by Miranda Abbott Wittman in Costa Rica
Learning Spanish is an integral part of feeling at home in Costa Rica. If you’ve traveled the country you’ll find that it’s easy to get by with only a few Spanish words because many Costa Ricans learn and practice English. Tourism contributes to about 7% of Costa Rica's GDP and generates around 13% of direct and indirect employment. The tourism industry has seen a steady increase, growing at a rate of about 8% per year over the last 10 years.
This makes learning English very important for Costa Rican citizens. However, Language and culture are woven together like a colorful tapestry. Spanish dialects in particular can be specific to a group of people, region, and country. When you interact with another language, it means that you are also interacting with the culture that speaks the language and you cannot understand one's culture without accessing its language directly.
When preparing to move to Costa Rica, individuals often seek out online programs like Duo Lingo. These online programs are an excellent starting point and are both simple to use and cost-effective. However, they do not include the nuances of a language, the slang, or specific dialects that may be used in Costa Rica.
The use of words in Spanish can be different and using the wrong word can even lead to embarrassing situations. For example, when I first moved here I needed to buy towels. I learned how to say towel through an online program and therefore ask for a “toalla” (to-a-ya). I soon found out that toalla in Costa Rica means tampon. If you looking for a towel to take with you to the beach, Costa Ricans or “Ticos” call that a “paño”, an important difference to be sure of!
Photo by interculturacostarica.com
I’ve lived in Costa Rica for nearly ten years and still and I have not perfected my Spanish. I have no problem interacting at the bank, shopping centers, or even online talking to customers about my business. However, in my quest to feel more acclimated I continually learn about Costa Rican history, local politics, and more importantly, Costa Rican humor, slang, and their accent.
French is my second language and because I’ve found many similarities between French and Spanish, I often mix up words or create new words altogether, blending Spanish, French, and English. As a natural storyteller, I found learning present tense verbs less useful than learning past tense, however most classes I’ve attended focus on present tense verbs first. This left me wondering, is how I’m learning Spanish effective, or is there another better way?
A good friend of mine, Bethany Kirk, owns and operates a language school in Liberia so I set out to ask her two important questions; how should someone new to Costa Rica learn Spanish, and more importantly, what is the most efficient way to learn the language?
Below is an interview I had with Bethany.
Miranda: If someone knows no Spanish at all, what would be the most practical first steps?
Bethany: I think that taking a basic Spanish course is the best way to get started. Of course, there are many apps and self-study options, but a class with an effective, fun teacher can make a huge difference in student motivation, accountability, and progress.
When I decided to learn Spanish at age 25, I signed up for a night course at the local community college in my small town in northern California. The teacher was awesome! On day one, he got us speaking basic Spanish and learning verbs through TPR - total physical response (learning actions that correspond to words in order to help memorize them). From there, I started listening to Spanish music all the time, and I planned my first 2-week immersion experience in Quito, Ecuador. Then, I planned more immersion experiences in Spain, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Thanks to that first class I took, I became extremely motivated to master Spanish. If I had tried to learn on my own, maybe I would have had the same outcome, but more than likely, I would have lost motivation and no one would have known it or cared. Classes help keep us accountable.
Miranda: Verbs can be complicated, how do you suggest learning verbs and what are the most useful verbs for specific circumstances?
Verbs are so important - they are the life of a language! If you know verbs, you can communicate your ideas, even if you can't conjugate them perfectly. Since verbs are actions, the easiest way to learn them is to practice TPR - a total physical response. With this method, you assign an action or gesture to each verb to help memorize them. Kinesthetic movement is very powerful for memorizing new vocabulary. Ideally, someone says the verb to you, and you respond by doing the corresponding action for that verb.
I am also a firm believer in drilling. Repetition is key to internalizing new words. Whether you drill through TPR, flashcards, games, or worksheets, it is important to do it every day.
Miranda: How many hours a day should you practice a language?
Bethany: Obviously, the more practice you squeeze into your daily schedule, the faster you will progress. Even 10-15 minutes a day will bring results, but of course, 4 hours a day in an immersion program will bring even greater results. It's important to recognize that there are many different ways to practice a language. Sitting down to study verbs or read through grammar books is just one way. You can also play language games on your phone, set your social media and email accounts to Spanish so that you have to use it, listen to music and guided meditations in Spanish, read magazines and short stories (Reader's Digest - or Selecciones - is awesome!), watch cheesy soap operas in Spanish, do an online class or language exchange. ANYTHING you can do to see, hear, or speak Spanish is awesome. However, don't get hung up on every word, stopping to look words up in the dictionary, because you will quickly lose motivation. Just try to get the main idea and let your brain absorb the language.
Miranda: If someone wants to be fluent as quickly as possible, how could someone achieve that goal? What steps should they take?
Bethany: Everyone wants to learn a language quickly, but I think it's important to be realistic and patient with yourself. If learning a language were easy, we would all speak 50 of them! The fact is that it is really hard to learn a language, especially if it's your first time trying it (if you only speak one language and want to learn a second language). I personally had very unrealistic expectations for myself, and I sincerely thought that I would be bilingual after my first 2-week immersion experience in Ecuador. Boy, was I wrong. I made progress, for sure, but I was nowhere near bilingual in such a short amount of time. Actually, it took me 9 years of immersion experiences and living in Costa Rica to finally feel like I could say I was bilingual.
However, there ARE people who can learn very quickly - they are very lucky!
The steps to becoming bilingual are the same whether you do it quickly or slowly: You must immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. If you can't travel to another country to do that (study intensively, stay with a local family, avoid speaking your first language), then try to create that experience for yourself wherever you are: listen to Spanish music, guided meditations, movies, and TV shows as much as possible; read level-appropriate material (magazines, reader's digest, trashy romance novels); make friends with Spanish speakers - maybe they want to learn English and you can help each other; listen and speak Spanish with anyone who will let you; use any and every app or game that interests you; take an online course. Create your Spanish bubble and stick with it!
Miranda: Do you recommend any online courses?
Bethany: I think online courses are wonderful for people who cannot travel to give themselves the immersion experience. They are also useful before and after immersion experiences. My school offers flexible schedules and reasonable prices for online classes, and there are more options than ever as a result of the pandemic.
Miranda: Are there exercises you can do to help with accents?
Bethany: I personally do not feel that it is very important to worry about reducing your accent when you first start learning a language. I've met SO many people who are obsessed with this, and to me, it is just silly. The most important thing is to be able to communicate, so if your accent gets in the way of this, by all means, try to reduce it by listening to how natives pronounce things and trying to copy them. This means letting go of how you THINK a word should be pronounced based on the way it is written. You must use your ears, and little by little, over time, you will get better at reducing your accent. But if people can basically understand you, then don't obsess over your accent. I am bilingual in English and Spanish, and I have a big fat “gringa” accent. I just cannot imitate the sounds as well as I would like to. However, I don't worry about it because I can make myself understood, and my accent is who I am - it is my identity. I don't need to be ashamed of that.
Miranda: What are some simple steps or tools someone could incorporate into daily life that would help them learn Spanish?
Bethany: I've already mentioned a lot of these: listen to Spanish music, guided meditations, movies, and TV shows as much as possible; read level-appropriate material (magazines, reader's digest, trashy romance novels); make friends with Spanish speakers - maybe they want to learn English and you can help each other; listen and speak Spanish with anyone who will let you; use any and every app or game that interests you; take an online course.
I've had Spanish students ask me if it's okay to use more than one self-study program or app as they are taking an immersion course, and I say YES, OF COURSE! The more the merrier! Anything you can do to get Spanish input into your brain is excellent. Kids are the best at doing this: if you make a child only watch TV or videos in Spanish, they will watch them without understanding at first, but with the images to facilitate comprehension, they will understand more and more with time.
Adults have a harder time dealing with ambiguity - we want to understand every word. We have to let go of this! Even if you are not consciously paying attention (as with guided meditations to help you sleep), the language is still going into your brain, swirling around in there, and making some sense of it.
Photo by www.estelarcr.com
Thanks to Bethany I know how some concrete answers to help me learn efficiently. I love the idea of using guided meditation and playing games. I found my time with her insightful and it has given me the inspiration to keep moving forward. Bethany made a great point, that the pandemic has normalized learning online. More and more online coaching options are becoming available. Bethany is now teaching online and you can contact her through her school Instituto Estelar Bilingue by email: firstname.lastname@example.org, and by phone (Whatsapp): 506-8730-0904. She also provides information on YouTube.
In a basic Google search, I found other online programs. I frequent Facebook chat groups and Tico Thrive was also highly recommended. The founder Ric Perez proudly explains that his program helps in minimizing the language barrier and culture shock that comes with moving to a new country.
So however you decide to learn, I encourage you to do so. Bethany’s slogan is; “Desafía tus fronteras: ¡Aprende español o inglés!” (Challenge your Borders: Learn Spanish or English!). You’ve already done the hardest part, after all, you’ve packed up your life and flown over an actual border, so what’s a little bit further in that journey?
CostaRica.com has a fun list of slang Costa Rican “Tico” phrases and there are multiple sites providing insight that will have you speaking the lingo in no time! “Pura Vida!”
Miranda Abbott Wittman is a creator of Dance Equations - a company that develops math dance programs with cross-curricular linkages for educators based in Costa Rica.