Moving to Costa Rica: Language Shock

Picture by Joan Kistler

Six months ago, when we were back in the States thinking about our move to Costa Rica, we knew we would be faced with language challenges. Tabatha had been studying Spanish for only a couple of months, and although I had been studying for a couple of years, I was still only a beginner. There was no way for us to know what it would be like.

It didn’t take long for us to find out. From the moment we stepped out of the plane, Spanish was everywhere.

We read all kinds of reassurances online about how we didn’t have to worry about not knowing how to speak Spanish because you can always just use Google Translate. Google Translate is great! It quickly became our best friend. It helps us translate signs, grocery store labels, ingredients, and product descriptions. It helps us figure out how to ask for what we want or need, and if our pronunciation is so bad that we get confused looks, it will even speak for us.

I found that to be very useful one day when I asked a grocery store clerk where I could find yeast. The Spanish word for yeast is “levadura.” It’s pronounced leh-vah-doo-rah. Now, I thought that’s how I pronounced it, but apparently I pronounced it “lav-ah-dor-ah.” The clerk was quite confused. You see, “lavadora” is the Spanish word for a washing machine. He might have thought, “Why the heck is she looking for a washing machine in a grocery store?”

I have found another Spanish word that can get you misunderstood if you fail to pronounce it precisely. The word for hair is “cabello,” pronounced “kah-bay-yoh.” It’s very easy to mistakenly pronounce it “kah-bye-yoh.” You might think you’re asking the hairdresser to wash your hair, but what you’re really asking her to do is wash your horse (caballo).

Google Translate also has this wonderful feature called “Conversation” that can automatically translate between two people. Theoretically, that is. If you’ve ever heard a native Spanish speaker, you know that they seem to speak very fast. That’s because the words flow into each other, making it difficult to pick out the individual words unless you have a trained ear. You can ask the person, “Por favor, hable más despacio” (speak more slowly please), but I’ve found that most can’t because it’s just not natural for them. Google’s “ear” may be better trained than mine, but it is still no match for my next-door neighbor’s or the handyman’s thoroughbred pace.

Google also does not translate local slang accurately, so the translation doesn’t always make sense. For example, in Costa Rica, there’s the saying, “¡Que torta!” It means, “What a mess!” A Costa Rican “torta” is like an omelet or a quiche – a mess of ingredients thrown together and then cooked. Google translates “¡Que torta!” as “What a cake!” According to my Costa Rican Spanish teacher, the word for cake is “queque,” which Google translates as “what what.” Another Costa Rican saying is “¡Que chicha!” This is an expression of anger that often follows an unexpected and unwelcome surprise. Google translates that as “What a girl!”

“¡Que torta!”

We read all kinds of reassurances online about how we don’t have to worry about not knowing how to speak Spanish because many Costa Ricans speak English, and they will often switch from Spanish to English if it appears you are struggling to understand. We’ve been here over a month, and I can count the number of times that has happened on the fingers of one hand. It has happened most often with key service providers such as doctors, lawyers, and bankers. I learned not to bother asking the guy behind the meat counter “¿Habla usted inglés?” (Do you speak English?). No, I’ve learned how to say, “Quisiera un kilo de carne molida por favor” (I’d like a kilo of ground beef please).

There are more bilinguals in tourist areas, but we are not living on the beach. We are living in the Central Valley in the city of San Ramón. Here, it seems, most people don’t speak English even though Costa Ricans learn English in school. I learned French in school. Guess how much French I remember today? The other day, my neighbor introduced her eleven-year-old “nieto” to me. When I looked confused, the kid said, “grandson.”

Yes, Costa Ricans learn English in school, but just like with the French I learned, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Some do remember a little bit of English from school, and they like to use it. Occasionally, we say “Buenos días” to someone on the street, and we get a “Good morning!” in response. And sometimes, we get a “thank you” in response. We can’t help but grin. We all love to hear our own language – even if it isn’t quite right.

I guess we can’t hide it. We are obviously English-speaking gringos. But we are living in a Spanish-speaking country now, so I feel it is my responsibility to learn how to speak the language. The Spanish phrase that comes out of my mouth most frequently is an apology: “Lo siento. Mi español no es muy bueno” (I’m sorry. My Spanish isn’t very good).

There are many other English-speakers who live here, some for many years, who haven’t bothered to learn Spanish. I don’t blame them. It takes a ton of time and hard work. I believe that not knowing the language puts you at a serious disadvantage, and I’m not willing to accept living that way. Admittedly, the choice to learn was easy for me because I’m a language geek. Tabatha isn’t, but she has become fascinated by the structure of the Spanish langue.

When I first got here, I was afraid to try to communicate in Spanish. When listening, I was so focused on translating the words that I would miss the obvious meaning from the context and the person’s body language. Tabatha was much better at this because she didn’t even try to translate the words. When speaking, I was too afraid of making mistakes: using the wrong part of speech or conjugating a verb incorrectly.

I was too focused on vocabulary and grammar. Yes, being a language geek was getting in my way. I’m now finding that I can speak Spanish better than I think. Many people have said, “Habla usted español muy bien” (You speak Spanish very well). Of course, taking Spanish classes four days a week for the past month has helped a lot! There are times when I feel great – like “Yeah, I can do this! Look at me! I’m speaking Spanish!”

Still there are also plenty of times when I fall flat on my face. I feel dumb – a lot. Many times, all I can say at the end of a conversation is, “Gracias por su paciencia” (Thank you for your patience).

People are people wherever you go. Some are more patient than others, but I’d have to say most people here are patient and really appreciate people’s attempts to speak their language. I think my fears of their impatience and intolerance are mostly in my head. It takes a lot longer to communicate here. Perhaps I’m projecting my own impatience and intolerance onto them. Yes, I’m the one who is impatient and too hard on myself.

Truly, I have never experienced anything more humbling.

Stay tuned for my next blog post: Figuring Out Work