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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Sarah Fox: Language school in Colombia

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    01 Oct

    This summer, thanks to the support of Gateway Travel Award and Rosemary Murray Travel Exhibition Fund, I was luckily enough to spend six and a half weeks in Colombia. Colombia was vastly different to what I had expected, particularly the city of Medellin, which has undergone an enormous transformation in the last 20 years. I visited some amazing places during my time in Colombia, but what will always stay with me was the people I was fortunate to meet. I met so many lovely and welcoming people, who shared their personal stories with me, as well as explaining their country’s past, and the challenges it faces for the future. Overall, discovering the transformation which Medellin has undergone in the past 20 years, and the pride people had in their city, left me with a feeling of hope and I am looking forward to hopefully returning to Colombia in the future.

    While in Medellin, I completed 2 weeks of a 20-hour intensive course at Elefun Spanish School and then did a week of individual language coaching. The classes included speaking, listening, writing and reading practice, including a focus on grammar, which was particularly useful for me since it is an area of weakness which I have often previously neglected. The exercises, quizzes and regular homework helped me to improve my Spanish accuracy (though this does often slip when I’m talking in a more casual setting!) and build on the Spanish that I had developed through my CULP course in Cambridge during the year before. In addition, the small class sizes (a maximum of three students per class) were really helpful since they enabled the teacher to correct my speaking inaccuracies without disrupting the flow of the class. The one-on-one coaching was particularly helpful for me as it was focused on learning Spanish in a healthcare context and medical vocabulary, for example, reading medical articles and practicing clinical scenarios. However, the course was so much more than just the language classes. The school has a lovely group of staff, and a great group of fun students, which made for interesting discussions, whether that was while trying local fruit or street food snacks in the mid-morning break, while eating the national dish of Ajiaco for lunch (a big highlight for me!), while doing afternoon activities such as dancing or football, or during classes.

    Another great feature of the Spanish school was Walter. Walter has previously worked throughout Colombia for NGOs supporting development initiatives in rural areas, and also lectured in sociology at the University of Antioquia, but now enjoys spending time showing language students around Medellin and introducing them to Colombian culture. And crucially, Walter only speaks Spanish (unlike the language teachers) meaning every afternoon of free activities was also fully immersive Spanish practice. A highlight of these afternoons was a visit to the Medellin Radio station where we were interviewed on air (which was great practice for speaking Spanish quickly!), as well as finding out about Medellin’s music culture. Another highlight for me was playing 5-a-side football on a rooftop pitch with a mixture of locals and people from the Spanish school.

    The Spanish school encouraged students to learn about Colombian culture, through their teaching, activities, and with daily articles written by Walter. This cumulated in a quiz about Colombia, and as proud winners of the quiz we won a free pizza at the local university haunt, and had a great evening eating pizza, drinking beer, and chatting with Walter about Colombia, politics, learning Spanish and hearing stories about his previous work. All of this of course was in Spanish, which was great for improving my confidence in speaking the language, but after four hours it also left my head in a bit of a blur!

    One of my favourite things about Medellin was salsa. Music and dancing are everywhere, in the bars, on the streets and right in the centre of Medellin around metro station (if you come around 5pm) and it was great fun to be able to join in, even if my moves were not up to Colombian standards. I hugely enjoyed the free salsa classes put on by the Spanish school, and going along to the local salsa clubs to try out what I’d learnt. I was lucky enough to be in Medellin for Colombia’s two Independence Days and the internationally-renown Festival de Flores. The celebratory atmosphere of Medellin, much like their love of dancing, was infectious!

    While in Medellin, I stayed in a hostel, which was great way to get to meet people, such as Margarita, the colourful character who ran the hostel. She only spoke Spanish and was always up for a chat and keen to introduce you to her friends and family. The other major positive of the hostel was its location: it was five minutes walk from the Spanish school, the stadium (a free sports complex, including an outdoor swimming with a very friendly atmosphere), numerous salsa clubs, yet nestled in a pleasant part of the bustling city. Medellin also had many language exchanges during the week that offered further opportunities to put the Spanish you’d learnt during the day into use, and I really enjoyed having this opportunity to meet and get to know a range of locals.

    I also visited the University de Antioquia in Medellin and met with a public health doctor to discuss the current health challenges for both cities and rural communities, and the methods of improving health care outreach. He was also supportive with advice for medical electives in Colombia, a prospect I feel better prepared to pursue thanks to Gateway and my time in Colombia.

    I also spent nine days at a Workaway in Jardin, a popular destination for Colombian tourists. The Workaway was with a Colombian couple, Elkin and Francie, who ran a small cabana for tourists. Helping out at the cabana was a really interesting and immersive experience. The work involved moving dirt and building a pond, cleaning and helping to run when the hostel and helping them with online booking sites as well as the Colombian immigration pages. This involved translating between the travel sites and Elkin and Francie, in order to explain the information to them and then respond on their behalf. The time working with Elkin and Francie also facilitated me in developing skills at relaying information in Spanish. Jardin was a beautiful town and in my free time, I walked to beautiful viewpoints and enjoyed hanging out in the main square.

    Colombia also has some such a range of ecosystems and environments. I loved spending time in the Efe de Cafeteria, Colombia’s major coffee producing region. Coffee is a huge export of Colombia (it is the 3rd largest producer in the world) and is also large part of the culture (visit any square in a Colombian town and there will be people sat out drinking coffee at any time of the day). I was also able to visit a coffee farm in Filandia, and see the local fruit farms, which gave me a sense of the hard work behind much of the agriculture in Colombia. In Salento, I walked through the Valle de Palmas, which is full of amazing wax palm trees which are the highest palm trees in the world. On the northern Caribbean coast, a very different part of the country, I visited and camped in Parque Tayrona, one of Colombia’s many national parks, where I spent the time trekking to a small, lost ancient city and discovering secluded beaches.

    I would highly recommend Colombia, and specifically Medellin, as a great place for learning Spanish. Colombian Spanish is easy to understand without too strong an accent which makes it perfect for learning, whilst their slang and idioms is characterful, including a particular favourite of mine – den papaya – be careful. Medellin is full of opportunities to meet locals and to practice more of your Spanish in a fun and friendly environment.

    I feel very lucky to have been able to have this amazing experience. This is true from an academic point of view: my Spanish was given time to develop in an intensive course and with immersion (a rare opportunity when studying medicine); as well as from a career point of view, since it opened up possible opportunities for completing my elective in South America and gave me information of their health care system its challenges. And for me personally, it was inspiring to meet so many lovely people and learn from their experiences. I am very grateful to Gateway and the Rosemary Murray Fund for enabling me to have this incredible experience.

    Sarah Fox