In the great landscape of Things To Know When Moving to Costa Rica, you start with Thing 1 and Thing 2. I have heard people say you do not need to learn Spanish to live in Costa Rica. They must be selling real estate. You absolutely DO if you are going to thrive here.
Can you get by without it? Yes, particularly if you live in an area heavily populated by expats. Will your expat life be satisfying? No, it will be hellishing frustrating. You will miss 90% of the adventure because you won’t know what 90% of the people are saying 90% of the time.
Besides, it is considered boorish to not even attempt to learn the native tongue. How often have I heard U.S. citizens complain about the Cubans living next door who refuse to learn English? Admittedly, their situation is different: they are refugees from a Communist regime and suffer acute denial about when and if they will ever be able to go home. Learning English would be a step towards admitting that will probably never happen. I have huge compassion for that.
But few of us are here out of anything but choice. If you suffer resistance to the idea, please set it aside and learn Spanish. The locals appreciate it and you’ll get better service and better prices.
To be sure, learning Spanish is hard. Challenging, but not impossible. Jal is 56, I’m 51, the boys are 13 and 14. We are all making progress. After eight months, we can get around. If you put your mind to it, you can be speaking well enough to get around in probably four months. Even my mom at 75, who will be moving here in a few months, is jumping in, determined to learn!
You have lots of good options for learning the language: classes in Costa Rica, classes in your current home country, total immersion living with a Costa Rican family for a few weeks/months, and/or volunteering at a soup kitchen, turtle nesting habitat or some other worthy cause. There are a zillion schools here offering these services. Start here and here. We were happy with the Amistad Institute if you like this area of the country.
You can also try private tutoring, online classes, online tutorials, home study with a purchased program, flash cards, or date a tico. I have links to all the methods I can find. A couple of these links are google search results. Sorry, no tico dating service. Plenty of sex for hire masquerading as dating services. Which, I guess, is another option. The real dating services are probably all in Spanish anyway…
Different styles work for each of us in my family, so don’t give up if one method doesn’t work for you. Try ’em all. We did. Except for the dating thing. Jal won’t permit it. He is so old-fashioned.
Count on taking classes at some point unless you are
1) under 5 years old,
2) disciplined enough to learn on your own, or
3) closely involved with a native speaker.
We started out with a two-week "immersion" class, the four of us together, four hours a day. This did not work for us – we all learn in totally different ways at totally different speeds. You can read the gory details here.
Next, Jal and I were tutored. We took three one-hour classes each week at the Amistad Institute ($45/week total). That was worth it. I found I did better going for a few weeks, then laying off for a few weeks, then going back. I needed time between sessions to let it all sink in. Otherwise, it was too overwhelming. Jal did this along with Spanish Power online tutoring. He gave up S.P. eventually. Effective, but pricey.
While the boys were going to St. Cecelia, we spent $300/month for a tutor there. Worth every penny. Ryan picked it up quickly. Mo had/has HUGE resistance to the whole notion. Maybe he feels like a refugee… in denial about being in a foreign country. After all these months, though, he is much more receptive.
We’ve made our best progress in one-on-one private lessons. And the more time you spend actually speaking the language, the more progress you make. It’s like learning a musical instrument, you have to repeat the same phrases many, many times before it becomes easy. Make sure you get plenty of repetition, whatever method you use.
And don’t be shy speaking when you go out. It is incredibly intimidating to open your mouth and try to speak Spanish to a native the first few times. You have to get over sounding and looking foolish. Because you will. I’m fearless – part of the acting thing, I guess. Looking foolish at first comes with the territory. But the guys have been a little more reluctant. Sending the boys into the grocery store or McDonald’s alone helped break the ice. Our housekeeper brings Sebastian, her five year old, when she comes. The kid is fluent (imagine that), LOUD and talks non-stop. We spend 6 hours a week completely immersed!
OUR CURRENT TOOLS: Hugo’s Verb book (buy it here), and a good electronic dictionary with a backlight. We have this one. It’s very good, but there are better ones – the Merriam-Webster looks good, 5 stars, good price. Spend money on this – you will use it more than you can imagine!
If I was just now moving here, I would get Christopher Howard’s Guide to Costa Rican Spanish. You need a good Spanish phrasebook and Costa Rican Spanish is different from other countries. I have not read this book, but Mr. Howard is quite knowledgeable on the subject. I would bet this covers the basics nicely!
Learning Spanish ain’t for sissies. But then, neither is being an expat. Costa Rica and its people are worth the effort. Understanding what is being said around you is THE critical element to overcoming feelings of isolation and culture shock. iPura vida!