A sabbatical story...
Clancy’s Spanish Immersion Sabbatical in Colombia
With the end of a busy contract in sight, Clancy decided it was time to pursue a lifetime dream of learning Spanish. He had taken Spanish in High School but didn’t have enough grasp of the language to really communicate with Spanish-speaking people — something he had realised the hard way on his travels in Latin America in his 20s. Now in his 30s, he knew learning a second language wasn’t going to get any easier.
He also knew that textbook Spanish wasn’t going to be enough to easily communicate with Spanish-speakers all over the world. Cultural immersion was just as important to him as language immersion, and he was willing to forgo some comforts for the benefits of immersing himself in another culture.
It’s Sunday morning in Bogota, when the sounds of busy traffic and horns are replaced by bicycle bells, children laughing and friends greeting each other cheerily on the pedestrianised 12-lane highway of Septima.
You stretch in the middle of the highway and then jog 7 km into town, enjoying some fresh fruit juices and smiles along the road. When you get into town you buy some local food for breakfast and practice your Spanish at the food market.
Every Sunday is a celebration in Bogota — the whole of Bogota enjoying the pedestrianised highway with their families and friends. Music is playing, there’s a zumba class in the park, people are jogging and exercising everywhere.
At lunch time you canvas the local restaurants’ Menu del dia (menu of the day) and try a new meal at a new restaurant — the most delicious form of cultural immersion. You sit down and order your meal as quickly and clearly as you can not to waste the busy waitress’s time. She thinks you’re adorable for trying and takes the time to help you along with your Spanish.
After lunch you make plans to go hiking to a waterfall with some Colombian friends and put the Spanish you’ve been learning with your teacher into practice. You have no idea yet just how much you will miss these friends when you go home.
“You can’t learn about a language without learning about its culture.”
A natural break in his career
Clancy was totally immersed in his work. He had spent the last 4 years working in a remote part of Australia as an environmental consultant, far away from his partner, family and friends. His latest project was especially taxing, and he was working 12 hours a day 6-7 days a week. It was time to go home at the end of this project, he had decided. But before he went home, he wanted a break. A long break. He was an avid traveler but wanted a deeper cultural experience. And he wanted to finally learn Spanish — something that had been on his bucket list for years.
Six months of research
When he started his research, there were so many options for places to learn Spanish — the third most spoken language in the world, spoken widely in three different continents. Spain? South America? Central America? Africa?
Over the course of his research, his criteria began to emerge:
– His primary goal was to be able to speak Spanish to as many people as possible, and be able to travel with his Spanish.
– He needed to learn the most widely-understood Spanish, rather than the ‘original’ Spanish of Spain
– He needed good teachers, but he didn’t need a qualification
– He wanted good value for his language lessons and cost of living
He chose to go to Colombia, considered to be the country with the most widely-understood Spanish in the world. He chose an ivy league school, but eventually found that private one-on-one lessons were a better fit.
Easing himself into Spanish-speaking cultural immersion
Clancy began his sabbatical with Easter in the Catholic heartland of Mexico. He started in Puerto Vallarta — where Mexican tourists go to celebrate their Easter holiday. It did not disappoint. There were street parades with re-enactments of the bible story and dressed up horses and other animals parading the streets. This was his splurge before heading to Colombia, where there would be much less English and other tourist comforts.
He landed in Bogota where he spent 6 intense weeks at language school while gaining more knowledge about the culture of Colombia. Somewhere between the beginner and intermediate level classes, he opted for a private teacher for 5 hours a day instead. Afternoons and weekend were spent out and about in Bogota to practice what he had learned — at cafes, markets, and on outings with friends.
Satisfied with his language lessons, it was time to put his new language skills into action. He decided to travel Central America – 3 weeks each in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico where he met up with friends he had met in Puerto Vallarta. They had invited him to their hometown of Saltillo where no one speaks English — his final exam for his Spanish lessons.
His biggest surprise? Strong bonds with new friends
Before Clancy’s sabbatical, he had been working in a remote part of Australia, and his return from his 3 month sabbatical was also a return to his hometown of Adelaide after 4 years away. This made the transition more difficult, because he was coping with a double re-entry. His friends expected him to be the same person he had been when he left, but Clancy had changed profoundly from his experiences away.
The hardest part about coming back to Australia was that Clancy deeply missed the warmth and closeness of his friends he made in Colombia. He hadn’t expected to build such strong friendships in such a short time.
As with any transition, it just takes time. A year later and he is still in regular contact with his sabbatical friends.
His advice? Immerse yourself and make local friends
Clancy’s primary objective was to learn Spanish, so he would not be doing himself any favours by making English-speaking ex-pat friends. Culture and language go hand-in-hand, and textbook Spanish is not what people speak and understand. It’s easy to make ex-pat friends from all over the world and speak English. But it’s much more rewarding to get out of your comfort zone and make local friends who only speak Spanish.
He also advises that five hours of language lessons a day is too much. It was tiring and easy to get frustrated after the first three hours. He suggests three-hour days and extending the study time frame instead of intense five-hour learning for six weeks.
There are also many language schools that have ‘working’ components, where you go into a community and work with local people to practice your language skills, experience cultural immersion, and potentially ‘give back’ to the community. However many of these programs costs extra, so you are essentially paying someone to work for them. Upon closer research, he also found that many of these organisations — in Colombia and all over the world — have questionable motives, such as ‘poverty tourism’ and child exploitation, the exploitation of poverty for personal gain. Before you embark on any volunteering projects, be sure that you are fully versed in this topic and do your research.
“I came to learn a language, I found so much more, The people, the community, and friends, the natural environment, plants and animals, the architecture, creative ideas, and agility of central America is unlike any that I have experienced anywhere in my travels.”
The most difficult part for Clancy was learning Spanish grammar. Despite having two university degrees, Clancy — like many native English speakers — had never learned English grammar, and had no frame of reference to understand Spanish grammar. He wishes he had spent a few weeks learning English grammar so that he could easily translate what his Spanish teachers were explaining about Spanish grammar.
Like anywhere in the world, know the risks and be smart about what you do. Don’t flash around money, don’t wear jewellery, plan your day/night, and be discreet about using your iPhone. There’s a lot of information on the internet about risks and dangers, research ahead of time typical dangers and scams in the areas you are planning on visiting. For example, in Colombia there are lots of crimes that occur in taxis. So he used Uber — no chance of being ripped off, drivers are registered via the app, the route is tracked on GPS and can be shared with friends, and no money is exchanged.
After his lessons, Clancy traveled around Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico. Having the opportunity to practice his studies was far more rewarding than a certificate of competency. After such an incredible sabbatical, it also marked the beginning of the end, and incorporated some deep reflective opportunities as he begun his journey back to reality. While Colombia is known to be the most widely-understood Spanish, he found the Mexican accent the easiest to understand.
“Go for it, even if it’s daunting. Everyone needs to take the time. It’s an opportunity to learn so much about yourself when you are being challenged on a day to day basis. Who am I? What am I looking for? Where am I going? Do your research. Be challenged. Step out of your comfort zone.”
Listen to the full interview
All images (except cover image) courtesy of Clancy Smith.
Learn more than Spanish Language School, Bogota, Colombia. The second language school where I studied.
Gringo Tuesdays is a free language exchange, which includes free beer for people willing to speak English for the a couple of hours, so that the local community can practice their English skills. As the night goes on, and people become more festive, the event turns into a party until the early hours of the morning. This event was such an important part of the community — school started late Wednesdays to accommodate the inevitable morning tiredness.
Dance and celebration are a large part of Colombian culture, and integral to the communities I met. Where better to learn about the local community, and culture, but by immersing yourself in the epicentre of Bogota’s nightlife? Theatron is one of the biggest clubs in in the world, no less than 13 individual venues within the complex, playing varied music from Salsa to reggaeton. Unlike western night clubs, everyone was very welcoming here, you could dance until dawn with strangers, or learn about peoples lives, without any seedy expectations. The same principle applies to parks, plazas, and universities etc. — you can start a conversation with anyone. TripAdvisor review
Clancy Smith is an Australian environmentalist based in Adelaide who is changing the world one resource company at a time.