My wife is a very outgoing person.
But when we moved to Costa Rica…things changed.
I speak Spanish. Her? Well, she took a few semesters in college. She tried her best…but often got flustered when having a real-life conversation. So it was up to me to act as a translator and talk to everybody: the gardener, the maid, bus drivers, people on the street to get directions, our neighbors, the utility company…you get the idea.
It’s not that she didn’t try. And she was always very friendly with everybody—and everybody was very encouraging of her efforts. But it was so much easier to have me do all the talking after introductions and saying, “Buenas tardes! Cómo está?” (Good afternoon, how are you doing?)
A few months after our arrival in Costa Rica, there was a mini-crisis. I was leaving for a week on a business trip. We were both worried about the language barrier…but after the first phone call back home, I could tell everything would turn out fine.
She was able to talk to the handyman about a problem with our hot water…get to our house in the country from town giving turn-by-turn directions to the taxi driver…go to the farmers’ market and talk to the vendors about prices…basically get around just fine.
Was she speaking perfect Spanish? No. But with the basic words and phrases she knew, a bit of sign language, and the other person’s rudimentary English…she was understood. Now she’s ramping up her studies so she can interact even more. And she’s more outgoing with Costa Ricans we meet and not too intimidated if she has to speak Spanish (the nerves aren’t totally gone). All it took was getting out of her comfort zone a few times.
It’s a great lesson for anybody moving to a Latin American country not knowing much, if any, Spanish. You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to be willing to try and put yourself out there. Sure there might be some embarrassing moments here and there. But learning the language is the best way to integrate into the culture you’re living in—and that makes for a much richer experience during your time overseas.
And the great thing is, most everybody on the other side of the conversation is going to be very supportive—they truly appreciate that you’re making an effort.
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