When my family and I moved to Costa Rica earlier this year, we had a big advantage: me.
I speak Spanish. My mother is from Spain, and I’ve spoken the language all my life. I ended up being the translator for most everything—talking to the landlord about the broken washing machine, speaking with government clerks about residency documents, asking about the price of vegetables at the farmers’ market…
Although my wife had studied Spanish in college, she didn’t have that real world experience to give her the confidence to use it much in Costa Rica. She’s starting to though. Short chats with neighbors…when people stop to ask about our five-month-old son (Costa Ricans love kids), she’s able to tell them his age and say thanks when they say how cute he is.
I step back and let her practice so little by little, she’s getting there. And she understands a lot more than she speaks. But there have been a few little stumbles to comedic effect—although I would never laugh (okay maybe a little).
The other night we were at a restaurant. We had just walked through the front door when one of the waiters came over, and my wife blurted out, “Surfboard for four please” in Spanish.
Table in Spanish is mesa. She said tabla. Although many words in Spanish sound similar to English words and have the same meaning…this isn’t one of them. Tabla is surfboard. It didn’t help that we were in a restaurant with a surf shop attached.
The waiter looked perplexed for a minute, then realized what was going on. Like most Costa Ricans, he was very tolerant. He just corrected her without making a big deal about it, and we were soon seated.
It was a great illustration of life in Costa Rica, and in many other Latin American countries. Although you can get by without speaking much Spanish at all in many places, you will miss out on quite a lot.
Government offices, which you’ll be navigating if you’re seeking residency, getting your car registered, or signing up for the Caja (the universal healthcare system), will be more frustrating than necessary if you don’t speak any of the language.
You’ll get through it—plenty of people do—but even some rudimentary Spanish will make the process quicker and easier. And besides, in all these cases Costa Ricans really will appreciate the fact that you’re making an effort and be all the more willing to help you. A little bit goes a long way.
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