Language spoken: Spanish
English speakers: Some


1. What shame!; “¡Que pena!”

Literally, “What shame!”, this is a common expression heard in Colombia that can be used for “I’m sorry” or “I’m embarrassed” or “Excuse me” or “How could I?” or “Oops” or, you know, anything in that general direction. It might seem a bit dramatic to an English speaker to exclaim, “What shame!” but think of it as lighter than that in Spanish, a lot of people say “que pena” without even thinking about it. From what everyone has told me, this expression is very “Colombian”.

If you ask me, they really shouldn’t be so ashamed though, it’s a wonderful country! 😉

2. I Want to Learn; “Quiero aprender.”

“I want to learn.” An overlooked expression to learn for tourists. Think of the attitudes of people in your community when a stranger arrives who can’t speak the language and doesn’t understand the culture. Some rush to help, but others can be put-off by someone coming in to their environment that doesn’t seem to understand where they are. Showing a willingness and desire to learn about their way of life will automatically make you more welcome by everyone anywhere you go.

People will enjoy sharing what they know with you, show them it is something important to you.

3. I Don’t Understand; “No entiendo.”
I Don’t Know; “No sé.”

Many people in Latin America do not speak English and many will try speaking to you in Spanish. If you can’t understand what they are saying, and that’s probably going to be the case if you’re referencing this article for that purpose, then you will want to have these expressions on-hand.

Also, when receiving translations or listening to native Spanish-speakers speaking in English, remember that not every single word translates exactly – in fact, most don’t. Be loose. Remember that they or you are not speaking their or your own language. Though English and Spanish have many similarities and bridges, even words that sound very similar and have the same meaning can be used in slightly different contextual ways from one language to the next. A common word/expression used in Colombia is “tranquilo”, which basically translates to “relax”. You could fairly say, tranquilo=relax. But the way that most people use “tranquilo” in Spanish is a little different than the way most people use “relax” in English. In Spanish, it’s more of an “it’s all good” where as in English we more mean “take it easy; calm down”. Someone saying “relax” when they mean “tranquilo” can be misinterpreted.

Keep all that in mind. Language is contextual.

4. To Dance; “Bailar”

You will find that dancing is very popular with men and women in Colombia. And you will find that, when going out, almost everybody seems to know how to dance all sorts of dances, quite well. This is, obviously, different than in the United States, at least in most neighborhoods.

If you want to ask somebody to dance, ask, “¿Quieres bailar conmigo?” (Do you want to dance with me?) And if you don’t think you’re that good, just say with a smile, “necesito practicar” (I need to pratice) and have fun. Most people will be happy to show you some moves.

Remember, “quiero aprender.”

5. Rice; “Arroz”

You will be expected to eat your body weight in rice at least once. Rice is very popular in South America with meals and heaping portions are a lot more common there than the small portions of rice you may be used to in the United States.

If one day the rice proves to be too much to conquer after a large bowl of delicious soup, a fresh salad from the garden, a nice plump roast chicken, bread from the bakery up the street, and probably a ton of beans and/or lentels as well, you may need to use the words, “Estoy llena” (I am full.)

“Muchas gracias, pero no puedo comer más.” (Thank you very much, but I cannot eat more.)

It’s always good to try new foods when traveling, but don’t feel like you need to stuff yourself if portions are more than you can handle, it’s not impolite to be full, and you don’t want to drag yourself down when you’re trying to enjoy a vacation. Sometimes people just want to be overly generous.

6. Thieves; “Ladrones”

Looking out of place in any big city can make you a target for petty theft. It’s possible you may stand out in Colombia, depending on your appearance. Keep your wallet in a buttoned/closed pocket, keep your purse closed, keep your backpack in front of you, etc. You will see plenty of locals doing the same. The main public transportation in Bogotá is a system of buses. There are some small street buses where you can pay cash, but the main bus system has its own terminals and its own lanes, called TransMilenio. Here, like in any big city, can become very crowded, and it’s easy to be pick-pocketed if you’re not paying attention. Losing wallets and cell phones is common for those not keeping their eye on things.

To say “excuse me”, use “perdón” (pardon), “con permiso” (with permission), or “disculpe” (excuse me; I’m sorry). Be polite when making your way through crowds. Be part of the solution, not the problem. 🙂

7. United States; “Estados Unidos”

You aren’t from America. Well, you are, but the answer someone are looking for when they ask you where you’re from is the “United States”. That’s because, to many, “America” is an identity held by all nations in North and South America. It’s true you are American, but they are too. In other parts of the world, it’s a non-issue, and, true, with many it will be a non-issue here too. But to be polite, it’s better to say you from from the “Estados Unidos” (estados=states; unidos=united; remember adjectives come second in Spanish).

You can also be more specific than that. Most people are better-educated in geography than you may expect, at least when referencing big cities. American Basketball is popular with some young men, so some may even discuss the NBA with you in reference to American cities, but much more popular, of course, is fútbol, or soccer.

8. Ryan; “Brian”

If your name is Ryan, think again, it’s Brian. Apparently the name “Ryan” has not permeated Latin culture as much as it has American. Your closest bet will be “Brian”, as my friend Ryan learned during our travels. Names can be difficult to pronounce for people. Don’t be offended if people, especially older people, mess up your name. Think of how hard it can be for you to pronounce names or words in unfamiliar languages.

Remember, these are people who don’t know your language.

9. Kyle; “Karl”

Also, if your name is Kyle, no, it’s Karl.

Just give up.

10. Brush up on your 80s/90s music trivia.

Just kidding. There’s plenty of new music. But seriously. “Losing My Religion”. Don’t shame yourself by not knowing the words. Get those lyrics down, you are going to South America, child!

– Jozef K. Richards

And remember…
Hola = Hello
Por favor = Please
Gracias = Thank you
De nada = You’re welcome
Chau! = Goodbye!

Jozef K. Richards is a filmmaker and the owner of King’s Tower Productions, recently traveling to take productions to Ecuador, Colombia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. More information on his films can be found at

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