I moved to Costa Rica with zero knowledge of the Spanish language. I like to joke that I knew two words, cerveza and gracias, but that wasn’t too far from the reality of the situation. I randomly took French in high school, so I had no baseline experience with the language. The phrases I did know came from popular culture.
Arnold Schwarzenegger taught me ‘Hasta la vista,’ though I didn’t know the actual translation. I just knew it generally meant goodbye, and I could count to six thanks to a fairly terrible song by The Offspring.
So how did I manage to go from zero to my current level of pretty much knowing what’s going on and generally being able to convey my thoughts in eleven short years? Well, let me break it down for you.
Go to Spanish Class
This one seems pretty obvious. You should go to Spanish class. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon an amazing lady that teaches you Spanish in her little house’s kitchen while bopping around cleaning up and doing the dishes. I started out like a kindergartner. My first worksheets were the names of colors and the numbers up to twenty.
After a few weeks, she had switched from English to mostly speaking Spanish during our lessons. A transition that I’m still not sure how she pulled off. I could understand the sentiment of her statements even when I didn’t know all of the words she was using.
So, I guess my advice is go to Spanish class and hope to find a magical teacher, like I did. Also, you should think about Spanish questions to present to your teacher between classes. I always found that extremely helpful.
Get Used to Feeling Stupid
This has got to be the hardest part. You’re living in a country where you don’t know what’s going on something like 90% of the time. I only survived because my wife spoke decent Spanish upon arrival.
She helped me do everything in the beginning. Eventually, you’ll need to put on your big boy pants and go do things for yourself. And when that happens, you’re going to feel stupid. Somebody will say something to you and all you’ll have in response is a big-eyed, mouth slightly open, scrunched forehead, blank face look.
There’s not really much you can do about it in the beginning. The percentage of time that you’re totally lost will go down slowly with time. Eleven years later, I still only know exactly what’s happening about 75% of the time. I tell myself feeling like a dummy must be building my character in some way. Maybe that will work for you, too.
Be Lucky Enough to be an Extrovert or Force It
I’m a sit alone in silence kind of guy. Right now, I’m typing this in a completely silent house with a dog at my feet and to be perfectly honest, I’d like the dog to give me a little more space. I’ve come to find out that this is not the perfect disposition for learning a second language. A language needs to be spoken. It’s something that has to be shared with others. I tried to skip that part and learn it with a textbook under a tree at the beach and it only got me so far.
So if you’re an extrovert. Great. You win. Go practice the Spanish that you desire with the people that you enjoy hanging out with. If you’re part of my crew, I have bad news. You’re going to have to go talk to people.
I had to trick myself into doing this. I used a lifelong passion to force myself to speak Spanish with Spanish-speaking people. I love wildlife. I wanted to start working with wildlife, so I started volunteering at a rehabilitation and release center. Nearly everybody there only spoke Spanish, so there it was, my opportunity to put into practice everything I learned under the tree at the beach. So, for you introverts out there, maybe you too can leverage another passion as a way to practice your new language skills.
Learning Spanish is hard, at least for most of us. The good news is, if you really want to learn, you’ll be able to do it. Just put in the time and effort, and … you’re going to have to talk to people.
About the Author
Vincent Losasso, founder of Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring, is a biologist who works with camera traps throughout Costa Rica. Learn more about his projects on facebook or instagram. You can also email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org