Upon arriving to Costa Rica for the first time on vacation, I was told by a local that there were only three phrases I needed to know in order to communicate effectively while on my trip:

Pura vida: This can mean anything from “hello” to “goodbye” to “doing fine” to “life is good.”

Una más cerveza por favor: One more beer, please.

Dónde está el baño?: Where is the bathroom?

He was right.

Most Costa Ricans, or Ticos, involved in the tourism industry speak English. For anything more than a hello, or a request for beer or the bathroom, I was able to communicate in English.

Learning Spanish was not necessary.

costa rica sunset and infinity pool

Get jealous. I was able to find this empty infinity pool overlooking the jungle and beaches by asking around, in Spanish, for the best spot to view a sunset.

It’s not that I didn’t try to communicate in Spanish. I had actually had a combined total of seven years of it throughout grade school and University. Unfortunately, learning hundreds of extraneous vocabulary words a week mixed in with various verb tense lessons and conjugation exercises did absolutely nothing to aid in my attempts to effectively communicate in the Spanish language.

On top of being unable to string together a sentence, I realized that a lot of the Mexican or Spanish vocabulary words I had learned in school were inapplicable in Costa Rica anyway.

learning spanish in costa rica

Inside the halls of a language institute in San José, Costa Rica

For example, I tried once to compliment a friend on her car and told her “Me gusta su coche,” which, in Costa Rica, means “I like your cart,” as in grocery cart.

So I basically insulted her by comparing her car to a grocery cart.

She asked me to repeat a few times and with gesturing I was able to get the point across, but she still looked at me like I was crazy. I later leaned that the more acceptable and natural phrase would have been “Que lindo su carro” (literally, “How nice your car”).

Another embarrassing moment came when I tried to directly translate the emotion that I was excited about going to a concert. Ohhh nooo. You cannot translate the word “excited” from English to Spanish because in Costa Rica it means you are horny.

Sometimes things would get extremely frustrating, too. While planning to move to Costa Rica, I had a lengthy and extremely stressful conversation with my ex about a “kitchen wire.” He was asking me to bring down some “kitchen wire” because apparently his “kitchen didn’t have wire.” None of that made sense to me.

I asked him “Does the kitchen need wiring? La cocina? (The kitchen?)”

He said “Yes.”

I said “Well, I don’t understand. I know you can get wiring in Costa Rica, there is electricity there. Why do you need it from the States? It’s going to be expensive and cumbersome to haul a suitcase full of wire down!”

He insisted I bring kitchen wire and that it would not be cumbersome, so I said ok just to end the mind-numbing conversation loop. I asked what type of wire. He responded, “the type a kitchen needs. Let me tell you what type the kitchen is…”

“I am not a contractor. I need to know the type of wire, not the type of kitchen!”

After a lot more back and forth, I realized he was talking about an oven. I needed to bring the cord for an oven. Duhhhh. In Costa Rican Spanish, “cocina” can mean “kitchen” and “oven.”

learning spanish with costa rican family

This is only about 1/15 of the awesome family I lived with my first year in Costa Rica.

After several miscommunications and the basic desire to be able to communicate with people around me, I knew the first and most important thing I needed to do was to learn Spanish, again, once I moved to Costa Rica.

I enrolled in an intensive course at a well-known and well-established institute in Costa Rica. It took 3 months of going to school for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week to complete the course and receive certification.

Outside of school, I practiced Spanish with the non-English speaking family that I lived with. Levels of education varied among the family members and it was with this family that I learned some of the most valuable lessons in communicating.

The combination of a formal education and conversations with non-English speakers has been a very rewarding and effective method for learning Spanish. After three years, I’m still learning, still making amusing mistakes, and am looking forward to learning even more.

Pura vida.

Do you speak Spanish? How did you learn?


This article was written for and first published in International Living Magazine.