Here in Grecia, Costa Rica, is a whole world that is speaking another language. I hear voices swirling around me, forming strange sounds that I only wish I understood. All of these people, walking past me on the street, driving past me at breakneck speeds in their cars… all of them have lives that are similar to mine except for the language. They all love, learn, take care of their kids, go to work, cook dinner, clean their homes, listen to music, sleep, and practice their religion—but in Spanish. They say hello and goodbye, love certain things and dislike others, and dream dreams at night—but all in Spanish.
We’re not so different at all. But I have a difficult time because I can’t communicate to know for sure who people are and what they’re thinking.
Learning Spanish is like cracking a code. This language is the fourth-most widely spoken language in the world (behind Mandarin, English, and Hindustani). If I can learn Spanish, think of all the people with whom I can communicate and share experiences. According to this article, that would be 392 million people. That’s a lot of people!
Language is holding me back from really knowing people…
When I have a conversation with my neighbor, Loty, here in Costa Rica, I hate the stunted feeling I have when I just simply don’t have the words to answer or ask a question or tell her how I feel. Language is a bridge that will let me know this woman well. We can only learn so much about each other from gestures and laughter.
I want to know:
- What is she focused on all day?
- Who does she love?
- Where is she from and where is she now?
- What is important to her?
- What does she love to do more than anything?
- What does she dream about?
But all I can ask now (with a lot of gesturing, mind you!) is:
- What is her name?
- Where does she live?
- How many kids does she have?
- What is her job?
That’s not enough—not nearly enough—to really know Loty. I don’t have enough of this beautiful language to get to know her or all the other interesting people around me. Complete fluency is not something I expect to get in the three months we’re here, but it is my long-term goal. I read on one website that it typically takes people between 5-11 years to become completely fluent.
Learning another language is a time-consuming, lengthy process…
Now that I’m here, working on learning Spanish, I realize this is one of the biggest challenges of my life. It’s not easy at all, but then most often the best rewards come from the deepest challenges. I feel like a failure when the man in the bakery says something to me and I can only stare at him blankly, only to realize he merely said, “Can I help you?” I feel confused when the radio is on, as it is now, and I think I’m listening to a love song but then I hear “banó,” the word for “bathroom.” That can’t be right!
I was an English major in college and graduated with a communications graduate degree. I’m a writer. I’m a talker. I like to share with people, through language. And now here are all of these people and I can’t say anything but “hola” and “¿cómo estás?” and “sí sí.” Haha, well I probably know a few more phrases than these but not too many.
The time has come. I’m here in Costa Rica where the whole world runs on Spanish. I’m here to honor the language and its speakers and find a true appreciation for another way of life. I can’t do that fully unless I learn the language of the people who live here.
So I’m off to practice with my Spanish app and tomorrow I’ll head downtown to do some shopping. I have a healthy fear that someone, like the man in the bakery, will speak to me and I will only be able to stumble through a dumb response with my eyes downcast.
What I need is a plan, more practice, and a place to practice in. Wish me luck!