We had high hopes. High in the sky apple pie hopes. Just before leaving Key West, we’d searched the net and found a Spanish language school, Amistad Instutitue, that uses the immersion technique to teach Spanish, along with a thousand other techniques. There are at least one million of these schools in Costa Rica. The one we chose came highly recommended by our Costa Rica landlord as well as a fellow tenant on the finca, and is right in our village. So close, in fact, we could have walked there. We did not walk there because walking anywhere in Costa Rica involves walking straight uphill. That’s why all the women have nice butts. I’d like to have a nice butt, but walking uphill makes me short of breath. My butt is fine.
So we land in Costa Rica on Saturday 28 January. Marcus, the director of the school, who we had never met, only talked to on the phone, MET US AT THE AIRPORT. We were so surprised by this generosity. And, as U.S. citizens, naturally suspicious. The director of the school was meeting us at the airport? On a Saturday? And all we were doing was spending two weeks in a class? But meet us he did. Negotiated a taxi van for us and our 16 bags for a reasonable sum. Drove to our house, helped us unpack. And told us he’d meet us at our house on the following Monday to show us the way to class. Now that’s service. What a nice man!
On Sunday 29 January we unpack and buy a coffeemaker. You know, take care of the critical issues before us.
Monday 30 January, Marcus shows up at 8am (on time, not tico time which would have been 15 minutes late). We follow him and seconds later, we arrive at our class. We meet Esther, our profesora [pro-fess-SORE-ah, female professor]. Let me say this about Esther: WE LOVE ESTHER. She is beautiful, funny, gets our dumb Gringo jokes without her being able to speak a word of English. She is patient, persistent and has a nice butt. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts, we did not learn to speak Spanish. We were in that class 8a-noon Monday through Friday speaking only Spanish and, although we learned essential basics, we cannot "speak" Spanish by ANY stretch of the imagination. Perhaps our goals were a little unrealistic.
This is not Esther’s fault nor the fault of the school. We love them at the school (and they love us). But I don’t see how learning Spanish via the immersion method could work unless you IMMERSE. TOTALLY. Learning another language is más difícil [mahss dee-FEE-sill, very difficult]. For immersion to work, you have to break down the old way of thinking, kill it, execute it, wipe the slate clean, become language-less… THEN start inputting. I’m not sure how you would do this without totally immersing: living with people who ONLY speak the other language, being forced to learn to communicate. Werner Erhard could probably think of a quick efficient way. But you can’t just force the new over the old. Especially if you are old. Like Hal.
The four of us learn in entirely different ways. For instance, I mimic and am bold to experiment. Trial and error is my forte. Why waste time studying?
Hal wants to know the Latin derivative, the past, present, future gerund, explicative, expletive, blah blah blah – the man can pick apart a word.
Ryan does exactly what the instructor tells him to do (unless the instructor is me). He is anxious to please, to master the task at hand, and he went after it.
Mo… Mo somehow manages to pass out sitting up with his eyes open. It’s the most amazing thing. I’m sure this is a gift. I’m not sure how he will use it…. He can order at McDonald’s in Spanish and he can now, after 30 days, answer "Como está, Morgan?" [KOE-moe s-TAH, how are you] There is hope. As long as there is a God.
The day after the immersion school ended, Hal bought a course online called Rocket Spanish to continue his basic learning. This offers a system for learning a language and he is quite pleased with it. This is right up Hal’s alley. He spends 30 minutes a day repeating words, phrases. He walks around with a stack of cards, getting the rest of us to quiz him on today’s lesson. He will master this, there is no doubt. This is a man who, about five years ago, arrived home with a $2,000 piano and a book and taught himself to play.
The boys are in a wonderful private school run by a woman who I swear is the clone of Miss Jean Brody. She has a very definite opinion of how children should be taught and what they should be taught: "The jobs our children will have don’t even exist today." We like her, even though we suspect she is a little to the left of us politically, (so will likely stuff our children full of political correctness which we will have to undo). But we like her attitude.
If they graduate from the European School, they will earn an I.B., an International Baccalaureate, and be certified native speakers of English and Spanish. Mo better come out of his coma. Almost all their classmates are Costa Rican and speak English. Fortunately for us, they speak Spanish almost exclusively outside of class so the boys are getting a dose. They have Spanish class twice a week and we were promised a Spanish tutor in place of French class.
The schools in Costa Rica have an interesting class schedule. They don’t have math everyday, just twice a week. They have all their subjects twice a week, except English (Miss Brody is big on the humanities) which they have thrice weekly. They have drama (oh yes) and a two hour art class which Ryan is not wild about. He is not artistically inclined or interested so that is 2 hours of hell for him… although he did enjoy making the wire sculptures!
They ride the bus to school – let’s not talk about how fast the buses might go over those skinny mountainous roads with sheer drop offs into 3′ ditches… Hey, I can’t protect them from everything. The Costa Ricans adore their children, revere their children. If they are going to be cautious about anything, it will be with their children on these wicked roads. As my precious boys are lurching around the hairpin curves, they are learning Spanish from their compadres [comb-PA-drace, pals] en el autobus [L ow-toe-BOOSS, the bus].
If you want to learn a foreign language, you might want to forget the immersion method unless you are going to IMMERSE by living with a local family, called a "homestay." These are also set up by the Amistad Institute. Homestays include Spanish
classes for a couple of hours everyday, then working as a volunteer in some capacity the rest of the day. Not only is this kind of immersion extremely effective, it would be interesting
and very productive.
You must be 100% committed to living through the period of adjustment and culture shock. If you can trick your brain into thinking you are in immediate danger and MUST learn to speak Spanish NOW, that would be helpful.
So far, I’ve been able to avoid all danger with the waving-my-arms, pointing, smiling and putting-together-the-few-Spanish-phrases-I-know method. I just need to know how to to say "Hola! Yo quiero los zapatos rojos en la ventana, por favor." [Hi! I want those red shoes in the window.] And I’m set.
As in much of life, our hindsight is 20/20. One of the things we’ve done right the first time around, besides get married and gleefully receive Mo and Ryan from the arms of the universe, is move to Costa Rica for a year. So far so good. Mas pronto. Hasta la vista, mis amigos!