So You Wanna Be Fluent?

A sign reading 'bienvenidos' - 'welcome'As I walk down the plane aisle looking for my seat, I become aware of the low murmurs of Spanish conversation around me. Attendants greet me in Spanish as I pass by. I start to feel the slight beginnings of apprehension. This isn’t like Spanish class! People talk faster than I’m used to and from where I’m standing, I can’t hear one sliver of English dialogue at all.

It’s not until the attendants give flight safety instructions that I hear English again and it’s only a translation of the Spanish announcements. During the plane ride to San Jose, Costa Rica, it slowly begins to sink in that we’ll be immersed in Spanish for the next week and a half. It’ll be my first time in an environment like this for a prolonged period of time.

Pre-Trip Fears

I wanted to be fluent in Spanish. Before our trip, however, I just couldn’t get myself there… or at least, I wasn’t willing to make the necessary mistakes to improve. I’m not a shy person, but after my high school classes, I found myself rarely practicing Spanish despite living in places where Spanish speakers are fairly common. Although I felt like it had been acceptable to make mistakes in the class environment, the “real world” felt like a different story. The latter felt scarier as a practicing ground… In the “real world,” I felt like there was no room for mistakes, so I didn’t practice speaking. I cut Spanish conversations short when they did arise, telling myself that I was saving my counterpart from frustration with the potential miscommunications. In reality, I was avoiding what I thought would be a conversation full of my embarrassing mistakes. I needed a push to make me realize that the “real world” is just as much a place for making mistakes as my Spanish classroom. That push, for me, came in the form of our stay in rural Mastatal.

Mariangel and Isabel, local hosts, stand next to Christine (the author) and fellow participant Blaine.

From left to right: Mariangel, Isabel, Christine (the author), and Blaine. This picture was taken when Blaine and I first met Isabel and her adorable two-year old daughter, Isabel – both of whom do not speak English. Blaine and I spent two nights in Isabel’s home, where we learned more about the typical lifestyle and culture of Ticos (locals) in Mastatal.

Time to Make Mistakes

In Mastatal, I found myself immersed in the Spanish language and saw an incredible shift in how I approached interactions in Spanish. While I did see drastic improvements in my Spanish speaking speed and comprehension, I think the most important change was my gradual acceptance that mistakes are part of the learning process. In our short trip to Costa Rica, we had a number of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. At every location we visited, I found myself wanting to know more. When else would I get to stay in the home of a local family? Or have a one-on-one conversation with the community restaurant owner? Or spend a couple hours talking with the business and farm owners of Mastal?

By the second day of our stay, I saw my curiosity to ask questions overtake my embarrassment of miscommunication. I needed to ask questions. Instead of avoiding conversations with locals, I embraced it. 

Markos, our host and local farm owner, explains farming practices at his home of Siempre Verde.

Marcos (left) explains the sustainable practices at Siempre Verde, his educational farm in Mastatal. Valuable learning opportunities were had in Spanish.

My Advice: Just Go For It

For all you who took Spanish – or any language class – in high school, you know more than you think. You’ll be fine in another country. The question is just how you’ll approach the immersion; your mindset will change your entire experience and everyday interactions. If I could tell you anything about my immersion experiences in Mastatal, it’d be this:

  • Don’t take the easy route. It takes constant effort to always focus on understanding the language, especially if you’re still learning it. Still, focus on trying to understand everything. Don’t zone out. Whether or not there are English translators present, don’t wait for the translation. Try translating it on your own first.
  • Use every chance you get. We had the chance to live on a beautiful, working farm called Siempre Verde, live in the home of a local family, and genuinely integrate ourselves into the community’s culture as a whole. While in-country, I realized that most of my barriers to improving my Spanish were just mental ones. Realizing that this trip might be the only chance to meet some of the amazing people in that town, I decided to treat every opportunity like it was a one-time deal. Say hello! Start conversations! Learn as much as you can from as many people as you can!
  • Ask for help. It’s okay. There were lots of words I didn’t know. (After all, my Spanish vocabulary bank does come straight out of the textbook.) I learned to swallow my pride and ask for help from the team around me. In doing so, I saw how many people were eager to help. Above all, I saw that it was better to say the wrong thing that to not try at all. 

    The author pictured with Mariangel, daughter of the author's local host.

    Spending time with two-year old Mariangel inside the home of our homestay family.

The Take-Away

I entered our trip to Mastatal with worries about miscommunication, but I came out of it feeling the complete opposite. Over the course of our trip, there were so many instances where I didn’t know a word translation or I answered the wrong question. Nonetheless, I was happy with every mistake. Because I wasn’t worried about making mistakes, I was able to:

  • Start conversations everywhere
  • Learn many new words and have a lot of laughs in the process
  • Learn about the locals’ opinions on topics that interest me – consumerism, the relation between money and happiness, and so much more
  • Meet people I couldn’t have met had I been afraid to try out my Spanish – and ultimately, have conversations that I’ll remember forever 

From our short time in Mastatal, I can see how much my Spanish speaking and comprehension skills have progressed. More than that, I can see how much my approach to learning has changed. It took me a trip to Costa Rica to realize that I didn’t need a class to improve my language skills. I can still learn on my own, as long as I’m willing to put myself out there. This approach can be used in any situation, whether it is practicing a language or learning a new skill. Back in the States, I plan to continue learning the same way I did in Mastatal… mistakes, misunderstandings, and all. If there’s anything I learned from this trip, it’s:

Don’t be embarrassed by the process. Enjoy it. 

 

Christine Yuen.