In a word, Si! “Why,” you ask, “when there are so many gringos living in Playas del Coco?” If you plan to live in Costa Rica, you need to learn Spanish in Costa Rica. Let me explain a bit.
Because you will be happier, which is why you are moving to Costa Rica in the first place! Humans are social creatures that need to interact with those around them, and in Costa Rica ‘those around you’ speak Spanish. Speaking the local language will endear you to your neighbors and give you a sense of community. It will ease frustrations and help avoid misunderstandings. Most importantly, it shows respect for your adopted country.
So what’s the best way to learn Spanish in Costa Rica? There are many Spanish schools in Costa Rica. In fact, you can enroll in one right in Playas del Coco, like Pura Vida Teaching or Instituto Estelar. The commitment of going to school forces you to learn at a pace much faster than just picking it up on you own in between surfing and napping.
But if you want to try home schooling yourself, phrase books and online tutorials can prove useful in the early stage, experts say, as they can give you the vocabulary building blocks you need to have basic conversations.
“The biggest barrier in the beginning is the lack of confidence,” says Benny Lewis, an engineer who has learned several languages. “That got better and better for me [as I spoke].”
Simply not being afraid to speak is necessary if you are going to make progress in a foreign language. You won’t make much progress if you don’t open your mouth. Don’t be afraid to take risks or make mistakes. At first you will speak a bit like Tarzan: “Me Joseph. Who you?” You might feel pretty stupid at first. However, Ticos are very patient and truly appreciate someone trying to speak their language. At the same time, they like to practice their few words of English, so show them the same consideration.
Experts believe that total immersion is key to mastering a foreign language quickly. Instead of studying grammar and memorizing lists of words, connect with the locals. You can, for instance, do volunteer work or strike up conversations at the supermarket, in restaurants, and at the beach. By conversing regularly with native speakers, you also have someone to check—and correct—your progress. This is really important so as to correct bad habits from the start. From then on, practice will make perfect, or almost perfect anyway. It doesn’t matter how basic your skills are, keep pushing yourself to speak. Many who have learned Spanish find that the experience is made up of climbs and plateaus. You will feel you’re making rapid progress at times, and then none at all for what seems like an eternity, only to suddenly enjoy another burst of fluency.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have to study. You should try to study Spanish at least an hour each day. Unfortunately, there are no miraculous short cuts, and you can’t learn through osmosis. Language learning is based on repetition—hammering something into your brain over and over again until you remember it. To learn grammar, use podcasts at sites such as www.radiolingua.com or www.languagepod101.com. As you learn, be sure to consume media in the foreign language. If you are starting out, read illustrated children’s books, watch cartoons like “Peppa Pig” or watch familiar movies in Spanish (no cheating with subtitles!).
Carry a dictionary (paper or electronic) at all times. This will allow you to find the necessary word at a moment’s notice, which is especially important when you are having a conversation and don’t want to disrupt the flow of the conversation. Using the new word immediately in a sentence will help you to commit the word to memory. You can also be thumbing through the dictionary while waiting in traffic or in line at the bank. You could learn an extra 20 or 30 words a day this way!
Change your language settings on all your electronic devices so that you can pick up words you know already in English but not in Spanish. Some find it helpful to listen to songs in Spanish, look up the translation to see what the words are, and then sing along.
Should you study Spanish in Costa Rica? Yes! But don’t set your sights too high, like planning to be fluent in two months. You will likely be disappointed. Better to be modest and underachieve than to be a frustrated perfectionist. Remember why you moved to Costa Rica—to relax and enjoy the Pura Vida (look it up)!