¿Habla Usted Español?

Learning Spanish in Costa Rica

by Ed Underwood

  1. Studying in Costa Rica
  2. School Offerings
  3. Partial Listing of Spanish Schools

There's an old joke that goes: What do you call a person who speaks several languages? Multi-lingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks just one language? Gringo! English speaking countries have historically shown a mild disdain for other languages; and people of other languages and cultures have noticed. With more focus on international news, travel and business, the English language population of the earth is beginning to recognize the importance of learning a second, and perhaps even a third, language.

People travel to different countries for different reasons: some to rest, some to sightsee, some to explore . . . and some to learn the language of that country. Costa Rica sees every type of traveler, but more and more it is seeing people arriving in San José to learn Spanish. Several years ago an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal about which language, other than English, top executives from all over the world thought was the most important. By a margin of more than three to one, Spanish was cited as the second language of choice. Estimates of the number of native Spanish speakers worldwide range from 330 million to 400 million people, making it the second or third most spoken language, depending on which number you reference. That's a sizable chunk of folks.

For years, Costa Rica has been the destination of choice for missionaries of all faiths needing to learn Spanish before heading into their mission field in Latin America. Peaceful and accepting, Costa Rica's rich tradition in "correct" Spanish makes it the perfect place to immerse oneself in the "language of the angels." Ever industrious, the Costa Rican people have made an industry out of teaching Spanish as a second language.

There are over 25 Spanish language schools in Costa Rica--all offer more than just classroom experiences. By and large, a person can learn as much or as little as she likes and stay in Costa Rica for as long (within the rules) or as short a time as she wants learning Spanish. From a few hours of "survival" training to a year or more of intense immersion, language schools offer an entire spectrum of choice for the language student.

Let's say you've decided to join the international jet-setters and want to be "bilingual." You've heard about Costa Rica as a tourist destination but little about its language schools. You've got some time, say a month, and you're ready to combine business with pleasure--what's next? With the 25-plus schools to choose from, what impacts on your choice?

One relatively simple way to gather information to help you choose is to contact the people at the Institute for Spanish Language Studies (ISLS). Billing themselves as the "Costa Rican Language Schools Experts," ISLS really does have a handle on what's available here for the serious, and the casual, language student. Not a language school but rather a language school broker, ISLS currently represents eight of the most outstanding schools, offering a variety of locales, programs and prices; and ISLS can give the inquisitive mind limited information on the others.

One universal truth about all the schools in Costa Rica is that they are "student centered": each school tries to make the learning experience in Costa Rica a rich one. Most private Spanish language schools weave cultural, social, geographical and environmental experiences in with the rather difficult task of learning a foreign language. With services like airport pick up, "home stays," private lessons/tutoring, and side trips to many points of interest outside the classroom, most schools are a far cry from self-study classes at home. Recently, many schools have begun to open outside the San José area. Students can now choose locations from the mountains to the beaches. A language student in Costa Rica learns not only Spanish, but also about the country, people, culture and geography.

Apart from the commercial language schools, a hard-core student can enroll in one of the many universities in San José. The University of Costa Rica and Universidad Veritas, among others, offer Spanish as a second language. These courses are open to any foreign student and are an excellent, budget-focused way to learn Spanish in a university setting. This choice does, however, have its draw-backs. The primary one being that the university courses are all you get--no assistance with cultural events, no side trips to volcanoes, no prearranged social events. However, according to ISLS, most people who choose to come to Costa Rica to study Spanish are looking for more than the bare-bones experience.

In general, here's what's offered to the vacationer-student wanting to learn Spanish in Costa Rica:

Individually Tailored Programs
Regardless of your proficiency with Spanish, each school can offer a study course designed to increase your proficiency, from the beginner to the language scholar. If you only know taco, you'll be placed with a group of beginners; if you are reading and understanding Gabo in his native tongue, there's a group for you as well.
Time-Tailored Programming
If you have a day or a year, you'll find a plan for you. From a one-day mini-survival course to a year-long total immersion course, there's something for everyone.
Small Classes
Most of us learn better in small and intimate settings. The schools offer classes from two to eight students. The small groups may have one or two teachers and last from two to six hours a day.
Individual Tutoring
If you are falling behind in your regular course of study--too much night life, perhaps?--individual tutoring sessions are often available, usually at an additional cost.
Home Stays
Students can be placed with selected Costa Rican families for the duration of their course of study. These home stays allow students to learn while they live since the selected families seldom speak English with the student. Meals, laundry, and the warmth of family living are included. This choice is a wonderful way to really get to know Costa Rica and how special the Costa Rican people are.
Cultural Activities
Any school worth its salt will have planned social/cultural events for the student. Many provide guided tours to those special places that make Costa Rica such an enchanting place to visit.
Miscellaneous Activities
Some of the schools offer dance and cooking classes--both exciting ways to learn and experience new cultures. Some schools have workshops on the political and social composition of Costa Rica and Central America.
College Credit
Many of the schools profess affiliation with US universities and offer college credit. Beware, though, this is an "iffy" proposition and serious checking should be done before assuming that your time here is transferable to your home university.
Airport Pickup and Return
Since a choice to learn Spanish in Costa Rica usually entails travel, most schools will pick up arriving students at the airport, especially if a home stay plan is selected, and deliver them to their host family. Even if you are not staying with a host family, most schools offer to take you to your hotel.

There is quite a variety of options open to the language student who chooses to learn Spanish in Costa Rica. The cost spectrum is wide as well. Averages range from US$315 (lessons only/weekly) to US$600 (intensive lessons with home stay/weekly). Survival courses of a short duration are much cheaper, from around US$20 per hour with discounts available for studies longer than a week and for booking early. Many schools accept reservations from the States and Canada, and credit cards.

As with any investment--and learning Spanish in a foreign country is an investment--there are caveats. Always check carefully on the things that matter: are the teachers qualified?, are the home stays with reputable families?, can the school give verifiable references?, is the school affiliated with U.S. or Canadian universities (if college credit is important)?, is some type of certificate given on completion of the course?

If you are a gringo who only knows one language and wants to learn Spanish, opportunities for an adventurous learning experience abound in Costa Rica. From survival to fluency, with beaches and mountains thrown in for good measure, anyone can become bilingual in Costa Rica.

If you are interested in learning Spanish in Costa Rica, here is a partial list of links to Spanish schools in Costa Rica.

Copyright © Ed Underwood. All rights reserved.