When I first arrived in Costa Rica over thirty years ago, my Spanish was limited. I had taken two years of high school Spanish, and studied nouns and verb charts, so at least I had a small working vocabulary. I was able to form basic questions from the first day here, but when someone answered in Spanish, I understood nothing.
Still, I believed that total immersion was the fastest way to learn. I played the radio in my house throughout the day, watched the news on tv, and made attempts at conversation when visiting the local pulperia or cantina. One of my early go to expressions was ‘’Hable despacio, por favor,’’– ‘Please speak slowly’, though it seldom helped.
My first weeks the answers I got to my simple Spanish questions may as well have been in Sanskrit. When learning a new language via the immersion method, it is best to never be self-conscious. Errors will be made. People may snicker at your verbal stumbles. I remember early on, I made a phone call to inquire about a bed for sale.
The ad said to inquire with Jose. When I called and asked for Jose, the person on the other end said ‘’No se encuentra.’’ However, my ears heard, ‘’No cincuenta.’’ The non-conversation went downhill from there and I did not have a chance to buy the bed. I later asked a bilingual friend why the person who answered said ‘’No fifty.’’
My friend got a good laugh out of my ineptitude. Of all my early linguistic fails, nothing confused me more than the expression, ‘’Gracias a Dios.’’ Why are they saying ‘’Thank you, goodbye’’ I wondered? Or are they saying ‘’Thank you, hello’’? Adios is used both ways, I figured that out early on.
Somewhere in there I realized what they were actually saying. And man, do they say it. It may be the only expression used in Costa Rica more frequently than ‘Pura Vida’. A person’s house survives an earthquake, and its “Gracias a Dios’’ the house is intact. Their neighbor’s house is destroyed but everyone survives, its ‘’Gracias a Dios’’ no one died. The goalie who makes the game-saving play says, ‘’Gracias a Dios,’’ he made the play.
The striker whose shot was saved says ‘’Gracias a Dios’’ we will have another chance. God is invoked for every situation, big or small, good or bad. Of course, this is not something unique to Costa Rica. As the world is divided into believers and non-believers, more people it seems, want their philosophies known.
For example, I have heard more than one US-based athlete, in the post-game interview, begin by saying something like, “First I want to give thanks to God who made all of this possible.”
Whether he would say the same thing had his team lost, I am not sure. Meanwhile in countries such as Sweden, Czech Republic and Vietnam, where the percentages of atheists and agnostics are much higher, it is doubtful many people say the equivalent of ‘Gracias a Dios’ so frequently and publicly.
As for me, I rarely use the expression, simply as a matter of consistency, as I rarely use the English language equivalent either. And as for my Spanish, with practice, persistence and experience, I became fluent in Español….Gracias Adios!