Aero: Annie Livingston – Costa Rica 2015 – Learning the Language


Aero: Annie Livingston – Costa Rica 2015 – Learning the Language
Creative Commons Image via The LEAF Project

Aero: Annie Livingston – Costa Rica 2015 – Learning the Language


Annie Livingston

When I was in Costa Rica, I was always surrounded by Spanish, and it was a weird feeling at first. As I looked around the city, I noticed signs, posters, advertisements, and even graffiti all written  in Spanish. I remember one of the very first things I saw and when it hit me that this was really real, that I wasn’t in America anymore, was when we were driving home from the airport and a stop sign read “Alto.” It was crazy to see signs, stores, and other things that looked familiar all of a sudden say something different.

As far as my speaking in Spanish went, the first few days I only used simple, one word answers to talk with my host family, such as “Gracias,” “Por favor,” “Lo Siento,” and “Adios.” I was glad that I least knew manners in Spanish at the beginning, as I did want to make a good impression on my host family, as well as everyone else.

What I soon discovered was that because I didn’t always have the words to express myself to people the way I wanted, I learned that non-verbal communication was more important than ever. If someone gave me a gift, and I only knew how to respond with a one word “Gracias,” I also had to make sure I gave them a big smile and/or hug to express my thanks, and really openly show happiness. When I met someone new, and I could only say “Hola,” and “ Como estas?”  sincere  handshakes and eye contact were also  important, so people wouldn’t mistake not having the words to communicate, mixed with some initial shyness about making mistakes, for unfriendliness.


ML@FLCC Costa Rica
2015 Flickr Gallery

The very next day after we arrived in Costa Rica we went to visit the local public market in Alajuela, where I had my first real mini “conversations” with some of the vendors, after learning some simple phrases, such as “Que es?” (What is it?)  and “Cuanto cuesta?” (How much?) I was nervous about speaking with people, but everyone was really friendly. It was a good way to start of the trip because it helped me understand; (a.) that I was GOING to have to speak with people throughout this trip, (b.) that it could be fun to try out a foreign language with the native speakers, and (c.) that nothing terrible was going to happen when I made mistakes.

When I really started to become more comfortable speaking the language was when we went to Hogar Siembra, a home for girls who had been removed from their homes due to cases of domestic violence or abuse. I met a girl named Karen, who was eleven. She was very enthusiastic about giving me Spanish lessons and wrote out a whole list of words for me, which she “checked” off the list when I had figured out how to pronounce them correctly. She tried her best to help me roll my R’s, but I feel like that is going to take years of practice.

She also wrote me a song and taught it to me in Spanish, and had our friend Alaiza translate it into English so that I knew what the words meant. Then she wanted me to teach her how to say the words to the song in English, so we did that too.

It was inspirational to see how she wasn’t afraid to laugh at herself or be afraid to try to communicate with me in English. At one point she was telling me about her best friend and she accidentally said “boyfriend” instead, which made her laugh and laugh.  Seeing that she didn’t care about making mistakes, I realized that I shouldn’t worry about it either.

It was often tricky trying to communicate in restaurants and stores, and that is where all my most awkward conversations seemed to take place. Learning the new currency of colones was like learning a whole other language at first. Several times where I would give the cashiers either way too much or too little money, and it took me a while to figure out what they were saying and what the right amount was. But it always turned out fine, and so many of the people I met were very helpful in teaching me Spanish. If I pronounced something incorrectly or used the wrong word for that particular situation, they would kindly correct me. This included store owners, vendors at the market,  and at the hair salon.

The Spanish to English translator on my iPod was very helpful in many situations where I really had no idea what to say or what something meant. It was also great for looking up words that I would see on signs or posters and wanted to know what they meant.

Because it was all around me, there were lots of little ways in which I was able to pick up new Spanish words. We had a TV in our bedroom at home and occasionally we had it on while winding down at night, and mostly it was on either cartoons or bullfighting.  Sometimes the programs were in English with Spanish subtitles, or all in Spanish.

It was interesting and funny to me seeing how all of the animals also understood the native language. I guess I should have expected it, but I didn’t really give it much thought before I came. Many of the dogs we met came when called “Aqui!” and one night when we went to a gathering with our host family there was a green parrot that said “Hola!” and a few other words in Spanish that I didn’t quite catch.

After my travels to Costa Rica,  I have definitely picked up on a lot more of the Spanish language. Everyday I learned at least one new Spanish phrase, but I still have so much left to learn. I really do wish to come back one day or perhaps travel to other Spanish speaking countries, and when I do I hope to be able to communicate with people more fluently and articulately.  I understand now that learning a foreign language takes time, a lot of practice, and many mistakes. I will keep practicing and learning, and because I am friends with my host family now on Facebook, I now know native speakers of the language and I can keep practicing by communicating with them.

Annie Livingston
LEAF Contributor