How I Learned Spanish Part 6 Costa Rica/Cómo aprendí español parte 6 Costa Rica

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(Artículo en español abajo)

How I Learned Spanish Part 6… Costa Rica Pura Vida

(If you missed the beginning of the series, you can find part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5 here!)

I knew almost nothing about the study abroad program between la Universidad de Costa Rica Sede de Occidente in San Ramon de Alajuela except that a). It was 66% cheaper than full tuition, room and board than staying on campus at UNL and b). People in Costa Rica spoke Spanish. For a broke college student majoring in Spanish, these were pretty great selling points. So in January of 2001, at the height of the Bush-Gore election scandal, I boarded a plane with 16 other students headed to Costa Rica. I had never met any of the other students, I probably couldn’t locate Costa Rica on an unlabeled map, and I didn’t actually know that much Spanish. At the end of the five month program, I would board a plane back home fluent in conversational Spanish, leaving behind a host mom I loved like my own, a best friend and neighbor, and the man who would become my husband.

A photo of most of the students in our University of Nebraska cohort, hanging out at Volcán Poás.

A photo of most of the students in our University of Nebraska cohort, hanging out at Volcán Poás.

I’ll write our love story at another time… it’s it’s own series. I’ll focus this time on how I actually learned to speak perfect conversational Spanish in a span of five months (and I make the distinction between conversational and academic Spanish here, because I didn’t go to Costa Rica to study abroad just once!). I was lucky to meet incredible people who were patient with me while I learned Spanish, but there were 4 habits that allowed me to learn Spanish rapidly.

  1.  My notebook and dictionary. Before I left for Costa Rica, I bought a pocket sized, plastic covered Larousse Spanish-English dictionary, and a 3.5” x 5” green spiral notebook. I will admit that I had no idea why I took these two things with me, but they quickly became an indispensable part of my learning. The notebook and a tiny pen lived in my right rear jeans pocket, and the dictionary in the left. Every time that I was around my Costa Rican friends, family members, and teachers, I would write down 5-6 words or phrases that I didn’t understand. When I got home at night, I would look up the words (or more often ask my host mom or my good friend Priscilla and later my now-husband), write the translations, and then make it my goal to use those phrases or words the next day in conversation. The idea was that it wasn’t enough for me to simply observe the language in action, I had to then use it in context to have mastered it. This is still the strategy that I most often offer to struggling students in immersion language classes.
Even after all of these years, I can't seem to part with these momentos that helped me to master the Spanish language!

Even after all of these years, I can’t seem to part with these momentos that helped me to master the Spanish language!

2. The disco. I went dancing all night, every night Thursday-Sunday. Really, I did. I moved from club to club depending on where the drink specials were, and I danced to all the hit songs night after night. That didn’t teach me Spanish, although I will admit that many times being slightly tipsy lessened my nervousness when speaking to new people. What happened was that I learned the lyrics to all the popular songs, and sang them, over and over (pronunciation fluency, anyone?). When I wasn’t in class during the day, I would turn on the radio and attempt to write down the lyrics as I heard them… like a dictation. Of course, then I checked my spelling with the dictionary, looked up the words I didn’t know, and used them in context as soon as possible. (I MUST write a post on all the times that I royally screwed up using new words, but that’s for another day!)

Here's the actual tickets from some of the discos I went to regularly. I have always loved how Costa Ricans spell "night!"

Here’s the actual tickets from some of the discos I went to regularly. I have always loved how Costa Ricans spell “night!”

3. I got really really mad one day and stopped caring. Although I’m not usually a person who is very concerned about what others think of me, for some reason, when I was learning Spanish, I was incredibly self-conscious about my Americanized appearance and accent. This was compounded by the Costa Rican tradition of pointing out a person’s faults, almost everyone with whom I spoke would give me some iteration of the following: “Where are you from?” “You have an accent.” “I don’t know what you are saying.” These comments were well-meaning, I’m sure, but caused me to avoid talking to strangers most of the time. Until one day I was late for an important meeting and couldn’t find the people I was supposed to meet. The longer I searched for them, the madder I got that I wasn’t acting independent enough to ask for help. I got so mad (like seeing red and tears in my eyes) that I said to myself “Screw it! I’m asking everyone I see if they have seen the people I am looking for.” It was a turning point in my Spanish education, because I started using Spanish with strangers.

A full week in Drake Bay with friends who loved me, and didn't know a word of English cemented my fluency in Spanish.

A full week in Drake Bay with friends who loved me, and didn’t know a word of English cemented my fluency in Spanish.

4. I didn’t hang around my study abroad cohort. I am one of the only people in our group who came home from Costa Rica fluent in Spanish, and it was partially because I pretty much isolated myself from the other American students in my group because I didn’t want to speak English if I didn’t have to. In my mind, if I was to spend 5 months in a foreign country, I would be damned if I didn’t learn Spanish. In class or on group trips, I hung out with the other students… and I loved them. Most of us still keep in touch with each other now. But every second I hung around Americans was a second that I wasn’t learning Spanish. Instead, I spent hours and hours with my host family, my best friend Priscilla (who also lived next door and took me on an amazing Spring Break trip with her family), and, of course, talking with Ricardo, who is now my husband.

After 5 months of study abroad in Costa Rica I was fully conversationally fluent in Spanish (with almost no American accent!)… but also leaving behind the love of my life, my best friend, and a country that I had fallen in love with. At the airport waiting for my plane to depart, I vowed that I would return as soon as possible.

Which strategies have you used to learn something new? Did they work – why or why not? Can you relate to any of mine? Join the conversation!

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How I Learned Spanish Part 6 Costa Rica

Cómo aprendí el español parte 6 – Costa Rica Pura Vida

(Si perdiste los primeros artículos de la serie, puedes encontrar parte 1, parte 2, parte 3, parte 4, y parte 5 aquí.)

Yo no sabía casi nada acerca del program de intercambio entre la universidad de Costa Rica en San Ramón y la universidad de Nebraska aparte de que a.) era 66% más barato que pagar la universidad en Nebraska y b.) las personas en Costa Rica hablan español. Para una persona casi sin dinero, con sólo esas cosas se vendió el programa. Entonces en Enero del 2001 aborde un avión, junto a 16 compañeros, para Costa Rica. Yo nunca había conocido a ninguno de los demás estudiantes, no podía localizar a Costa Rica en un mapa, y no sabía casi nada del español. Al final de cinco meses en el extranjero, yo abordaría un avión hablando español conversacional; dejando atrás una mamá host que quería como otra madre, mi mejor amiga, y el hombre que se haría mi esposo unos años después.

Voy a escribir nuestra historia de amor en otra ocasión… es su propia serie. Para este artículo, me voy a enfocar en cómo aprendí a hablar español conversacional perfectamente en sòlo cinco meses. Yo noto la diferencia entre español conversacional y español académico aquí, porque no me fui a estudiar en Costa Rica sólo una vez. Yo tuve la dicha de conocer a muchas personas increíbles que tuvieron mucha paciencia conmigo, pero eran cuatro hábitos que me dejaron aprender el español rápidamente.

Nuestro grupo de intercambio en Zarcero, Costa Rica

Nuestro grupo de intercambio en Zarcero, Costa Rica

Mi cuadernito y mi diccionario. Antes de llegar a Costa Rica me compré un pequeño diccionario de plástico y un cuadernito pequeñito. Yo no sé porque decidí llevar esas dos cosas, pero formaron una parte indispensable de mi aprendizaje. Las dos cosas se quedaron en mis bolsillos de atrás, y cada vez que estaba escuchando a la gente hablar español, apuntaba 5 o 6 frases o palabras que no entendía bien. Cuando llegaba a la casa de noche, yo buscaba la definición de las palabras que había escrito, escribía las traducciones, y luego me puse la meta de utilizar las palabras en el transcurso del día siguiente. La única forma de aprender un idioma es al utilizar las palabras nuevas en contexto, y esta estrategia es la que más recomiendo a estudiantes que están un segundo idioma.

La discoteca. Yo salí a bailar, toda la noche, de jueves a domingo. De verdad. Fui de disco en disco según las promociones cerveceras, y bailé todas las canciones populares del momento, noche tras noche. Ir a bailar no era lo que me enseñó el español, pero puedo admitir que estar un poquito mareada de cerveza me quitó los nervios al hablar con gente desconocida. Lo que pasó fue que yo aprendía la letra de todas las canciones populares, y las canté, noche tras noche. Cuando no estaba en clases de día, yo prendía la radio para escribir la letra de las canciones, como un dictado. Claro, luego buscaba las traducciones de las palabras que no conocía, y las usaba en contexto lo más pronto que fuera posible.

Yo me enojé un día… y bien enojada. Aunque yo no soy una persona que me importa mucho lo que los demás piensan de mi, por alguna razón cuando estaba aprendiendo español yo tenía mucha vergüenza de mi acento americano. Yo tenía la costumbre de no hablar con las personas desconocidas, pero un día estaba tarde para una reunión importante, y no podía encontrarme con la gente que tenía que ver. Entre más buscaba a la gente, más me enojaba con mi misma por no ser bastante independiente como para pedir ayuda de la gente desconocida como lo haría si estuviera en los Estados Unidos. Entonces me dije “al agua pato” y empecé a pedir ayuda a todo el mundo. Era un punto importante en mi aprendizaje, porque dejé de tener miedo de hablar el español en público.

Yo no me quedé con mis compañeros de los Estados Unidos. Yo soy una de las únicas personas que llegué de Costa Rica hablando español perfectamente, y era en parte porque yo me aislaba de los demás estudiantes americanos porque yo no quería hablar en inglés más de lo que tenía que hacerlo. A como yo lo veía, si yo iba a pasar 5 meses en un país extranjero, yo no iba a volver a mi casa sin poder hablar español. Cuando estaba en clases o en excursiones, andaba con los compañeros, y los quería mucho. Pero pasé mucho más tiempo con mi amiga Priscilla, con la familia con la que vivía, y por supuesto, hablando con Ricardo, el hombre que ahora es mi esposo.

Después de 5 meses de estudio en el extranjero, yo podía hablar el español conversacional perfectamente (¡casi sin acento americano!), pero también estaba dejando atrás el amor de mi vida, una nueva mejor amiga y un país que amaba. Al esperar en el aeropuerto para abordar el avión que me llevaría de vuelta a los Estados Unidos, me hice una promesa de volver a Costa Rica lo más pronto que fuera posible.

¿Cuáles estrategias has usado para aprender algo nuevo? ¿Funcionaron las técnicas que usaste? ¿Por qué? ¿Te puedes relacionar con alguna de las técnicas que describí arriba? ¡Hazte parte de la conversación, y comenta abajo!

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  • Ryan Biddulph
    April 17, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Hi Christa,

    Bingo on #3!

    Not super fluent, but getting POed with the self conscious feelings until I largely released them made me learn at a quicker clip. I feared not joking around in Spanish, or chatting, or being terribly off in my Espanol. It’s like folks here in the US who knew a few words of English and attempt to communicate with me; I give em props and appreciate the effort.

    Even if they point out differences and are less delicate, Ticos I’ve met in remote areas, where English is not spoken one bit, love when I reach out and look past the stumbles, all when I go for it 😉 It took for me to release the self conscious stuff to reach this point.

    Signing off from sunny NYC.


    • [email protected]
      April 20, 2016 at 10:09 pm

      Hey Ryan,
      So glad you can relate, and that I’m not the only one that felt self-conscious for awhile when learning Spanish! And I love the connection between our experience abroad and how we feel about visitors to the U.S. The hard thing for me is when I am SO interested in another’s person’s immigration story, but am hesitant to ask because I know how old that question got when I was living abroad. Doesn’t usually stop me… Thanks for commenting!

  • Oscar ricardo
    April 21, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Extremadamente feliz de recordar momentos con mis amigos y recordar que mientras tú practicabas español, yo practicaba inglés !!!
    Love you sis!!!!

    • [email protected]
      April 22, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      Hola hermano… mil gracias por el comentario y todo el apoyo que me has brindado a través de los años, tanto en familia, amistad, y el matrimonio. ¡Espero seguir compartiendo por muchos años más! ¡Besos!