Sunday, 11 August 2013

Well that all went better than expected......!

So I've been back in the UK for about 4-5 weeks, after the thick end of 11 months in South America.

I actually left for Colombia 1 year ago today and it's 21 months since I decided to do all of this, which feels impossible

My first blog post mentioned my plan to learn Spanish, see Machu Picchu and the Salt Flats, as well as eat steak in Argentina.

I actually managed more than that, by not only learning Spanish, but doing so without classes or a teacher. Without doubt harder, but far more rewarding! As much as I've learnt in 12 months, I've still got so many areas to improve and luckily I still have the motivation to keep studying. It's all I was doing on the plane home!

As well as eating steak and visiting those places, I also managed to see the Atacama desert in northern Chile, as well as the Iguazu waterfalls on the Argentina/Brazil border.

Looking back over the last 12 months, it's been a fantastic adventure and it's shown me what you can achieve, when you find a passion for something.

Toilet seat in Argentina: 'May the force be with you!!!'

There were a number of 15 hours days studying Spanish, which was purely because I wanted to. Not to get a qualification, or because I had an exam in a few days - just because I wanted to do it.

In my previous 30 years, I've never had that.

Better late than never!

Now the plan is to teach myself German in Malta with my better half (we met in Colombia), before we hopefully move to Germany.

And to think I could still be bored, living in Basingstoke, if I didn't snap out of my virtual coma  >; )

Enough waffle, some photo's to finish off.......

Below: Villa de Leiva - a lovely old colonial town in Colombia....

Below: The random actors that walk about at the Andres DC/Chia restaurants - great fun!!!

Below: My better half....

Below: Machu Picchu.....

Below: The Salt Flats....

Below: The Atacama desert....

Below: The Argentinian steak I'd been after....

Below: Iguazu Falls, considered one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. The photo, without doubt, fails to do it justice.

Below: A Beetle in the town of Colonia, Uruguay (Especially for you Sounders!)

Below: More classic cars in Colonia, Uruguay.

Below: THE icon for Argentinians - a drawing of Maradona in La Boca.

Chao for now!

Monday, 1 April 2013

My language learning methods....

No one has actually asked for this, but it may be of interest to some!

If you have zero interest in learning a language, this post will BORE you, so please skip it!

First of all, what are my observations on learning my first foreign language?

  • It's VERY rewarding. I was chatting to a French guy in Spanish the other day - a great feeling!
  • Doing it in your 30th year is not too late. I hope to continue learning languages now and I have no concern that I'll be in my 30's.
  • I believe anyone can learn a foreign language, if they genuinely have the desire to do so. I failed my French G.C.S.E at 16 getting a 'D' grade, so I'm not a naturally gifted language learner. I've just found a better way!
  • If you use the right methods, you can develop incredibly quickly. You'll surprise yourself and wonder why you didn't start doing it years before......
  • I assumed listening would be easier than speaking, but for me, it was the other way around. However, it varies from person to person. My friend who's learnt Norwegian finds listening easier, which suggests to me it's got a lot to do with personality type. When I chat to him on Skype, I'm the one talking too much and he's always listening!
  • In my case, learning a language didn't just happen, I had to put a LOT of time into it. I haven't studied this hard for anything in my life, it's taken a lot of effort. This makes it all the more rewarding however. Even though I can speak Spanish, I still feel I have so much more to learn and I'm still spending hours EVERY day to improve my level.


For anyone who's interested in learning a language, perhaps a little info on what I've done would be of help. It's well worth mentioning that people have different ways of learning, so some of the things I've done may not be quite so effective for others. I'd
 be surprised if the majority of people didn't find the following quite useful however.

The internet is full of resources, mostly free, that allow you to learn a language far more effectively than you ever did at school.

  • For Spanish specifically, 'Synergy Spanish' ( was a fantastic foundation for my language learning. Every school should buy it and watch their students learn more in weeks, than they've ever done in years.
  • Put your phone and computer into your target language, to help with immersion.
  • For inspiration, you don't have to look much further than Benny Lewis at Fluent in 3 months. He only spoke English at 21 and had difficulty with that growing up, requiring a speech therapist at one stage. He's since learnt about 15 languages before his 30th birthday last year - he maintains 8 of them. He has a 'Language hacking guide' that's great for explaining how to learn languages in general. More than anything, Benny and his guide are very motivational!
          Benny talking at a TED conference about his language learning (17 minutes long).
  • The resource I've used the most, is an smart phone application by MOSAlingua. I can't praise this highly enough, it's the best language learning app I've found and I've tried a lot! It uses the well known spaced repetition system (SRS), to show you words and phrases on a regular basis. If you remembered the word easily, you can select the required button and it'll ask you again in a week perhaps. If it was harder, it'll ask you in 24 hours. It's designed to keep jogging your memory before you forget a word, which quickly adds it into your long term memory.

A rare feature in language learning apps is that MosaLingua allows you to add your own cards, with things you need to say every day (I've created 1200 personal cards so far!).

Creating phrases allows you to learn grammar, without actually studying it. I've not touched a grammar book, yet my sentence construction is quite good (so I'm told!).

It's only £2.99 and in hindsight, it's been worth 100x that to me. I've already downloaded the German one for my next language challenge....!
  • Speaking to natives in your target language: one of the best ways to do this is to sign up for free at The Mixxer.
You state on your profile that you're a native speaker of language X, looking to learn language X. You can search other people and they'll search you - you then swap Skype details.

I regularly speak to a guy called Rafa in Barcelona and now also to his friend Raquel in Seville. We speak in English for 30 minutes, with me correcting their mistakes and then 30 minutes in Spanish with them doing the same for me. Using Skype, I've spoken to people from Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Spain and Argentina. This allows you to hear different accents, which can vary a fair bit.

  • TuneIn Radio is a free app for iPhones, iPads and Android devices. You can find radio stations around the world, making it easy to listen to your target language on the go.
  • Coffee Break Podcasts, with Spanish, French and German available. This is a great Podcast series that's free to download. Again, great for when you're commuting etc.
  • Buy Spanish speaking films for the cost of a beer on Amazon and turn on the Spanish subtitles. This allows you to follow along and match the sounds with the words. I still need to do a lot more of this!

OK, so that's enough waffle for now, but hopefully helpful to anyone having a crack at their worth while language learning project!

Some other useful sites: 

Lingq. Good for listening practice, where you can follow the text as you hear someone talking.

How to learn any language. I found this extremely interesting, with information on how languages are similar or different and which methods people find most useful.

Memrise is useful for those who don't have an iPhone/iPad/Android device. It's like MosaLingua in a sense, but without the portability.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Did I do it?

Hola a todos!

OK, so today is my 30th birthday and I've just recorded a video of me speaking Spanish. Watching it back, I can see how randomly thinking of things to say results in less fluency, than naturally having those thoughts in your head!

To recap - the dream/target/challenge: I wanted to be able to speak another language before my 30th birthday and to learn it on my own, without classes. After a couple of years of doing little of value on a personal level with my life, I figured it would be more interesting to be able to say I'd taught myself another language....

I also decided that the harder the challenge, the more satisfaction I'd have if and when I'd completed it.

(If you want to live a happy life, attach it to a goal, not to a person or object)

So, this video is the result of 7 months out here in Colombia, teaching myself Spanish.

Here goes......

Moving on.....

Since the last post, I've had a couple of interesting experiences......

First of all, I've been to a wedding, which was fantastic. I've been VERY lucky to have visited so many different countries in my 30 years (Ouch!), but actually living in one with the locals (as well as having a local girlfriend), allows you to experience so much more.

The venue was beautiful, with classic old Colombian buildings:

They have a specific hour during a wedding here, which is effectively called 'Crazy hour', where everyone acts like they've just had their drink spiked. Watching an 80 year man dance like a 20 year old (with random fancy dress items on him that get handed out), is a great new memory I now have!

Strange difference: The first thing we ate was the wedding cake, before anything else. They LOVE sweet before savoury here....

No best man speech either - do you wish you were Colombian Ben?  >; )

The other interesting thing I did, was some volunteer work through the company I work for (Bogotá Business English). We went to the edge of the city, which in this case was up in the mountains.

A Spanish guy and his Colombian wife have a building they're trying to use as a safe place for local children to go to, as they're only in school for 4 hours a day. We just had fun with them, helping the younger ones colour in things and the older ones learn some basic English.

It's a lot of fun and a great experience, as well as a wake up call - we were told some sad stories about the children before we got there. The area is extremely poor, most of the children are abused in one way or the other and they often can't afford electricity etc.

It was a reminder to me that those who are lucky to enough to easily be able to change their lives (if they're not happy), should get on and do it. Life's too short!

Ok, so I'll continue to develop my Spanish, especially my listening, but the next language challenge is to speak German before I'm 31. I'll give myself 6 months to do that, so I won't start until late summer.

I won't bore you with a blog for that challenge though  >; )

Saturday, 12 January 2013

5 months.....

¡Feliz año nuevo!

It's been a couple of months since I last wrote anything, so I thought it was about time to put something new up. 

Since the last post, my brother Tom has been out to Colombia to visit me and I've had Christmas and New Year out here. I also met up with a couple of mates who came to Colombia for a holiday. Apologies to Steve and Sarah for having to dance in an empty restaurant  >; )

I'm almost 2 months away from my 30th birthday and my target of being fluent before 30. Will I make it? Fluency is really a matter of opinion with languages I've found, everyone has a different idea of what level you need to be to be classed as 'fluent'. I expect to be able to class myself as a Spanish speaker by 30, but fluency will possibly take a little longer.

Communication is the purpose of language however and as I'll be able to do that without too much bother, I think I'm doing alright. I'll be pretty chuffed with what I've managed to teach myself in my initial 7 months in Colombia, leading up to my 30th.

I'll do a post with a video on my 30th birthday, to show my level at that point; hopefully I'll give a good account of myself!

So as I mentioned, Tom came out here for about 10 days at the end of November, which gave me an excuse to see more of Colombia, by showing him around.

We visited Cartegena, Minca (near Santa Marta) and Palomino, which was a couple of hours east up the coast from Santa Marta.

Long blog posts are boring, so I'll try to keep it short....but it will be long I fear.....!

Cartegena: Old Spanish colonial town, with a stone wall protecting what used to be the 'safe' for gold etc, before the Spaniards shipped it off Europe. It's home to some fantastic buildings, coupled with extremely hot and humid weather (it's on the Caribbean coast).

Above: Typical building within the walls of the original Cartagena.

                       Above: Photo from the stone wall itself, looking into the original town.

Above: Typical street....

Above: Defences from the stone wall....

Above: Our expected *calm* boat ride to a white sand beach didn't go according to plan. Pretty much like an 18-30 boat ride, but with families, who loved every minute of it.

Minca: Small town near Santa Marta, a bit jungle like.

Above: The view from where we were staying in Minca.

Above: This little hut with the Colombian flag was the communal bathroom. The hammocks to the right were beds for people travelling on the cheap. The hut above was mine and Tom's room, light coming from a little candle. Basic stuff!

Above: We took an hour or two's walk to a coffee plantation, where a lot of their machinery was made in London and a good 100 years old in some cases. We had a Spanish guide, so I had my work cut out translating for Tom!

Above: Another photo of the coffee plantation.

Palomino: Very quiet town on the coast, where I had no phone reception or access to the internet. Anyone that knows me is aware of how uncomfortable that makes me feel!


Above: Andrés DC, the famous (in Colombia) local restaurant. They have actors wondering around doing extremely random things. It's a lot of fun and probably the main thing since I've been here that's made me think, 'I wish my mates could see this'.

Above: Inside a salt mine, a couple of hours from Bogotá. They have a cathedral inside, originally to make the miners feel it was safe to work in there (it wasn't). 

Above: Brothers together again, after a year apart!

Christmas: Bogotá turned into Santa's grotto leading up to the 25th, they really do like their lights. People even have Xmas themed toilet mats here, it's pretty extreme. It's now the 12th of January and I'm told to expect most of the lights and outdoor Christmas trees to remain for the whole month. That'll be two months of Christmas decorations then.....

Thanks to Ricardo and Carlos' family for hosting us all and showing me how the Colombians do it. Muy amable!

New Year: I had new year with about 25 Colombians in an apartment, where I had the traditional 12 grapes at midnight (common in Spanish speaking countries) and champagne sprayed into my face. Formula 1 drivers are good at hiding how much that stings the eyes.

January has seen me step it up a level with learning new Spanish vocab, well aware that my 30th is sneaking up on me with unreasonable pace. I've already had 5 months out here and I have another 5 months before I leave Colombia to meet my parents in Peru. That'll be the start of my 2 month trip down to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where I'll get my flight home in early August.

It's all going quickly, being out here, but I'm finding this self teaching project a much better use of my time and life in general, than being sat around in Basingstoke, waiting for something interesting to happen.

I'm going to a Colombian wedding next weekend, which should be a great experience - photos to follow on the next post!

Hasta marzo!


P.S. This blog site is a pig to customise, which is why some of it looks odd on different computers etc. Apologies!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

3 months in Colombia.....

Today's post is going live exactly 3 months since I first arrived in Bogotá, so it really is about time I fulfilled my promise and uploaded a video. I'd originally said I'd do a video every month, but along with being a little lazy, I realised it'd be quite boring to watch them all.

I think doing a video every 3 months will show a more noticeable difference, making it a little more interesting.

So today I finally have a video for you, perfectly indicating how effective I've become at butchering the Spanish language!

But first, a few points I'd like to make....

I didn't ask Ricardo to say nice things about my current level speaking Spanish! 

I can honestly say with hindsight, that I could have reached this level within 2 months, arguably less (and not because I think I'm an incredibly gifted language learner - I'm not). As Ricardo mentions, I genuinely did arrive with a handful of Spanish words and I've not had a single lesson since I've been here - I'm solely teaching myself. 


For this reason and because it's the first time I've been learning a 2nd language (without a teacher), I'm still finding my way with the various learning methods available to me. You quickly realise which methods and exercises were pointless and which ones perhaps helped you increase your vocabulary in a short space of time. My listening is poor, because for some stupid reason I thought that speaking was the hard part - everything else would take care of itself. Well in actual fact, listening is the hardest part for me, so I'll need to focus on that over the next 3 months.

For me personally, language learning takes a LOT of time and effort, but it's not actually hard. I got a D for French at school, so I'm not *gifted* with the language gene. What's crucial are the methods you use, and how they effectively fit to your learning style. The methods I've taken on are simply far more effective than trying to learn with 30 other people at school (who don't really want to be there).

OK, here we go....

Yep, I've lost weight. I'm not sure how, with a diet here that includes a lot of waffles, ice cream and chocolate.

So, what else have a I been up to...

The photo below if of one of the main libraries in Bogotá, on the edge of a park. This is a lousy photo to be honest, as it in no way shows you how nice the setting is. Anyhow, despite the obvious good weather, it's never hot in Bogotá, due to the altitude (with its thin air). Furthermore, the thin air fails miserably at blocking UV rays, so it was here that I managed to burn my face - only to leave the white marks around my eyes, where I had my sun glasses on. Not a good look.

The photo below is from La Cabaña Alpina, which is about an hour from Bogotá. This little village/town is well known in the area for making excellent cakes/puddings etc. The best compliment I  can make, is to say they were *almost* as good as what we have in England. The location was an improvement on Basingstoke however, I'll give them that.....

I have no real news for this post, as my life is one of a student who teaches English a little. My brother Tom arrives a week today for a 10 day jaunt, so the next post will hopefully have photo's of the historic Cartagena and some nice beaches.

A quick thanks to Pops for his general IT help, Ricardo and Carlos for filming and speaking in the video and Angélica for patiently correcting my many mistakes in general conversation......!

See you next time.....

Monday, 24 September 2012

6 weeks - Bogotá, Melgar & an old friend...

Hola everyone......!

I've now gone past the 1 month mark, which is reminding me that life flies by, no matter what you do with it!

How's Colombia? Well with 2 World Cup qualifying victories under its belt since I last spoke to you, it's pretty happy! As soon as Colombia score, you hear people letting off horns in their apartments; they like their football here......

Above: The goal machine that is Radamel Falcao, after putting Uraguay to the sword......

So what have I been up to? 

Well I've been up to the top of Monseratte, which overlooks the city of Bogotá. The view's pretty impressive, showing the city in a flat basin effectively:

I've also visited a town called Melgar, for the sole purpose of enjoying its warm weather. Melgar is only 60 miles South West of Bogotá, but its altitude is far lower at about 300m, (against 2,600m). For this reason, rather than having the 18-20° of Bogota (around 10° at night), it was a toastie 35°.

I'd been looking forward to going all week, to feel some warmth, but as soon as I got there, a typical Brit reaction came through of, 'It's too hot'. The only option was to go for a swim and luckily Melgar has a lot of pools to choose from....

I forgot to take pictures of the pool we actually went to, but this resort above is where I hope to go if/when I next visit....

A big thanks to Angélica & Lupita for a great day out......!

So what else have I been up to? Not a lot that would excite I'm afraid, if it's only the exploring aspect of this adventure you're interested in. I've been studying Spanish (in some way, shape, or form), every single day for weeks and weeks now. It's been great fun for me however, as it's exactly what I want to be doing and why I'm here. 'Properly' learning a language, is without doubt the most rewarding & enjoyable use of my time....possibly ever.

For anyone vaguely interested, I'll mention my thoughts so far on trying to learn a 2nd language and what tips and tricks I've picked up. For those that aren't, just scroll to the bottom, a little above the Lama!

First of all, what's my current level? Well the picture below is from an exercise book I've been using, which has been extremely useful. It's far better than anything I was given to use at secondary school......

There's only so much you can learn in a month or so of teaching yourself, but I'm happy that I can translate the text below into English, without any problems. I could do that after about 3-4 weeks.

OK, it's not Shakespeare I'm working with, but it includes the foundations of Spanish, so it's a great start.....

Although approximate, it's suggested that the most common 100 words in English or Spanish make up 50% of every day language. The next 1,000 words take you up to about 80%. When you bare in mind that there are about 500,000 words in the Spanish language, you can see how much time you can waste learning words you'll rarely ever use. 

Being aware of this helps make the process of becoming a foreign language speaker far quicker (says logic, not experience!). If you can get a list of the most commonly used 3,000 words in a language (yep, it's easier said than done learning them!), you can apparently cover 90-95% of every day conversations. Sometimes you'll have to use round-about ways to communicate, but you'll be able to get your point across without too much bother.

3,000 words may still sound like a lot, but remember that's not even 1% of the 500,000 Spanish words available!

When you also consider there are about 3,000 English words that only need slight adjustments, like having a 'c' instead of a 't', to become the Spanish equivalent, the task becomes even less daunting.

On top of that, you simply then study and read texts in your subjects of interest, be it football or philosophy.....or both....

At the moment my ability to read and write is better than my speaking, with listening firmly at the bottom. The next month I'll focus on listening to more Spanish, by simply getting out and about regularly and chatting to people. It should be a lot of fun and it's certainly not the time to be a typical reserved Englishman......!

Listening to Spanish at full speed still baffles me, it has to be said, but I'm picking out more as the days go by.

OK, enough of the language update.....

Last week I randomly found out that a friend from college, who I've not seen for about 10 years, would be in Bogotá for a day. Maria has been in Colombia for work, where she's been involved in a project for Nottingham University. It's based around improving equality for women in Latin America, which has an interesting history behind it.

We caught up at the Botero museum in Bogotá, the morning before she flew back to Europe. Alongside work from Botero, the museum had pieces by Picasso and Dali.

Maria took me to the main square in old town Bogotá, where we were made to feel right at home with a million pigeons:

They also had a Lama....

Check out his back feet - pimp my Lama!

It looks like my brother Tom will be joining me in Colombia for a 2 week jaunt, a couple of months from now. That means I'll have a bit of travelling to talk about, to go with some impressive photo's I hope.

It also means that I'll be spending a good 10 days with Tom relying on my Spanish, which is a good incentive to crack on and get a much better grasp of the language! It'll be interesting to see how I'm able to get by when he arrives!

Right, I'll try and make sure I update this more frequently, as this post is far too long....

Chao for now!





But wait! I promised I'd have a video each month, showing my current ability to speak Spanish! Well I absolutely regret ever saying that, it was a stupid thing to offer, but I'm true to my word......... I will get one made as soon as possible!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

2 Weeks - Bogota & Tunja

¡Hola amigos y familia!

I've been in Colombia for almost 2 weeks now and it's fair to say I'm enjoying myself......!

About a week before flying out here, I was put in contact with a fella named Ricardo (thanks Siân!), who lived in Oxford last year to learn English. Ricardo and Carlos (his brother), have welcomed me to Bogotá and I'll be renting their spare room for.......I don't know how long.

This is the apartment block we live in below:

I think Carlos had me moving in forced upon him (!), but he's been an absolute legend, showing me around when he's not at medical school & helping me with constant questions about Español. Gracias Carlos!

Ricardo's been great too, but I'm reluctant to praise a Chelsea fan at the best of times.........

So I'll be out this weekend with a group of Ricardo's friends for his birthday and he's keen for me to try the Colombian spirit 'Aguardiente', which is known as, or translates to, 'Burning water'. 

Apparently, 'It tastes like gasoline'. I'll write Sunday off now then.....

Settling in......

Luckily for me, Ricardo and Carlos both speak pretty good English, which made my arrival less troublesome, but we're now trying to do as much as possible in Spanish, to get me up to speed as quickly as possible. I don't understand much of what they're saying at the moment, bar the odd word here and there, but it's the best way to make progress. Since I've arrived, I think I've learnt a couple of hundred words, which is a decent start I'd say. Turns out studying is far easier when you're interested and motivated, which is a unique feeling for me!

I just hope Español doesn't have too many confusing aspects further down the line, like English....

As it was Ricardo's Birthday on Monday, we went to visit his parents in Tunja over the weekend to celebrate, (as mentioned above, we'll be celebrating with his amigos this weekend). Due to the high altitude, Bogotá isn't particularly hot, it's even chilly at night and Tunja is is slightly colder. The welcome from his parents, (and grandma, uncles, aunts and cousins) was extremely warm however and I was fed enough to bury an elephant.

So let's meet the Martinez-Piñeros familia!

(Carlos is next to me, Ricardo's on the right)

On Monday Ricardo's mum took us on a mini tour of Tunja, pointing out some of the old churches and more traditional buildings in general. The following day, once we'd returned to Bogotá, Tunja had an earthquake, which damaged the main historical church in the town. This church below is a different one however:

So it turns out that Ricardo's got a similar sense of humour to some of us Brits, which is perhaps why we're getting on so well.

His mum asked him how to say, 'Thank you for visiting us, please come back soon' in English, so she could repeat it to me. Safe to say she told me to 'go away' in language befitting of a sailor. The poor lady was devastated when she found out what she'd really said, ha!

Since being in Bogotá, I've had a few people warn me to be careful, as walking around with your iPhone out in South America, is generally asking for trouble. So far however (touch wood), the only thing that's disturbed me has been Ricardo wearing his Chelsea shirt in the flat.

Right, that's enough for the time being; I'm now studying like a madman for the nights out tomorrow and Saturday, in the hope I can at least make a few basic enlightened statements in Spanish. 

I'll let you know how I got on in a couple of weeks.....