Learning Spanish

Also see:  Spanish Language Schools in Costa Rica 

By no means am I an expert in how to learn Spanish. That said, I feel I must respond to the 7 zillion emails I have received on this subject. And while I am certainly not fluent in Spanish, I can pretty much say what I want or need to say. While it has been fun.. it has not been easy.

Here are my experiences and things I would do differently.  (To skip the chit chat and get straight to my suggestions, click here).

Many people will tell you you do not need to learn to speak Spanish to live in Costa Rica. That is pottywash.

While I guess technically this is true, I would change it to “you do not need to learn to speak Spanish to exist in Costa Rica”. To truly enjoy the experience of living in this, or any Latin country, make no mistake, Spanish is a necessity.

Professionals will tell you there are three ways people learn. Visual learners learn by seeing the subject. They use visual cues to help them learn. Others are aural (Auditory) learners meaning they learn best by hearing the subject. Still others learn best by hands-on activities. This is called kinesthetic learning.

I am a visual learner. Now saying this, I should be able to learn SPANISH from a book right? Nope. I have never been successful at learning by reading a Spanish textbook. This makes sense as learning a language uses three abilities; hearing, listening, and seeing. You also need to be able to coordinate what you are hearing with what you are saying.

To learn Spanish I had to learn kinesthetically, visually and aurally and then I had to make my mouth say what the rest of my brain was learning.. This was not comfortable language fans. I have heard there are people who can pick up a language in no time. I hate them almost as much as those people at the health clubs who never sweat. For me, it was hard work.

So in this article, I am going to relate how I learned a bit of Spanish. Take from this what you will. It is a combination of (mostly) my experiences and those of a few friends who learned Spanish or are doing so now. Most of us are not on the sunny side of age fifty... and that old saying about old dogs learning new tricks is right on the money.

When I came to Costa Rica, I could say maybe twenty words. Whether I could say them correctly is a different matter... but I could say something.

I attended a language school for about two months. It was helpful, but I resisted the process. First, I did not do my homework (yeah, they gave homework! There is something just wrong about people having to do homework after a certain age).

I also spoke nothing but English before and after class.

I watched CSI and CNN and everything on TV in English.

I hung around with other Gringos and Canadians because that was comfortable for me.

In essence, I did exactly what so many other North Americans do. I did not learn Spanish.

I also wondered why I did not have any close Tico friends (duh). Why I had to wait until Friday when the Tico Times came out so I could learn what happened last week in Costa Rica.

My turning point was when my planned retirement ended (voluntarily... I got bored) and I began to start companies here in Costa Rica. I had to learn the language, and I can tell you it was not easy. I began to hang around with more Ticos. I watched Spanish TV, read the subtitles in movies, and began to learn a bit more.  I also remember an excellent on-line Spanish program and started to use them for learning.

I practiced and made some fairly funny errors... like explaining how I saw a fish walking down the highway. Somehow, I confused pezote (a raccoon like creature) with tilapia (a fish). I have amused many Ticos with my goofy Spanish.

I then realized speaking it was becoming a bit easier each time, and the online program was helping me with the pronunciation, but I now I needed to write it as well as speak it. More problems. Ya know those little squiggly things above some letters? The “ ñ ” in mañana is a good example.

Well those little thingies are there to help pronunciation... but they are also there because they can change the entire meaning of the word. A good example is the word año. Año means "year", but if your remove the squiggly thing (the tilda) you have ano... and THAT means... well... it means rectum.

Thus, in one of my early Spanish emails, I asked a woman “Cuantos anos tiene su hijo?” I MEANT to ask, “How old is your son?” (which is how many years has your son)?  What I DID ask however was “How many rectums has your son? I received an interesting reply. “He has only one, but he is twelve years old”. Ya just gotta love Ticos and their sense of humor!

I cannot tell you how many times I have made errors... most at my expense... and enormously funny to those who actually do speak Spanish. I will give you a hint now that toilet paper is NOT papel de culo, an error absolutely guaranteed to crack up any Tico! Culo is a Very Bad Word and you should NOT use it in Latin company.

Ok... so to begin, here are a few suggestions to sort of mentally prepare yourself for the process.

  • Lose all your dignity!

    Only kidding, but you ARE going to make some really funny mistakes and people ARE going to laugh, but really, who cares? When you are able to successfully speak Spanish, you will enjoy an enormous feeling of accomplishment (and superiority!).  If you do not TRY, you can just forget learning the language. When Ticos laughed at me, I never felt it was because they thought I was stupid... they laughed (I think) because they were delighted that I was making an effort to learn their language... a key first step to learn THEIR culture. They are ever so patient, and the teachers are EVEN more so.  Just let it GO!  Have fun.
  • Learn to be uncomfortable!

    For indeed you WILL be uncomfortable. You will experience irritation, annoyance, powerlessness, and in general, you will wonder if you left your brain back in whatever country you came from. The more you immerse yourself in this learning process, the more uncomfortable you will be... but I promise, it will be for but a few short months, and THEN you can lord it over everyone who has not made the sacrifice that you have made! 
  • Make frustration your friend!

    If you really go about this the right way, your will eschew speaking English for the duration or at least as much as possible. That means you either learn to say it and understand it, of you don't say anything or hear anything.  You have to learn.

OK... how do you start?  Get Started before you arrive!

Before you get here, do a bit of preparation. And here, I suggest starting maybe 4-6 months before you arrive or plan your move.  This way you are not under the gun to learn immediately.  If you are doing an immersion thing, some advance preparation will be of huge help.

If choosing language software, make sure that that software offers courses in Latin American Spanish as THAT is important.  Latin American Spanish IS different.  

Decide on the technique you want to use!

Immersion aka Home Stay

The most painful, but in my opinion, the absolute fastest and best way to learn Spanish is by immersion. By this I mean literally placing yourself in a position where you are unable to speak, read, write or listen to, your native tongue. That means NO TV programs like CNN, CSI, Desperate Housewives, or anything in English, no English newspapers, no English conversations... nothing.

I fell into immersion more by accident than by intention. While I could get along OK in Spanish, my real trial by fire started when I met (and later married) my Tica girlfriend, who, despite lies told by my good friend Ray when he introduced us, did NOT speak English. So there I was involved with a non English speaker living in a house with a non English speaking housekeeper. My own level of frustration was enormous... but I learned... fast. When my future wifey actually moved in with me, and I found I had more Tico business associations who did not speak English, well... I really became immersed.

Costa Rica has a ton of great language schools, some of which offer an immersion program. They will set you up with a host family, and you will live, eat, sleep, and socialize with them for a month or more and most often, will be taking formal Spanish classes during the day.

If you just want to learn you Spanish quickly and can handle a bit of initial discomfort, this is the way to do it.

Classroom Study with Home Stay plus Extras

As I mentioned earlier, I attended classes when I first arrived but I just did not have the right attitude. The drive was too far, I knew nobody with whom to practice after class, and I really hated doing the homework.

Just last week, I had the occasion to twice visit a language school near San Pedro. Now THESE people have clearly put together a great program. That school obviously caters to the 18-26 year old crowd, but they have combined about 25 hours of classroom study, with nighttime home stay along with Spanish cooking classes, some really excellent dancing classes (all included in the tuition of about $1,000 per month!) and the kids I saw and met were having a helluva good time (and learning Spanish). Clearly not for the over 30 crowd, it does go to show that you can create a great mix of vacation and learning for a reasonable price.

Hints for Learning Spanish!

Well known travel writer and one time Spanish professor Chris Howard has created a list of tips for learning Spanish.

I, arrogantly, have made my own suggestions and modified his a bit based on the fact that Chris has spoken fluent Spanish for 216 years and thus needs my refresher tips!

To download Chris's Tips in .PDF, Click Here. To see my Tips, also in .PDF, click here.

Tim's Tips

  1. First, regardless of what type of training materials you decide upon, make sure it is Latin American Spanish. Spanish spoken here is not the same as Spanish spoken in Spain.

  2. Start the process before you arrive by using some form of language software.
  3. Pick a study program that excites you! Learning another language is really fun, but it is also annoying and frustrating. The right program will reduce the frustration and speed the learning.
  4. It makes no difference if you say something correctly. Just the act of trying to speak will help you and your friends, home stay family or teachers can make the corrections. Remember, if you are nervous or embarrassed, and you don't speak at all, nobody can help you.
  5. The larger your vocabulary in your native tongue, the harder it will be to learn a new language. Your very style of speech will not lend itself to direct translation as you may have 2-3 ways to say something. So, if you are “well spoken”, give yourself slack as it will take you longer to be well spoken in another language.
  6. Costa Rica is a very small country, but there are an incredible number of ways to speak Spanish. People from San José speak far differently than people from Zarcero. Folks from Guapiles speak way differently than people who live in Guanacaste. Women speak differently from men, and in MY opinion are easier to understand.

    This tends truly “throw off” new learners. Expect it. It isn't you. It is them. To them it is nothing... like listening to a person from Alabama... but it will make you wonder if you are truly learning anything as you may simply not understand.

    Same thing will go for YOU. After you learn Spanish, it will be with all the accents and idiosyncrasies of those who taught you. Couple THAT with any accent you bring from “home” and don't be shocked if the Ticos can't understand your Spanish at first try even if you are correct. Hell, ever try to understand a Boston taxi driver speaking English? Now imagine he retires to Costa Rica and learns Spanish. My Spanish is such that an immigration inspector at the airport thought I lived near Guapiles because much of my Spanish "accent" came from my wife who is from that town!
  7. Learn the Spanish alphabet. It will assist you learning how letters in Spanish are pronounced.
  8. If for some reason you don't want to use a course like Rosetta Stone that has electronic analysis of your pronunciation, then find one that does.

    An accent is really nothing more than a mispronunciation of the word in another language. If those who taught you had crummy Spanish speaking skills, those will be passed to you as will your natural desire to pronounce Spanish words according to your native pronunciation tools. If you learn to pronounce the word exactly, you will have little accent. If you are a retired Boston cabby, forget it. There is no helping you.
  9. Buy a GOOD English-Spanish Dictionary. I use the University of Chicago Dictionary which is pretty complete. Keep it handy. Try to read the headlines of Costa Rica's Spanish newspapers. All of them can be found here.
  10. Buy children's books like fairy tales! I am speaking of The Three Bears, Snow White and buy them with the big print for grades 1-3! First, you already know the story, Second, the translation is for KIDS who are now learning Spanish. Well that is YOU! They are easy to read, maybe 10-20 pages long with lots of pictures, and they are cheap. Read then aloud to a Tico friend and have them fix your pronunciation on the spot. It is fun and fast and then you can give them away to kids in your neighborhood when you are done. THEN, start buying books for grades 4-6 and so on.
  11. Don't concern yourself with the tenses (past, future, etc.). When you first start learning Spanish, everything will be present tense, and you will sound (to Latinos anyway) exactly like the stereotypical Pakistani owner of a 7-11 that is a staple in a lot US stand up comedy.
  12. I have lost count of the times when I started to speak Spanish to some office worker, bank teller, sales person, etc. and was greeted with a blank stare and a “what?”.

    I THINK that Ticos often do not expect Spanish to come from the mouth of a non Latin. For this reason, I developed a “trick”. Instead of saying what I WANT right away, I instead speak some pleasantry like Good Morning, how are you? (In Spanish of course!) and respond to whatever it is they say... normally good, how are you? First, the words are SO common that no matter what, you WILL be understood. It also gives them a split second to adjust to the fact that you CAN speak their language. Then, continue with whatever it is you need. You will seldom have a problem after that... unless you drove a cab in Boston.

That's it. I cannot begin to describe the incredible jubilation you will feel when you finally reach the point where you can have a CONVERSATION in Spanish. It is empowering and in some ways makes you feel a bit superior... at least until you Spanish gets good enough that they now respond at lightning speed leaving you in the dust thinking you learned nothing. Have fun!

And just for fun... anybody know what would be meant if a Tico asked you for some: “Bix bah poe rube”?



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