two predominant cultures were the Taironas and Muiscas, both part of the Chibcha language family. But there existed many more that contributed to the cultural and linguistic diversity of the territory.
Well, Spanish conquerors arrived on the Colombian coast by that time, in the year 1500, and as they advanced inwards the land, they were establishing settlements, but the first city was founded until 1525.
Since the Spanish arrival, the indigenous peoples were subjugated and displaced time and again. Their villages were destroyed and their traditions despised. This violent process, plus the introduction of new European diseases decimated the native tribes and with that, its legacy.
You might be wondering how indigenous and newcomers communicated with each other. Well, in the beginning, using signs and gestures, but this wasn’t enough, evidently. As the Spanish empire was gaining prestige in Europe with language and religion as flagship elements, they started to impose their ways so they could access the key information to find treasures and wealth.
So, first, they used interpreters, priests and missioners that learned the main indigenous languages such as muisca, saliba and siona to translate the Catholic catechism into them and teach the tribes. Then they introduced their European and Catholic terms.
Another evangelization strategy was isolating the children of Caciques (indigenous leaders) to teach them Spanish and European customs. Later, the church created boarding schools that raised children under Catholic values and they were only allowed to speak Spanish.
The 1800s – Present
These practices ordered by the Spanish governments and crowns went on until in the 18th century, Spanish was the prevailing language in urban areas and native languages were restricted to private family contexts. Even the creole liberator Simon Bolivar supported the officialization of Spanish as it was the common language in all Spanish America.
The country achieved independence from Spain on July 20, 1810.
In 1886, the Republic of Colombia’s Constitution declared Spanish as the official language. Only until the 1991 constitution, native languages are deemed as co-official in the regions where they are spoken.
How many languages are spoken in Colombia?
“According to the 2005 census of Colombia, the country has 37 major languages” (Translator without Borders).
However, in Colombia they speak 70 languages in total: Spanish and 69 native languages, among which there are 65 indigenous languages, 2 creole languages, Romani spoken by the Rom people, and the Colombian sign language. Besides, experts say that there are more than 65 indigenous living languages. Also check the biggest and most important cities of Colombia.
Let’s dive into the main ones.
Currently, 99.5% of Colombians speak Spanish.
The Spanish spoken in Colombia is made up of a group of regional speeches (aka dialects) that you can clearly differentiate from one another because each one has specific features of pronunciation, intonation, and vocabulary.
That is to say in Bogota (central Colombia) locals speak really differently than people from Medellin in the western Andes mountain, Cartagena in the Caribbean coast, or Cali in the Pacific region. This is due to the geographic distribution and socio-historical development of the population, subject to the ruling of people from different parts of Spain with their own accents.
Another thing you need to know is that Colombian Spanish is widely influenced by Amerindian and African cultures to the point there are hundreds of words borrowed and adapted from them. So, all three influences ended mixing up and determining the locals’ vocabulary and way of speaking.
And this also depends on the region, for example, on the coast you will see hear more words of African origin such as banano, biche, and ñame.
While in inland regions such as Tolima, Boyacá, and Cundinamarca there are more indigenous-based terms from the Muisca and Quechua languages. For example, changua, chingue, cubio or cancha, chocolo, chontaduro, minga, and ñapa, respectively.
Dialects and main differences in Colombian Spanish
There is a way to classify the dialects of Colombian Spanish based on the Linguistic-Ethnographic Atlas of Colombia (ALEC) that was the most complete study of Colombian popular speech. It was proposed in 1982 by José Joaquín Montes Giraldo, member of the Caro y Cuervo Institute.
So, for starters, Colombian Spanish is grouped into two big zones or superdialects: the coastal-insular superdialect and the inland-continental superdialect that exists in the Andean region.
In the coastal superdialect, speakers partially neutralize the sounds /b/-/f/, /x/-/g/ and /r/-/l/. It is also common to kind of inhale or omit the –s sounds (they would say doh mujere instead of dos mujeres) and both superdialects differ in some grammar and lexical aspects.
There are 2 coastal dialects: the one from the Caribbean coast and the one from the Pacific coast. They differ in the use of ‘you’ pronouns (there are 3 in Spanish), so the Caribbean costeño uses tú and the Pacific costeño uses vos as well as tú.
And the inland or Andean superdialect is also divided into two dialects: Central-Eastern and Central-Western. The difference is that the first one keeps a distinct pronunciation between /ll/~/y/.
These dialects of course are formed by subdialects. So, in the Caribbean costeño we find:
- Guajiro, and
- Interior costeño
While the Pacific costeño has the northern and southern speeches.
In turn, the Central-Western Andean dialect includes the variants:
- Antioqueño-caldense (paisa),
And the Central-Eastern Andean dialect has:
- Cundiboyacense, and
All these use distinct vocabulary and intonation, so you will hear Paisas speaking with almost a melodic accent stretching the final sounds of words and Santanderanos have the stereotype of talking as if they were mad.
Colombians are pretty aware of the different accents between them depending on where they lived, and you might also notice it if you travel to more than one destination in the country. They even group each other with names. For example, ‘costeño’ is whoever lives on the Coast, and these people refer to whoever lives inland (no matter its specific regional identity) as ‘cachacos’.
We could keep going on dividing these subdialects into regional or local speeches such as Boyacense and Bogotano, but instead, let’s have a look at a chart that sums up everything explained above.
Also, our blog about slang in Colombia will be very useful for you to learn popular words of the Colombian region you’re visiting, so you can at least try to blend in.
According to the Indigenous National Organization of Colombia (ONIC), the 65 living indigenous languages are:
- Andoque (isolated)
- Barí Ara
- Cofán (isolated)
- Embera (Chami, Dodiba, Katío)
- Ette Naka / Ette Taara
- Kamsá (Isolated)
- Kuna Tule
- Nasa-Yuwe (unclassified)
- Tikuna (isolated)
- Tinigua-bamigua (isolated, almost extinct)
- Wounaan / Woun Meu
- Yagua (isolated or unclassified)
- Yanuro / Yaruro
Over 400,000 people speak these languages in 30 of 32 departments (ONIC), especially in border and rural areas of the country.
Remember that experts affirm that there are over 65 indigenous living languages today and let’s not count those that got extinct for different reasons.
Linguists classify them in 13 different language families and group 7 languages as isolated or unclassified.
- Tucano Oriental
- Andino Ecuatorial
For native populations, language is not only a spoken communication vehicle but has a deeper meaning and influence in their culture: in how they think, how they relate to each other and to the cosmos, how their essence and wisdom are transmitted. Let’s remember that native languages are primarily oral, so it is the only way to pass on traditions to new generations.
Therefore, preserving indigenous languages is key to protecting over 60 indigenous communities and their legacy, which are threatened with physical and cultural extinction.
A study made by Los Andes University and the Colombian Center for Aboriginal Language Studies – CECELA showed the concerning situation of the native languages in Colombia, based on the number of current speakers.
|Number of speakers||Number of languages||Indigenous languages|
|+50,000||3||Wayúunaki, Paez, Embera|
|10,000 – 50,000||8||Guahibo or Sikuani, Guambiano, Arhuaco or Ika, Inga, Ticuna (including speakers from Peru and Brazil), Tucano (including speakers from Brazil), Cuna (including speakers from Panama), Piaroa (including speakers from Venezuela)|
|5,000 – 10,000||9||Cuaiquer o Awá, Kogui, Waunana, Puinave, Wuitoto, Curripaco (including speakers from Venezuela), Piapoco (including speakers from Venezuela), Yaruro (more present in Venezuela), Yuco (including speakers from Venezuela)|
|1,000 – 5,000||11||Tunebo or U’wa, Cubeo, Camsá, Wiwa, Barí, Cofán, Cuiba, Coreguaje, Sáliba, Guayabero, Yagua (including speakers from Peru)|
|-1,000||34||Totoró, barasano, desano, wanano, piratapuyo, achagua, andoke, bará, bora, cabiyarí, carapana, carijona, chimila, cocama, hitnu, macuna, cacua, nukak, hupda, yuhup, miraña, muinane, nonuya, ocaina, pisamira, siona, siriano, tanimuka, tariano, tatuyo, tinigua, tuyuca, yucuna, yurutí|
So, it is clear that most of these languages are at risk of extinction, just as their people, and must be preserved to avoid a huge cultural loss in the country.
Creole languages are born out of the necessity of people from diverse origins to communicate with each other since they don’t share a common language. With time, these language systems that mix elements from two languages (the native plus that imposed) evolve into a proper language when they become the mother tongue of that population.
Let’s see how it works. You already know that slaves were brought to America from several African regions. Well, these people started creating new languages influenced by the dominant language in the regions they arrived in – that spoken by the colonizers in place. In the case of Colombia, we’re talking about Spanish and English.
So that’s how two creole languages appeared in Colombia: San Andres Creole, spoken on the islands of San Andres and Providencia, and Palenquero, spoken in San Basilio de Palenque (department of Bolivar).
San Andres Creole
The San Andres and Providencia archipelago is located in the Caribbean Sea, closer to Nicaragua (120 mi) than Colombia (450 mi) but belongs to Colombia’s territory.
Its inhabitants belong to an Afro-Caribbean ethnic group called Raizal and speak San Andresan Creole.
The base of its native language is English, similar to other creoles in the Caribbean. So, it is also known as Creole English and islander.
The African slaves brought by European colonists to several islands in the Caribbean created a code to be able to communicate with their peers and masters. This code called “pidgin” emerged in Jamaica and later arrived in the islands of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina.
Since 1630, English and Dutch colonizers settled in the islands of San Andres and Providencia. That’s why the San Andresan creole has an English lexical base. In fact, in the beginning, creole speakers also spoke, read, and wrote in standard English.
Today, natives of the San Andres archipelago can be considered trilingual, as English, Spanish and Creole are official languages and people speak one or another depending on their background and the environment or who they are talking with.
San Basilio de Palenque is a small town in the Bolivar department, about 40 miles from Cartagena, that was founded by runaway slaves in the colonial era. It is actually considered the first free town in colonial America and for that, it was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2005.
Inhabitants of Palenque, which today are around 4,000, speak Palenquero. This is a creole language with a Spanish lexical base and a strong influence of the Bantu language family from Africa, specifically of the Kikongo and Kimbundu. It shares about 200 words with kikongo language. It is also influenced by Portuguese.
Moreover, Palenquero is currently the only Spanish-based creole language spoken on the American continent.
The San Basilio Palenque was one of those remote places where ‘cimarrones’ or runaway slaves escaped from Cartagena to live in freedom. After failed peace treaties that were violated by the Spanish, the Palenque was legalized and recognized as a free town by the end of the 17th century.
Being an isolated community, they have managed to keep their African cultural traditions in ceremonies, medicine, and music.
Sadly, according to the portal of languages of Colombia, the Palenquero language was for a long time stigmatized by fellow Colombians and seen as a bad spoken Spanish. So inside the community, the mother tongue was partly replaced by Spanish in most contexts and children were even being educated in Spanish, losing mastery of Palenquero.
However, since the 80s, thanks to some ethnic-educational projects, the community of Palenqueros of San Basilio now proudly promotes its creole language as their identity symbol.
Romani is the language spoken by the Romani or Roma communities, those we know as gypsies. The Roma population is originally from northeast India and because of its nomadic lifestyle, has spread across the globe.
In Colombia, these people arrived in colonial times. And although they are not too commonly recognized nor have a noticeable public representation, the Colombian state acknowledged them as an ethnic group in 1999. There are 5,000 to 8,000 members of this group in the country.
Romani language is part of the Indo-Aryan language subfamily that in turn belongs to the Indo-European family and has many varieties formed according to the location of the speakers.
There are two gypsy languages reported in the country: the Romani and Rumeniaste. The first one is spoken by the Rom population that lives mainly in Barranquilla, Bogotá, Cali, Cartagena, Cúcuta, Girón, Itagüí, Pasto y Sogamoso. Rumeniaste is spoken by the Ludar gypsy community located in Cúcuta and some parts of the Atlantic coast.
Nowadays, these people are bilingual, speaking Romani and Spanish.
Colombian sign language
Did you know that sign language is not universal? It also varies depending on the groups or communities of deaf people formed. So, every country has its own!
The language used by the deaf community in Colombia was officially recognized until 1996. It has dialects and its own system of grammar and pragmatics rules. Spanish turns then into the second language of this community.
There is a National Federation of the Deaf of Colombia (Fenascol) and a National Institute for the Deaf (INSOR), which have published language manuals and the basic dictionary of Colombian sign language. Here you can download it.
Distribution of languages in Colombia
Spanish is spoken in all Colombian territory being the official language, English is official in San Andres Archipelago and the native languages are official in the regions they are spoken. In these communities with their own language traditions, education is usually bilingual.
The nonprofit organization Translators without Borders made a great map of the most spoken languages in the country (that are not Spanish) and how they are distributed.
As you see, apart from English and other unspecified languages, the Guajiro or Wayuunaki in La Guajira, Paez in Cauca and Embera in Choco are the most popular languages after Spanish, spoken by native cultures.
If you want to delve into this topic, on the organization’s website there’s also an interactive map where you can select a language to see where it is spoken or, vice versa, select a location to see which languages are spoken. The data is from the 2005 census, though, so it may be outdated but gives you a general idea.
For example, by selecting the Embera language on the left menu, you can see highlighted in blue where in the map it is spoken, in the bottom it shows the number of speakers and when you hover over any of the territorial divisions of the country, a box dialog will show you what percentage of the population in that area speaks the selected language, which is the non-Spanish primary language there and the literacy rate. Amazing, isn’t it?
Then, in the right column, if I select Bogota, it shows me that 100% of the population speaks Spanish, almost 8% speaks English, 1.3% French, and so on.
While in Inirida and other towns of the Guainia department, you see a new language, Guahibo, spoken by 15% of the population.
Fun facts about languages in Colombia
- Colombians, particularly people from Bogotá, have a reputation for speaking the best or most neutral Spanish. But there is no such thing as neutral Spanish, besides that created for voiceovers and dubbing in Latin America. What happens is that the accent of Bogota is clear and easily understandable.
- The name of the country comes after the explorer Christopher Columbus.
- On February 21st it’s the National Day of Native Languages in Colombia and the International Day of Mother Tongue.
- Some names of districts in Bogota and surrounding towns come from the extinct Muisca language, mhuysqhubun: Timiza, Bosa, Chucua, Tunjuelito, Usaquén, Soacha, Suba, Fontibón, Teusaquillo, Bochica, Bachue, Chía, Fusa, Cota, Zipaquirá, Tunja. The native language was spoken in the Cundiboyacense plateau got extinct by the 18-19th
- The native singer from San Andres Elkin Robinson has made it to the radio and national music industry with its music in creole, something uncommon for native music.
- The Basic Dictionary of Colombian Sign Language has a base vocabulary of 1,200 entries.
- The Ministry of Culture, along with other institutions and in agreement with native communities, has translated several laws and legal documents to their own languages so that they can access information key to guarantee their rights. The greatest work of translation was the Peace agreement, available written in 45 languages and audible in 16 languages.
- Colombian Gabriel García Márquez is a Literature Nobel Prize thanks to his novel “One hundred years of solitude”.
Where to learn Spanish and the native languages of Colombia?
Colombia is very appealing for Spanish learners because of the fame of speaking the best Spanish in the world. True or not, there is a select offer of institutions to learn this romance language.
According to Colombia.co, the country brand, over 2000 people travel each year to learn Spanish in Colombia. The obvious destination is Bogota because it is home to many high-level universities with qualified courses.
For instance, the National University, public and the #1 in the country, teaches various language courses, and so Los Andes, Javeriana, among other universities. Also, Instituto Caro y Cuervo is an absolute authority in the teaching of Spanish as a foreign language, literature, and native Colombian languages!
If you don’t feel like living in the capital, Colombia is so diverse that you could choose the city you want to be learning in depending on the weather, sights, and cultural traditions you’re most interested in.
Or should you prefer to study the language from your couch to be prepared before traveling, there are incredible platforms that will make your learning process easier and fun as well.
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