My Spanish professor told me this week there will never be a time learning Spanish, learning a second language, that I can just sit back, relax, and passively listen. At least, not in the next three months.
For the six years of Spanish I have studied, I had little to show for it under the nerves of the first few days in a foreign country. Simple tasks, like ordering food or desperately asking for the bathroom, are strained efforts filled with the chance for failure. Fear filled my mind—what if I can’t be understood? Worse than that, what if someone asks me something or for a favor? These thoughts could separate me from an entire country and ruin my experience abroad. I honestly thought, before meeting my host family, that I was not going to be able to get through three months in a foreign country living in a home where the primary language is not English.
These thoughts itched in the back of my mind for days. That was until my first dinner with my host mother, father, brother, sister, cats, and dogs. At that point, I had no option to allow my nerves to get the best of me. I took it slow. It is better to speak slowly and accurately in a foreign language than to jumble around a bunch of nonsense. I am not going to escape the truth; learning this second language is hard work. And I am one of the lucky students on the trip to have a firm background in Spanish grammar and vocabulary. I am also lucky to have a family that is patient with me, that is willing to correct and help when I butcher their language, that has taken me in and helped me adjust to the tico culture.
And every day it gets easier. I have started picking up on conversations in the street and casual interactions at restaurants and shops. Channel 7 News every morning keeps me updated on what is trending in Costa Rica, Central America, and all things soccer. The headlines that were a crutch are now redundant. This is by no means a sign of fluency or complete understanding, but Spanish has transformed from a linguistic Great Wall to a funnel into a new, wholesome culture.
For myself, the rate of vocabulary acquisition during cultural immersion has accelerated rapidly over the past two weeks. Words like senderos and gallinas, trails and chickens respectively, are used in the utmost frequency here. Countless times my lazy pronunciation has led to altered definitions, even incomprehension. Misunderstandings like these keep my family and me entertained at most meals. If it were not for my home stay, I can say frankly that I would not have the confidence speaking as I do now. The key is not to allow embarrassment to get in the way of improving verbal communication.
Yet there is still so much to learn. Thankfully (or unfortunately) I have Spanish class for nine hours each week and a host family to speak with for the rest of the day. The colloquialisms of Costa Rica can still be hard to understand, and I have to adjust my ear between English among Americans and Spanish among Costa Ricans. All I can hope is that at the end of this journey, I will come out with a more confident and fluid understanding of my first adopted language.