Are you ready to “live the dream” in paradise? Heck, yes. Costa Rica, here you come! Every little planning detail is getting covered, and yet there’s still one nagging challenge you haven’t quite faced yet. It’s a Spanish speaking country. Yikes! “How am I going to learn a second language at this age and stage?” you ask yourself. “And how will I ever survive if I don’t?”
The truth is, many expats do get by with limited (to no!) skills in the native language of their new country. Often bilingual facilitators are available to help negotiate everyday business wherever you go, and many locals may speak English as well. Most especially those locals owning businesses in areas with high numbers of expats living there or visiting. The question then isn’t necessarily of one’s having to learn, but rather choosing to learn.
That’s the good news, right? Well, yes and no. Obviously, I recommend choosing to learn. Nothing else will make you feel part of your new culture as much as being able to converse comfortably with the locals. Still, I’d like to share some insights I’ve gleaned in my own language-learning journey, and by observing other expats in theirs. You see, I too felt some what “forced” to learn Spanish when I moved down to Guatemala for my very first teaching job. Fortunately I did, but believe me ~ it wasn’t easy, and no one was more surprised than I!
So how the heck does one do it? Let’s check out what I’ve come to consider as very pivotal, and I believe realistic, factors in achieving success.
MOTIVATION – How badly do you want to learn the language, and why?
Just as anything else in life, the extent to which you want something determines how hard you’re willing to work for it, right? I liken it to my vague notion of wanting to learn how to sew. Will I? Probably not. I simply don’t want it badly enough. But are you absolutely determined to learn the language? If so, then you will. Now ask yourself why. If you’ve got specific reasons (as opposed to seeing little need to), whatever they are, they will propel you into getting it done.
PERSONALITY – Are you an extrovert or invert? “Type-A” Personality or not?
Are you timid? Shy? Uncomfortable putting yourself out there? Or do you just love to express yourself, no matter what? Let me tell you a story. When I went down to Guatemala for that teaching job, I discovered that my sweet and quiet roommate had had 4 years studying Spanish in college. Me? Nada. I was petrified. But although she had a great foundation in the language, I was the one going out into the markets to try words and phrases on for size. Simply because as an extrovert I had to be able to communicate, and connect with those around me. By the 3rd month I was at least able to express basic needs, and then picked it up over the course of 2 years. Granted, I did have a cute, non-English speaking, Guatemalan boyfriend. So you can see how the motivation thing came into play…(!)
And what about if you’re a “Type A” personality? You know – a bit of a perfectionist? I’ve noticed that my “A” friends absolutely learn the language more grammatically correctly, but often find it tougher to get out there to speak it. Why? Because a critical key is to allow yourself to make mistakes, and better yet, to be able to laugh at yourself when you do. Locals will love it. They’ll see that you’re trying, and the smiles you share will be a great way to connect. Don’t worry. Little by little, the proper grammar will fall into place. For the moment, the goal is to try to express yourself any way you can. Just like a toddler, stringing important words together works!
AGE – “This old brain just ain’t what it used to be” …or maybe it is!
It’s easy to say you’re just too old to learn a second language, and have that be the end of it. And yes, I won’t lie. It definitely will be tougher than it would’ve been in your youth. Still, I believe that the first two factors – Motivation and Personality – will more likely be the deciding factors on that one. Besides, they say that learning another language later in life gets those neurons fired up for a healthy brain, and can even possibly ward against Alzheimer’s disease. Now that’s motivating in and of itself!
PROPENSITY – Does everyone have the same equal chance at learning a second language?
Because our brains work differently, I’m not convinced that we all have the same propensity for learning a language fully and fluently. For instance, language comes relatively easy to me, but it doesn’t for my husband. And yet, do I have any capacity at all for mathematics or construction? Not a chance. So while the challenge of learning Spanish has been overwhelming for him, I get it. I’m just thankful that I don’t have to learn what he knows. That said, though, I do believe we can all get to a basic level of expression depending on all the other factors I mention here. What do you think?
EXPOSURE – The more you use it, the easier it becomes.
It’s one thing to study a language in a course, and yet an entirely different experience when you’re pushed to actually apply it. Oh, how tongue-tied and frustrated we can get! Still, learning a language doesn’t happen in a bubble. The more you put yourself out there, the quicker you’ll pick it up and achieve fluency. The reward, of course, is twofold: 1) you’ve accomplished an incredibly major feat, and 2) as I mentioned before, you get to interact more fully with locals, and become a greater part of your new culture. How great is that?
FLUENCY – To what extent do you need to speak the language fluently?
It takes years to speak another language naturally and fluently, and few expats I know have had the chance to reach that level. But is it necessary for you to get to that point? Probably not. There are different levels of fluency. Initially make a goal of using words and phrases to express yourself. Beyond that, if you learn enough to be able to conduct a simple back and forth conversation (essentially an intermediate level), you’ll certainly open your world by going from a spectator to a participator.
So, are you ready to take a beginner’s course or one online? Or maybe you’ve already gotten started. Just remember to go easy on yourself. There’s no pressure to master this second language. Just enjoy as you grow personally, and integrate yourself more into your new life. Have fun, and don’t forget to celebrate those “aha!” moments and giant steps you’re bound to be making along the way!
WRITTEN BY: Trish La Placa