Gringos Learning The Shit Out of Spanish

by Rachel Gertz

Farmer Travis
Travis looking a might shiny before his daily Spanish lesson in Costa Rica.

Trav and I committed to learning Spanish so that by the time we’d lived in Costa Rica for two months, we could carry on a conversation. I’m happy to report that although we sound like absolute idiots, we can indeed carry on conversation. In Spanglish (which almost counts).

If you’re wondering how we did it, or you wanna be able to speak Tico Spanish yourself, note the following…

Tico Spanish sounds different than Spanish in Mexico, Spain, South America —shit. Anywhere people speak Spanish, Spanish sounds different. The main distinctions you’ll find here are that people speak more slowly (thank Gringo god) and they’re super polite. They won’t screw up their faces at you as they watch you butcher their language. Also, Ticos don’t spew torrents of free form apologizing like Canucks do, but they will refer to you in the polite form, ‘vos’. Before you expect me to clear that mysterious detail up, read this.

Costa Rica has a slurry of Tiquismos or Tico sayings that I absolutely love. I tried a few on the locals and got a chuckle or two in return. I guess this means I’m pretty hilarious and can peel away the intricate layers of Spanish humour to cloak myself in them. Or I’m an idiot. 

Anyway, as far as learning goes, we basically had to dive in. This is the breakdown, in order, for how we osmosis-ed this crazy language into our brains.

Learning is Doing

1. Immersion (Free unless you’re immersing yourself in a brothel)

I still stand by this. If you want to learn anything, drop yourself into it like an Eno. You’ll force yourself to learn Spanish by treading water. Or you’ll hit the bottom floundering. Watch for Eno frothing at the mouth, though. That could be a sign of something serious. Surround yourself by Spanish speaking people and listen with all the strength your little ears can handle.

I started picking up some great phrases from the maid, Legia (pronounced Lee-hee-ya). She was super patient with me and had a wicked sense of humour. Listening to other fluent speakers allows you the distinct advantage of being able to understand more quickly, even if you can’t process and open your mouth intelligently to speak in return.

2. Hey gringo, learn Spanish! iPad app ($49.99) 

Trav bought this app right when we arrived. Forty lessons, a horny British dude attempting to learn Argentian Spanish, and a no bullshit instructor who is equally as good a teacher as she is cut-to-the-chase. The lessons are delivered in a unique way where everything spoken in Spanish has subtitles, which helps you to learn phrases even when they aren’t formally a part of your lesson. It’s the best Spanish app money can buy IF you are the type of learner who can multitask, rather than writing phrases over and over in a workbook. The multi sensory experience borders on distraction, so you’ll need all the focus you can muster. Go fix yourself a margarita and then sink your teeth into some juicy Spanish palabras.

Also remember: this is Argentinian Spanish (a whole different kettle of Spanish fish). Don’t walk into a crowded Tico bar using the -isms from this app without earning a slap or a grab to the balls. I actually have no idea what you’d have to say to earn this. Just don’t try.

3. Google Translator app (Free)  

Besides the fact that it’s hilarious to translate words like boobs and asshole into Spanish phrases, this app is useful! You can type complete sentences in English, Spanish, or a plethora of other languages, and the app will create a written sentence as well as give you the option to hear it aloud in whatever language you choose.

 Just one thing to consider. You need a cellular network connection for the app to work. That can be a bit of a problem in rural Costa Rica when you’re surrounded by a gang of randy Tico bull riders. Use it when you can, as often. 

4. Watch movies on cable. (Usually included in your stay, unless you’re sleeping in a shed)

Most channels on Tico TV are original English with Spanish subtitles, or they’re dubbed Spanish. The dubbed Spanish is hilarious, especially if you’re trying to get through an episode of CSI Miami or something, but the real gems are the English movies with Spanish subtitles. Never in my life have a learned more colourful phrases by watching BlackHawk Down as I have with Spanish subtitles. Even though it’s such a shitty movie. Unfortunately, Ticos tend not to swear on their movie channels, so many a time a ‘goddam’ or ‘asshole’ will change to a ‘darn’ or ‘bad man’. Meh, words are words. Whatever.

Know It All

In case you happen to know a bit of Spanish and think you can hold your own, prepare to be humbled. Here’s a ton of sites that’ll get you through that initial awkward stage of, “Why is everyone looking at me funny? I said that right.” 

Oh no you didn’t! 

Remember, if you’re embarrassed, don’t say “soy embarazado.You’ll probably get a disapproving frown if you do.

Formal Education

Now I guess if you weren’t lazy like us, you could actually go to school to learn Spanish. And if you did, I wouldn’t think less of ya. There are a ton of Spanish Language schools peppered throughout Costa Rica, but the ones that most well-known are: 

Courses are tailored to your level of exposure, and vary from weeks to months. Some of them have volunteer and travel components, so do your research!

If you get through all of this and you still can’t speak a lick of Spanish, you might want to just give up. Not that I’m for giving up on things. It’s just that I’m a realist. 

Wait, say “Hola.” Say it. If you said it, you know one Spanish word for sure. And now I can’t give up on you.

You’re still a winner in my books.

Spanish 101

“Vete a la chingada. Tu madre es una puta.”

Rough translation?

Go fuck yourself. Your mother’s a whore.

Back to top.