The thought of living in, studying in, and experiencing the culture of another country can seem a bit intimidating for many reasons. You are going away from your comfort zone, where your room is and all of your belongings are, where you know everyone, where you know how to get around. You are instead entering a place where it is likely that you do not know anyone, where anything is, how to get around, and quite possibly, you may not even speak the language. The thought of trying to navigate through a new country, communicate with people, and get by without being fluent in the language of the new country is terrifying. However, when approached with an open mind, coming to Costa Rica without speaking Spanish can be a fun learning experience, and immersing yourself in the language via the “sink or swim method” will allow you to learn and develop the language must faster than in a classroom in the United States.
When I first arrived in Costa Rica, I was a novice Spanish speaker to say the least. I knew the basics, and enough to have a very simple and juvenile conversation, but that was about it. The other students in the program had a wide range of Spanish experience, from being nearly fluent to not speaking a word. It became evident right off the bat that there were people here of all levels, and that I should not feel ashamed or worried about not being fluent in Spanish.
What I have found in my time here is that people want to help you learn. When you take the initiative to try to speak Spanish to people and practice, it goes appreciated. In most situations, native speakers are not going to judge you or criticize you, but rather help you and correct you in a way that is constructive. It is important to keep trying and to speak Spanish as often as possible to really help your language skills develop. Taking every small opportunity to practice the language, whether it be sitting with your homestay parents in the living room chatting or ordering a cup of coffee. These small exchanges really add up.
The longer you are here, the more you feel your Spanish improving. I have just finished my third week, and I already feel a lot more proficient in Spanish. I am able to carry out more complex conversations with people. It has become easier to negotiate with people in businesses, communicate with taxi drivers, and get directions. Being put in situations that force you to try to understand and speak the language are the best avenues for learning the language.
I have two weeks remaining in Costa Rica, and I am excited to see how much further my language learning will go. I wish that I had more time here, because I truly feel that being here in this environment is the most effective way to learn. I am so glad that I overcame my fears of traveling to and living in a country that has a primary language that is different from my own, because I feel that I have been successful in learning and adapting, and the challenge has provided a great experience. For no reason should the fear of not knowing Spanish keep you from visiting Costa Rica or any other Latin American country. It will be a learning experience, and at some points along the way may be difficult or frustrating, but in the end it is so rewarding, and often a lot of fun! Who doesn’t love a good game of charades anyway!? Pura vida, amigos!
Written By Heather Stewart, Social Media Journalist