Getting by on High School Spanish

Stop sign in San Juan Puerto Rico

Even something as simple as a Stop sign differs in Spanish Speaking countries. "Pare" in Puerto Rico, "Alto" in Costa Rica

I’m pretty bad at learning languages.  I took Spanish for 5 years in high school and 1 year in college and I can carry on a conversation that a four year old would have.  I can cover the following:

  • The weather, but only if its sunny or snowing.  Maybe raining.  I could probably guess at that one.
  • Your occupation, but only if you are something common vocab-wise like a teacher, doctor or anything that sounds exactly like the English word.
  • How much something costs. If it costs more than 10 of whatever the currency is, you’re going to have to repeat it though.
  • Directions, but only if the only descriptives needed are left, right, or straight ahead.
  • If you need me tell you what color something is.
  • Ordering basic food.
  • Animals.  My husband Dave handles all animal conversation because he is a rockstar at naming cats, dogs, horses, goats, bulls…he can also tell you what color they are, but only if its black, brown or white.  I know, he’s practically a veterinarian.

Being that we are at such an embarrassingly elementary level, both Dave and I are generally hesitant to converse with native speakers.  Replying to “Hola” with “Hola!” generally implies that one speaks Spanish, so it opens the door to frighteningly fast talking.  Cue “blank stare”.  This was me in Spain, Puerto Rico and Peru.

I do realize that this is the worst thing in the world that we can do for a variety of reasons.  First off, I’ve never felt embarrassed trying to speak the local language because the actual local people.  My efforts have always been met with appreciation or neutrality.  Most embarrassment I feel is because of me.  Second, I don’t know how I ever expect to get better without actually trying.  Even if I read Spanish literature or the newspaper, I would still never be as good as if I just spoke with a native speaker once in a while.

Well, I am happy to report that I DID converse in Spanish while in Costa Rica.  The tourism infrastructure in Costa Rica is amazingly well developed so many speak perfect English, but of course there are those who are bilingual yet more comfortable in their native Spanish.  One case was our driver, Alfredo, who took us back to San José after our few days in Arenal spent ziplining and seeing Costa Rican wildlife.  It was an off time to return to the city, so we were the only ones in the van.  Alfredo was incredibly nice and since it was just him, my husband and me, we decided that we would attempt to speak only Spanish.  And so it began.

My husband and I stumbled through asking him about his life in Costa Rica, his job, the wildlife, and later in the conversation, the Costa Rican government.  I’m most intimidated trying to comprehend Spanish, but Alfredo used simple words for us, and if we didn’t know the words, he would try to phrase things in another way.  His patience as a teacher probably came from him having three daughters!  He told us about the universal healthcare they have in Costa Rica, and we shared with him how much we pay for insurance premiums and prescription drugs in the US.  He told us about their educational system, how he was pleased with what his daughters were learning in school, and how the government would help them all attend public university.  Everything was superficial due to our limited comprehension, but I learned a lot more than I would have if I had just had a conversation in English.  As our conversation went on and on, it became easier for me to think in Spanish, which is really saying something because it has literally been 7 years.  All in all it was a great experience and it gave me confidence to try to speak in Spanish even more while in Argentina next month.

What’s your experience speaking a foreign language in another country?  How much experience with the language is enough to make you comfortable to converse with a native speaker?

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One Response to “Getting by on High School Spanish”

  1. November 22, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    Me gusta el perro negro.

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