It’s interesting what happens when you are placed (or place yourself) into a world completely different from what you’re used to. After a while, your brain starts to make adjustments. The length of time varies for everybody–I have a feeling it has a lot to do with how open-minded a person is and what his or her past experiences include–but eventually, we all adjust.

Studies have shown that being totally immersed in a foreign language is the best way to learn it, and although I believed that before I arrived in Costa Rica on Sunday, today I can say that I know it to be true from personal experience. Although I had a frustrating start mentally in regards to the Spanish language and my lack of knowledge thereof, today I feel really good because I have made some great strides. I have been amazed at how simple little vocabulary words that I learned in my high school “Spanish I” class have crept back in, either as I’ve attempted to read something or when I have seen something that I can suddenly, mysteriously identify.

All week long, I have been reading as much Spanish as possible, not as in books but as in signage, flyers, and anything else that is in bite-sized chunks. I have been reading it sometimes silently, sometimes in a whisper, and, when alone, out loud. Reading all of the words I see has helped greatly with comprehension because the meanings of many of those basic words I first learned in 1984 have returned to my brain and I have also started to understand things by using contextual clues.

Just as important to me as the understanding of the words is the vocalization and pronunciation, which is why I spent about fifteen to twenty minutes in the pool on Wednesday, reading the posted pool rules (“Uso de la piscina”) out loud, over and over and over and over again. I was rolling my “r’s” and glancing back and forth between each Spanish rule and its English equivalent, noting how the sentences were structured as I went.

The success of my immersion experiment this week has been largely affected by the openness of the people I’ve met here, folks who I will not forget. People are drawn to others who seem willing to absorb new experiences, try new things, and I think that especially applies when it comes to locals and tourists. I have been very lucky to have the time in which to work on my minimal skills with some of the locals here.

At every Casa Turire meal this week, I ordered my food by using the Spanish description in the menus, not just pointing at what I wanted. One of the servers at the hotel where we stayed for the bulk of the week, Juanita, was very friendly, patient, and appreciative of my efforts. Rather than jump in to rescue me as I inadvertently butchered her language, she let me try it and waited for me to ask for help before saying anything, which is exactly what I wanted. In addition to the great care she provided to me in general as a guest of the hotel, I truly appreciated her time when it came to my language practice. This morning when we checked out, I went to find her so I could say “Adios!” and give her an extra tip. I told her that I hoped I’d see her again and she said that she would await my return and have my “Desayuno Tipico”, with fried cheese instead of sausage, ready for me. I nearly cried when I left.

Desayuno Tipico

On Tuesday when we took the bus from Alajuela to Turrialba, we were taken directly to the plant where Jim and his co-workers needed to be, and a driver took me to the hotel from there. The driver, an adorable man who reminded me of Nintendo’s Mario (only with a baseball cap, button-down shirt and jeans rather than Mario’s traditional get-up), spoke no English, and the nearly fifteen-minute ride was completely silent except for when we said goodbye and I thanked him (in Spanish) for the ride. (Nothing complicated; just a “muchas gracias!”)

Yesterday was totally different. I made some attempts to communicate when he picked me up to bring me to the plant. Not in complete sentences, mind you, but when I saw one of the many unleashed dogs walking around as we drove up the street, I slowly said, “El perro?” He smiled and nodded. “Si! Perro!”

When we drove past the city’s stadium–the Estadio Municipal–I said, “Fútbol?” Again, he smiled and nodded, and said something about how this stadium was where the youngsters in town play soccer. (niños-ciudad-estadio-fútbol)

Estadio Municipal

As we approached the plant, he pointed out the city cemetary (cementerio), which was high up on a hill, and we shared a laugh over a teenaged girl who was walking down the street, oblivious to everyone around her because she was texting. I said, “Also in estados unidos!” so he knew that it happens in my country, too.

That fifteen-minute drive was such a small part of my week, but in some ways it was huge. Just like I remember chatting in German to the best of my ability with the native cab driver in Dresden, Germany as he drove me to the airport, Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” on the radio, this little moment in time with that adorable man from the plant will remain in my memory for a long time to come.

Today I read sign after sign after sign (we spent lots of time on the bus!) and was thrilled to figure out some sentence structure elements and figuratively patted myself on the back when I read a billboard advertisement for housepaint that translated to “Seven years of guarantee means you have seven years to relax!” I think somewhere along the way I forgot how much I enjoyed learning the ins and outs of foreign languages, and it’s been a joy this week to rediscover that on which I once focused so much energy. (I took German, Spanish, AND Russian in high school.)

So that’s that. Among the many wonderful experiences this trip has provided for me, a renewal of my love of learning foreign languages is one of the best things I’ll be taking home. That, some beautiful pictures, and my new Spanish iPad apps.

Survival Spanish


  • Mama Melch

    What an amazing experience! How long will you be there? I also LOVE learning foreign languages, and have found that it takes me only a few days to start getting an ear for the language, though I’m usually too shy to use it yet. Have a great time exploring and learning.

  • Grandma W

    I’m surprised you forgot how much you loved foreign languages. They were right under English which was your top subjest. So glad you had such a great time.
    Grandma W

  • Liz

    I love this post! My husband and I traveled with my parents, the first year we were married, to introduce him to family in Hungary. We were all pleasantly surprised at how quickly he was also able to immerse himself into the culture, as well — especially, when ordering his favorite Hungarian pastries 🙂

  • Mel S

    You are totally right about the immersion aspect. I always tell people that you just have to speak the language and not be afraid of making mistakes. Most people will help you–you help people with English, right? I drive my daughter nuts because I make her speak French to the nuns that come to the Farmer’s Market every week in the summer. We also usually talk in French in the car and on walks. She always looks at me cross-eyed, but one day she will appreciate it.