Three months in Costa Rica and I am finally getting a handle on speaking Spanish…well, mostly!
Wow. I can’t believe I have been here in Costa Rica for three months now! Before I got here, I could speak some Spanish, but I have learned a lot more since I’ve been here, mostly by hanging out with Spanish speakers. There have been some hilarious mistakes, though. Sometimes when people speak quickly, I don’t understand, or I hear something entirely different. My host mom, Flory, used to ask me in the mornings, joking, if I had any nightmares last night. The word for nightmares is pesadillas, pronounced [Pay-sa-DEE-yas]. It sounds a lot like the food quesadillas, pronounces [Kay-sa-DEE-yas]. For about a week, I couldn’t understand why she was asking me if I had quesadillas last night.
My friends have some good stories, too. The other day my friend Liz went to the copy shop and asked for some flechas. She should have asked for fichas, because instead of asking the man at the desk if he had any notecards, she asked if he had any archery arrows.
One tricky thing about learning Spanish in school is that just like in English, the formal way to say things is not always the same as the way people actually talk. Can you imagine if I said to you, “Good afternoon, young lady/man. Excuse me, but it would please me to borrow your pencil.” No one would say that! It would be more likely that I would say, “Hi, could I borrow your pencil for a minute?” But in our Spanish classes we often learn to say things very properly. Listening to people is the best way to learn the ways that different people actually speak. Older folks speak differently than teenagers. For instance, teenagers here use the word, mai a lot. Mai means “man.” You might say, “Que tal, mai?” or “What’s up, man?” to your friend. But you have to remember whom you’re speaking to. You probably wouldn’t say, ‘What’s up, man?” to your grandma.
Many people in my program feel shy about speaking Spanish, because they are afraid they sound silly. When I first got here, I was afraid that if my accent wasn’t very good, or if I used the wrong words, people would think I was stupid. Often on TV and movies, they make fun of characters, who don’t speak “correct” English, or have an accent. Think of Apu from the Simpsons, or Fez from That 70’s Show. Can you think of any more TV or movie characters with an accent from another country? Even if no one in the movie is “mean” to these characters, the way they talk is supposed to make us laugh. Sometimes we hear these accents in real life, and think they are funny. I think it’s okay to notice how different somebody’s accent sounds, and to think it’s a little funny. What I think isn’t so cool is when thinking it’s funny keeps you from wanting to hear what they have to say, and from treating them like you would want to be treated. After all, everyone, including you and me, sounds funny when we first learn a language! I decided all I could do was to hope that even if my accent sounded funny, people would understand that I was just learning. Luckily, it turned out that most people do! I wish that everyone in the U.S.A. would treat immigrants and new English speakers with as much respect as I have gotten here.
Now that I have been here a while, I have some ideas about how to treat newcomers to the English language when I get back to the U.S.A. Talking is the best way to practice a new language, and can make someone feel really welcome. I feel really good when people ask me how I like Costa Rica, where I have been so far, what my favorite sports team is, or whatever! Sometimes travelers feel lonely. Asking them about themselves, suggesting places they might want to visit, or just smiling can really make them feel like they are in a place full of good people, and a place where they are welcome. I definitely want to reach out to immigrants and visitors more when I get home.
Overall, learning Spanish has been really fun. Now I can ask for and understand directions, like when the bus leaves and where to catch it. I can tell more jokes, and I get the jokes that other people are telling. I can ask people about their lives and tell them about mine. I am very excited to go back to New Mexico and be able to speak better with some of my coworkers and to the parents of my circus campers. In the U.S., knowing Spanish can help you get a job!
I like speaking Spanish so much, I want to learn more languages. I would like to learn Mandarin Chinese, because it is the language spoken most in the world! I would also like to learn Arabic, which is spoken by a lot of people in the Middle East. I think learning a language is a form of respect. It is a way of saying, “I want to talk to you. I want to hear what you have to say. I am willing to do something hard, because it is so important to me that we can talk to each other.” What languages do you speak? What languages would you most like to learn?
I’ll leave you with my favorite Costa Rican saying before I go. Pura vida means “pure life.” People use it to say hello, goodbye, and just about anytime. It’s a way of reminding people, as my friend Roberto says, “Forget about the small worries and enjoy the ride!” Until next time, ¡Pura vida!
Spanish class is five days a week for 2 ½ hours. Learning Spanish makes making friends easy!
Sloths are called “lazy bears” in Spanish, but for a while I accidentally called them “rainy bears.”
Jeff does his sloth tours in English and Spanish.