Learn the Language

“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages”.        –
Dave Barry

One of the biggest frustrations expats experience is learning the language of their destination country.  It is difficult to learn a language as an adult and the language barrier is one of the biggest contributors to culture shock.  For us, one of the main reasons we chose to move to a Latin American country was so that our children would learn Spanish.  We got lucky in our move to Costa Rica in two ways:  First, I speak fluent Spanish.  In fact, Spanish is actually my first language.  I did not learn to speak English until I started grade school.  We also got lucky that Monteverde depends heavily on the tourist economy, which means that many people around here speak English already.  But not everybody does.  Most of my neighbors don’t.  Our landlords do not.  If I did not speak Spanish, my world would be much smaller than what it is and our life would be a bit more difficult.  Try communicating with your landlord if you both don’t speak the same language!

My experience in Monteverde is very different than the expats who don’t speak Spanish.  It is not necessarily better, but it is definitely different.  Even compared to Chris, who does not speak Spanish, I notice a big difference in our views on the local culture and our transition.

I highly recommend that you learn the language in your home country as soon as possible.  There may be places, such as Monteverde, where you can get by with not learning the local language and you will be OK.  You can go to the grocery store or any restaurant and find someone who speaks English.  You will find a whole community of expats that you can befriend without learning a lick of Spanish.  But I don’t think that you will have the rich cultural experience you set out to find by becoming an expat.

To take this advice even further, I think everyone should try to learn another language, whether they ever plan on moving to another country or not.  Dual language programs are all the rage in Texas, which is ironic because when I was growing up the Spanish-speaking students (like me!) were treated as if our language was a handicap.  Now it’s considered a gift.  I am secretly jealous of multi-lingual people.  One of these days, I would love to  learn to speak French.

Chris took classes for two weeks at CPI, Centro Panamericano de Idiomas.  They have a robust program for people of all ages that is based on the concept of immersion.  That is really the best way to learn.  When we went to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, I noticed a handful of Spanish Immersion schools there too. Many of the expat families here are also taking classes at CPI or with a private tutor.  And the best way to practice?  Use your Spanish when you go to the bank, the farmer’s market, and your neighborhood.  Don’t limit yourself to only engaging with those who speak your language.  Learn a new one.  That is a lesson worth learning.

Pura Vida!

About Noemi Gamel

Noemi Gamel is a physician who prefers writing diverse children's fantasy stories instead of medical charts. She is a geeky nomad, too.
This entry was posted in A Lesson Worth Learning, Becoming an Expat, Learning and Perfecting our Spanish, Living in Costa Rica, Living in Monteverde/Santa Elena and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Learn the Language

  1. I am always so surprised when I meet Gringos who have lived in Costa Rica for ten years and don’t speak Spanish at all.

    Not only does it gives you such a richer experience, it also makes living life here so much easier. Going to the bank, the store, asking for directions, all in English, it’s boorish, disrespectful, and rude.

    Living in a foreign culture means you get training wheels for learning the local language – everyone around you is your teacher!

    I agree with you about the kids. As you know firsthand, learning a second language when you are young gives you a head start on mental linguistics for the rest of your life!

    • Noemi Gamel says:


      I had lunch with several of the “international” (Canadian and American) moms at my kids school today and we spoke Spanish for a good chunk of our time together. I am the only fluent Spanish speaker in the group, so I was very proud of all of them. Unfortunately, as you alluded, many Americans have the attitude as Dave Barry’s tongue in cheek observation.


  2. That first quote is hilarious!!

  3. Pingback: Where should I move abroad? | Pura Vida Familia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s