When studying abroad or simply just traveling the country, everyone is bound to run into some kind of language barrier at some point. Whether you´re trying to give the cab driver directions to your house (which by the way is impossible to do in Costa Rica), paying for your groceries, or trying to strike up a conversation with the cute boy (or girl) in the library, we all face this problem in numerous circumstances. Even if you are fluent in the language of the country you are visiting, there is still the occasional instance of things getting ¨lost in translation¨. Unfortunately, I am not a fluent Spanish speaker, so I ran into a lot of language barriers during my first couple of weeks here. From the time I was dropped off at my new home for the summer on the night of June 1st even up until today, I still struggle to communicate even in basic conversation some time. During my time studying here in Costa Rica, I have found that the hardest one to overcome for my colleagues and myself has been the attempt to communicate with people our age. A lot of us have this fear of communicating with others not in our native language, because we are afraid saying something incorrectly and making ourselves look stupid.
So how do we overcome it? Simple. Break the barrier by practicing as much as humanly possible with the people you feel most comfortable talking to and don´t be afraid to look stupid. Only when you have the right mindset can this truly be overcame, because we are not used to purposely throwing ourselves in an uncomfortable environment and making ourselves vulnerable. You have to remember, these people are used to seeing students come and go year round and 90% of them you will never see again. So don´t be afraid to look stupid sometimes and remember, you more than likely don´t look like a native, so they don´t expect you to be an expert Spanish speaker.
But what about for those who are past that process and are feeling like they are at a more comfortable stage of ¨breaking the ice?¨ What about those of us who have maybe been here a little bit longer and the problem is no longer starting the conversation, but, rather, being able to extend it. You can only ask the people you meet so many questions about where they live and what they like to do before you run out. As for conversations within the household, at some point everything might start to sound like a broken record. This is the problem I found myself facing around the half-way point of my time here. Every conversation I had with my mamatica morning, noon and night was becoming so repetitive because they mostly involved classes, time durations or plans I had for the day/weekend. This is where I hit the wall.
One of the things I have struggled with the most while being here is the inability to communicate with anyone, anywhere at any given time. I´m a very outgoing person, and I really enjoy meeting new people and getting to know more about them, so not being able to do that took a lot of getting used to for me. However, I still attempted to talk with my mamatica or someone else solely in Spanish for at least an hour every day, and it really improved my communication level. Especially in the second and third week, I could see a drastic improvement which only made me want to continue improving. But after the adjustment period was over, everything stopped being so new and enticing and started being more of a routine. I noticed I was becoming frustrated, because I wasn´t learning as much as I did in the first couple of weeks. My communication skills went from drastically improving daily to very stagnant.
For me personally, I found this barrier harder to get past than the initial ¨culture shock¨ language barrier that a lot of people seem to experience. I don´t function very well in routine situations, and so when no more radical changes were taking place I became slightly bored and frustrated. So I decided to take the next step outside of my comfort zone and attempted to talk to numerous people instead of just my tico-family. I also did some personal instructing for my Spanish by watching a lot of YouTube videos and playing some Spanish games online to improve my vocabulary. This is exactly what I would suggest to the next person I come across that is struggling with the same problem. Do whatever you can to break the habit or your daily routine. Strike up conversations with strangers, watch cartoons in Spanish or just do some exploring in your free time. You may be surprised at just how much you can actually teach yourself.
Written By Bree Hollis, Social Media Journalist