By: Ron Snell.
If you want the shortest possible answer to this common question, it would be “No.”
There are thousands of people who come to Costa Rica with only a few Spanish words in their pockets, and they have a great time here. Fortunately, many Costa Ricans in areas where foreigners hang out have learned enough good English to make sure everyone has a good time.
That’s the advantage of speaking the world’s number one language for business and tourism.
Many people even move here and love it for many years and never achieve fluency in Spanish. Maybe they know some basic vocabulary and can understand people who speak it slowly and clearly, but they wouldn’t be able to create three grammatically correct sentences in a row. Others learn to speak it very fast and fluently, but that might mean they have just gotten really proficient at stringing together a whole bunch of bad grammar quickly.
So the short answer is “No”, but there is a longer answer. Or maybe there are just some other considerations. Here are a few of my tips:
1. Everyone learns some Spanish if they are here long enough. What I would say about that is, “However much you learn, whether one word or 1,000, learn to pronounce it correctly.” Believe it or not, good pronunciation shows respect for the language and makes people think you know more than you do. Over and over, Costa Ricans say “You speak excellent Spanish” when someone has just uttered the only six words they know, but with perfect pronunciation.
2. Whether you know a lot or a little, respect the language. Once in a while we hear a foreigner fake speaking Spanish by exaggerating certain sounds or mocking the intonation.
There are contexts in which this is funny, but too often in public it comes across as implying that they think the language is nothing more than babbling monkey chatter. As a language teacher, I’m one who believes it’s valuable to mimic sounds and intonation, but it should be done in a way that doesn’t offend. Save it for your home or language class.
3. When you decide to learn a little Spanish, be reasonable. Set realistic expectations and don’t buy into marketing hype that wants you to think if you just buy this or that course, you’ll be fluent in a couple months. Languages don’t work that way. It took you several years to learn your first language, and the truth is that after 67 years of using mine, I’m still learning. So it will take you several years to learn this one. So what?
4. Learn a little well, and use it a lot. Being able to say some basic things correctly has as much value as learning to say a lot of things incorrectly. In addition, once you have some basic stuff you can say correctly, you can build on that. A solid foundation allows for some magnificent buildings, whereas a bad foundation can’t support anything worthwhile. You will find that the more you know well, the faster you will know more. That’s just how it works.
5. Finally, keep it fun. Laugh at yourself. Treat it like a puzzle or a fantastic neurobic exercise, which it is. Imagine your new language as WD40 for your brain, spraying off layers of rust and allowing it to move quickly and smoothly. Languages do that. They also offer insights into culture and open doors to friendships. Make steady progress, but don’t let it ruin your day.
You may never become as fluent as you wish, but any step in that direction is a step you will be glad you took.