Colombian Spanish



“The official language is Spanish, which was imposed during the colonial period. All Colombians speak it except some of the indigenous populations in the Amazonian basin. In major cities, English is used, particularly by the upper class, but it is not commonly understood or spoken. Outside urban areas, Spanish is virtually the only medium of communication. Colombia takes great care to preserve the linguistic 'purity' of Castilian Spanish.”  “Colombian Americans traditionally consider themselves the stewards of the most elegant Spanish spoken in South America. After the 1500s, the upper class sought to preserve pure Castilian as the language of the colony; they succeeded largely because the rugged terrain made travel and communication between regions virtually impossible.”  “All three classes in the interior, especially in Bogotá, speak a deliberate and grammatically correct Spanish, whereas coastal speech patterns have a rapid tempo.” Some Indian and African words were adopted by the middle and lower classes and eventually became standard in Colombian Spanish.

Phonological Differences Between Colombian Spanish and Other Dialects of Spanish

  • The voiceless velar fricative [x] of most Spanish dialects is often realized as the voiceless glottal fricative [h]. 
  • With the exception of Spanish spoken in the Nariño region, voiced plosives /b/, /d/, and /g/ do not have the fricative allophones (/β/, /ð/, and /ɣ/, respectively) used in other Spanish dialects. 
  • The alveopalatal affricate /ʧ/ may be pronounced “pre-palatally”, or [j]. 
  • “In certain areas some letters are omitted (a “d” occurring in the second-to-last syllable is suppressed in Antioquia and on the plains around Boyacá) or substituted for others, such as “j” for “s” on the Caribbean coast and in the Cauca River valley and “ch” for “tr” in Cundinamarca.”

Syntax and Morphology

  • In Colombian Spanish, the diminutive forms -ico, -ica are often used in words with a penultimate “t”: gato (cat) –> gatico (small cat). 
  • The diminutive form is also applied to nouns, adjectives, and verbs: corriendo (running) –> corriendito; adverbs: ahora (now) –> ahorita; and prepositions: junto (next to) –> juntico.
  • Redundant diminutives: when diminutives are applied both to the substantive and the adjective in the same sentence: el chocolate caliente (the hot cocoa) –> el chocolatico calientico.
  • The emphatic diminutives: when two diminutive forms are applied in the same word, it gives more emphasis to the sentence: For example, with ahora (now), the simple diminutive= ahorita; double diminutive= ahoritica. váyase ahora mismo (get out right now) –> váyase ahoritica mismo (get out right now- emphatically).
  • Bien (good) simple diminutive= buenecito; double diminutive= buenecitico. El carro esta bueno (The car is in good conditions) –> el carro está buenecitico (the car is in very good conditions).
  • Paradoxically, in intra-family speech it is common to address the husband as “mijo” (short for mi hijo= my son), and the wife as “mija” (my daughter); while the sons are lovingly called “papito” (daddy) and the daughters are lovingly called “mamita” (mommy).
  • Seldom, sentences are started with what seems to be an out of place preposition “que” (that), which makes the sentence sound as if the speaker is delivering a message from a third party. For example, saying: “que gracias” ([that] he/she says thank you) when returning a borrowed item. Instead of simply saying gracias (thank you). Colombian sources state that this came to be from the very customary use of kids in the family to run errands and deliver messages to others in the community, neighbors, butchers, cobblers, etc. Eventually, some people started using this form out of habit even when there was no third party involved.


  • The plural second person pronoun “vosotros” and its correspondent verbal forms (-ais/-eis), which is very common in Spain, is considered archaic in Colombia and all other Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, and is restricted to ecclesiastic language.
  • The singular second person pronoun “tú” is widely used in informal speech, while “usted” is used in formal speech. In Bogotá, the use of the “tú” is very restricted. Interestingly, even when talking with very close relatives such as parents, siblings or spouses, as a sign of respect, “usted” is used.
  • Particular forms of pronouns are “vos” (similar to the Argentinian) used in the Paisa region and “sumercéd” (literally “your mercy”) used in Cundinamarca and Boyacá

Other Colombian Dialects of Spanish

The geographic isolation and diverse populations of the colonial departments encouraged at least nine regional dialects to develop. Certain characteristics are common to many or most of them.
Other Languages Spoken in Colombia
Besides Spanish, 77 languages are currently spoken. There are also two sign languages used throughout the country.

Common Language "Differences" for Colombians Learning English

The following information is from Swan, M. and Smith, B. (2001).

Spanish learners in general may have difficulty in contrasting English vowels, both in reception and production. Difficulties for Spanish-speakers from Colombia may include:

  • Contrasting /i/ and /ɪ/ (“sheep” vs “ship”)
  • Contrasting /ɑ/, /æ/ and /ʌ/ (“cot” vs. “cat” vs. “cut”) 
  • Contrasting /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ (“cot” vs. “caught”, a distinction made in some regions of the U.S.)
  • Contrasting /u/ and /ʊ/ (“Luke” vs. “look”)
  • Producing central vowels /ə/ and /ɜ/ (these often become /a/ because Spanish does not have a central vowel)
  • Contrasting rhotacized vowels /ɚ/ and /ɝ/, which are often pronounced as /i/ or /e/ plus the flap /ɾ/ for the Spanish-speaker
  • English diphthongs; the second vowel in an English diphthong tends to be fronted (e.g., /aɪ/ becomes /ai/)

Many English consonants have equivalents or near equivalents in Spanish, though there are some complications for Spanish-speakers speaking English:

  • Initial voiceless plosives /p/, /t/, /k/ are not aspirated in Spanish, unlike English. Unaspirated initial plosives are often perceived as voiced plosives to English-speakers. 
  • Word final plosives are rare in Spanish. Spanish speakers tend to devoice final plosives (e.g. pronounce “card” as “cart”) 
  • Spanish has the same nasals as English (/m/, /n/ and /ŋ/), however assimilation rules differ between the two languages. For example, “I’m going” may be pronounced /aiŋgoiŋ/ 
  • Spanish speakers tend to replace final /n/ or /ŋ/ with /m/ sounds when speaking English. For example, “dream” may be pronounced “drean” or “dreang”.
  • Spanish does not have the phoneme /z/ like English. Spanish-speakers tend to pronounce /z/ as /s/, so “lacy” and “lazy” are both pronounced “lacy”.
  • Spanish also does not have the phoneme /ʃ/ like English. Spanish-speakers tend to pronounce /ʃ/ as /s/, so “she” and “sea” are both pronounced “sea”.
  • Spanish does not have both phonemes /b/ and /v/. Spanish-speakers often pronounce both as /b/.
  • Of the English sounds /tʃ/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/ and /ʒ/, Spanish only has /tʃ/, which is often pronounced /j/ in Colombia. The /j/ sound may be substituted for all four sounds in English. 
  • Spanish-speakers often substitute a flap /ɾ/ for the English /ɹ/ in all contexts. 
  • Spanish-speakers tend to delete word final consonants

Consonant Clusters

  • Consonant clusters are less common in Spanish than in English, so Spanish-speakers tend to reduce clusters in English (e.g., “espress” for “express”)
  • /s/ plus another consonant is never used alone in the initial word position. When speaking English, Spanish-speakers often insert /e/ or /ɛ/ before the cluster so that words like “Spain” become “Espain”.

Influence of orthography on pronunciation

Spelling in Spanish is much more phonological than in English (i.e., there is a closer letter to sound correspondence in Spanish than English). Because of this, Spanish-speakers who have some literacy background in Spanish tend to pronounce English words more phonetically, saying all of the letters in a word. For example, a Spanish speaker may pronounce “asked” as “asket”.

Intonation and Stress

“Spanish is a syllable-timed language. When Spanish speakers transfer the intonation patterns of their mother tongue into English, which is a stress-timed language, the result can be barely comprehensible to native English speakers. This is because the meaning or information usually conveyed in English by the combination of stress, pitch and rhythm in a sentence is flattened or evened out by the Spanish learner.”


The following information is from Swan, M. & Smith, B. (2001).
Word Order

  • Spanish word order is generally subject-verb-object, as is English. However, Spanish allows for more flexibility in word order. When speaking English, Spanish-speakers may use a freer Spanish-like word order that does not sound correct in English.
  • Adjectives and nouns typically come after head nouns, which is the opposite of English. For example, a Spanish speaker may say “ball blue” instead of “blue ball”. 
  • Spanish indirect objects usually come right after the verb, so a Spanish speaker may say “He gave to Mary the book.”


  • Word order is freer when forming questions and auxiliary verbs are not used in Spanish for questions, such as in “do/does/did” in English. 
  • Spanish speakers may tag “no” to the end of a question (e.g., “You’re going to the game, no?”)


  • Spanish speakers may use “no” in place of “not” when speaking English. 
  • Spanish speakers tend to use double negatives when speaking English (e.g., “I never get nothing.”)


  • Spanish speakers have difficulty with verbs that are expressed with more than one word in English (e.g., “Throw out”) since verbs tend to be composed of one word only in Spanish. 
  • Some constructions like “I like ” may be difficult in English because of a different construction used in Spanish (e.g., “Ice cream likes me”).

“Due to shared Latin influence English and Spanish have many cognates, and the corresponding collection of false friends, such as eventual (English translation > possible) or particular (English translation > private). Since the Latin-derived words in English tend to be more formal, the Spanish student will benefit when reading academic text. He or she may sound too formal, however, if using such words in everyday spoken English. Conversely, phrasal verbs, which are an essential aspect of colloquial English, are difficult for Spanish learners and may obstruct listening comprehension.”


Only five years of primary school are offered in many rural areas. However, nine years of school are considered compulsory.

  • Definition: age 15 and over can read and write
  • Total population: 90.4% (2005 census)
    • Male: 90.1%
    • Female: 90.7% 
  • 93% in urban areas, 67% in rural areas. 

Amount of Education (Primary to Tertiary)

  • Total: 13 years (2008)
    • Male: 13 years
    • Female: 14 years 

Percentage of Population in School

  • Primary age in school
    • Total: 88.2%
      • Male: 87.3%
      • Female: 89.1%
  • Secondary age in school
    • Total: 2.5%
      • Male: 2.3%
      • Female: 2.7%

Student Contributor: Thom Retsema, Winter 2011

Resources and References