Costa Rica Retirement: ¿Habla Español?

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    [captionpix imgsrc=”” align=”left” captiontext=”Apartments for rent — in Spanish”]If I needed any reminder why it’s important for retirees to learn Spanish, today was an object lesson: trying to communicate by phone with medical personnel to request results of some routine lab work be emailed to me. Not only is it difficult to understand Spanish at the fast pace most Ticos speak but on the telephone it is even more challenging. At least in person one can turn to sign language, or “Cherokee” as my husband Layne refers to it. On the phone, even though I can usually make myself understood — with a little help from Google Translate — to comprehend what the other person is saying is muy difícil.

    Some situations can be downright dicey without a little Spanish ability. Once while I was away in the United States, Layne lost his ATM card when he was slow taking it from the machine. Inside the bank, he was faced with the difficult mission of explaining his problem to a teller. Even his “Cherokee” wouldn’t work there. It was only with the help of a Spanish-speaking Gringo that he managed to retrieve the card.

    The language barrier represents one of the most daunting challenges faced by most transplants to Costa Rica. Unless you have picked up conversational Spanish somewhere along the way, you may find yourself more isolated from your Tico neighbors and more confined to Gringo friends than you would like. Over time you will undoubtedly garner some of the key phrases — Donde es el baño? Where is the bathroom? — but to engage in more substantive communication requires just plain hard work.

    In my case, I came to Costa Rica with two years of college Spanish under my belt, as well as high school Latin, the basis of Romance languages. I was also employed for a few years where I used some Spanish, albeit limited to the subject of the job. When Layne and I began planning our move to Costa Rica, we invested in the popular program Rosetta Stone, an expensive but effective approach to learning a new language. Based less on memorization than on intuitive comprehension, Rosetta Stone claims its “dynamic immersion” system will help you learn a new tongue in much the same way you learned your native language, acquiring new words through visual images that convey the concepts being taught.

    But like any computer-learning program, Rosetta Stone only works if you use it. The same is true of a free or low-cost Internet-based system I have used with some success, Based on a social networking model, LiveMocha also presents photos to communicate meaning but adds the value of having native speakers “grade” your submissions, both written and oral, and offers the opportunity to become online “friends” with other users of the program. The result is a more interactive learning environment, which for me has resulted in a better learning curve and a chance to help students trying to learn English.

    Some friends here in Costa Rica took community college classes before ever venturing to this Spanish-speaking country. Others have benefited from private tutoring once they arrived. Still others have combined volunteer work with learning Spanish. Perhaps the most efficient way to become fluent in Spanish is to sign up for classes during a visit to Costa Rica. There are literally dozens of good schools around the country with classrooms in every region from Guanacaste in the northwest to Puerto Limon on the Caribbean side, and from the cloud forests of Monteverde to tourist mecca Playa Jaco on the Pacific coast as well as in San Jose, Heredia and other parts of the Central Valley. Many if not most of these institutions offer an “immersion” program in which you live with a Spanish-speaking host family, attend three to five hours of classes each day and enjoy cultural activities in your leisure. The courses can be as short as one week or as long as several months, depending on the student’s preference and financial resources. Some schools are geared toward young people traveling abroad to learn a new language, such as Spanish Immersion here in Atenas, founded by my delightful former landlady Odilie Calvo. Others cater to retirees, including CPI Spanish Immersion School, which offers a two-week course geared to the needs of those of us over 50 years of age. It combines three hours a day of small-group Spanish classes with trips to volcanoes, beaches and historical sites in Costa Rica, giving participants a guided tour of the country’s many attractions.

    [captionpix imgsrc=”” align=”right” captiontext=”To enjoy community activities, learn Spanish”]With so many to choose from, selecting the school that’s right for you is a challenge and a wrong choice could result in an unsatisfying experience and a waste of money. A wise approach is not only to visit many websites and clarify your expectations with management via email but it is also prudent to actually visit the campuses of your top two or three options to get a feel for the classroom setting and the methodology used by instructors. Friends of ours, Joan and Ted, did just that several years ago and in the process discovered what was important to them in choosing a Spanish training program.

    The couple had decided on a yearlong sabbatical to try life in Costa Rica; part of that adventure was to learn Spanish. Their journey began over ten years ago, prior to the ubiquitous reach of the World Wide Web so their choices were based on brochures rather than websites. Nowadays a Google search on “learn Spanish in Costa Rica” will yield well over a million results so your first task will be to weed through that collection to come up with a few sites that match your budget, your itinerary and your preferences on location and intensity of instruction.

    Having narrowed their selection down to three schools, Joan and Ted did what most people don’t do: they visited each school in person before making a decision. At the first institution, the classrooms felt to Joan like a “dark cave,” an environment not conducive to learning. Taking a bus to the next school, they met the director who said, “We’ll just do the tour in English,” which of course would not allow an assessment of their skill level. In fact, he never tried to determine how much Spanish they might already know, which seemed to Joan and Ted a significant error since they did have some Spanish and that knowledge could determine their placement in class.

    The last school they visited was COSI, the Costa Rica Spanish Institute, with campuses in the bustling capitol city of San Jose and in Manuel Antonio, the spectacular national park located on the Pacific coast. In this case the school sent a driver to bring them to the campus where they found a welcoming environment and a director who suggested they do as much of the tour as possible in Spanish in order to determine their placement level, an approach that suited Joan and Ted. They selected a home stay over a private apartment and were placed in separate homes, just two houses apart, to encourage each of them to practice Spanish rather than one relying on the other.

    The first week their instructor spoke slowly and clearly but each week the professor changed so that they were exposed to different accents and rates of speech. As part of their tuition, they were offered optional cooking and dance classes, adding considerable fun to their experience and broadening their knowledge of the culture. Many schools combine language classes with other activities, such as adventure tours, surfing or Scuba diving lessons or volunteer work.

    Clearly there are many avenues to choose from in deciding how to develop your Spanish skills, but one thing is certain: to really enjoy the Pura Vida lifestyle so rich and appealing here in Costa Rica, the smart retiree will make a determined effort to become conversant in Español.

    Kat Sunlove for

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