I studied and lived in the small town of Santa Ana, Costa Rica, located just outside of San Jose and my experience was transformed by my instructor and host family. Although I had taken Spanish courses throughout middle and high school, my understanding never reached a level high enough to speak the language. My intention to study in Costa Rica was fueled by a desire to become a fluent speaker. To achieve this, I knew what was required of me: I had to push myself past my comfort zone.
At the Conversa Linguistics School, I took intensive courses which accelerated my knowledge and understanding from foundational to an intermediate level. This opportunity was unique in that my class sizes were very small and allowed for me to work with my instructor and classmates in an intimate setting. In one class, I was the only student. I remember being nervous about my ability to perform and comprehend the information: conjugations, new vocabulary, and my ability to correctly pronounce words were aspects of learning the language that made me feel intimidated. Grace, my instructor helped ease my nervousness by providing constructive feedback and acknowledging the strides I made with assignments and assessments. Grace’s approach to teaching included traditional and nontraditional aspects. Some days she broke down the roots of words such as “correr”, to run, outlining the ways in which the word could be conjugated and used in everyday sentences. On other days, we went on walks through the campus or visited friends of hers who lived a short distance from the school. I appreciated the nontraditional structure because it centered community interaction to immerse me in the language. This kind of instruction and practice I did not get during my seven years of classes back in the United States.
My instruction continued with my host mom, Liliana. In her home, we had daily conversations over dinner. Due to my lack of vocabulary, a twenty-minute conversation would often run us two hours during my first week. Liliana was extremely patient and kind when telling a story or explaining customs of her country and town. To a non-native speaker like myself, it sounded like Liliana was speaking fast, so I struggled to connect the dots, catching every other word. In these moments, I was reminded to push past my comfort zone, so I got creative.
When Liliana used a word or phrase that was unfamiliar to me, I used the Google Translate app to get over the hurdle. This worked for us, and I appreciated Liliana’s willingness to employ technology to help me in my pursuit to speak more fluently. Our conversations soon became more complex. We had deep conversations about political and social tensions in the United States, Costa Rica natives’ relationships with Nicaraguan immigrants and the commonalities between immigration in her country and the United States. These are the conversations where I learned the most because it called for words that I had never heard before. Had I stayed on campus, I doubt that I would have gained a full perspective of the country that Liliana provided.
Through conversations with Grace, Liliana, and other members of the community, I grasped what it truly meant to break the language barrier. This required persistence and a true willingness to learn from others with a different upbringing and culture than my own. My time spent in Costa Rica gave me a new perspective on the lives of those in Central America and countries other than America overall. I would like to this that my effort to reach a deeper level of understanding helped us cultivate a sustainable relationship. I am happy to say that we still communicate and keep in touch through social media. My experience learning the Spanish language took a turn for the better because of the Gilman scholarship and those who were kind enough to help me make the most of my study abroad trip.