Learning a new language can be a massive challenge. Once you’ve reached adulthood, the brain is no longer the language-acquiring sponge it once was.

The key to learning a new language is to immerse yourself in that new language and, in particular, to SPEAK it. That is exactly what my wife and I did when we started our 6 month honeymoon around Central and South America.

Learning Spanish, Tico style

Learning Spanish, Tico Style
Credit: Andrew Montgomery

Spanish school in a quiet beach village: yes please!

After an initial week spent soaking up the majesty of the Costa Rican rainforest (and meeting and photographing a puma, which you can read about here), we enrolled in a Spanish school and sought accommodation with a local Costa Rican family.

The location of our Spanish school was in Dominical, a small village on Costa Rica’s Pacific west coast. Along with the Spanish school and the obligatory backpacker hostels and restaurants, Dominical was home to surf shops and surf schools, making use of the magnficiant waves that crashed onto the long sandy beach.

At the time we were there (in 2007), the section of the highway running north was unpaved. Being more difficult to access had protected Dominical from some of the more aggressive tourist development in the north of the country. We found it a wonderful, relaxing environment in which to get to grips with the Spanish language.

Enrolling for the school was incredibly easy. We arrived in Dominical on the Saturday morning. At the school we met the a man who turned out to be the school’s janitor, handyman, driver and general local ‘fixer’. Through a combination of hand gestures and facial expressions (remember, we had no Spanish at the time), he called the school director, who thankfully spoke English, who said we could start first thing on the Monday morning.

Learn Spanish in the morning, surf in the afternoon

Learn Spanish by day and surf in the afternoon
Credit: Andrew Montgomery

Comfortable lodgings, morning lessons and salsa classes

For that first weekend we stayed in a backpacker’s hostel. Once we’d started at the school we were placed with a local family. Our hosts, Sara and Alvin, had two daughters, aged 13 and 2. Our room was in a small annex to their house that they had built to accommodate Spanish school students. The annex, which comprised 2 small bedrooms and a shower room, was spotless, as a result of Sara’s obsession cleaning tendencies (which you need in a country with a climate so conducive to the growth of mould and mildew).

The school ‘day’ was actually a morning. Each morning saw 4 hours of lessons, running from 9am until 1.30pm, with two 15 minute breaks. Since the lessons were conducted entirely in Spanish and the focus was on speaking as much as possible, 4 hours is probably the most I could have withstood without my brain exploding.

Students are streamed into separate classes according to ability. Having never spoken Spanish other than what we had so far read out verbatim from the travel guide, my wife and I were placed into the beginner class with two other people.

In addition to the morning lessons, most days saw an activity held in the late afternoon or evening. These activities, which included horse riding tours, visits to local waterfalls and coffee plantations, dancing lessons and karaoke sessions, allowed students from all ability levels to mix, have fun and continue to practice their Spanish.

Why you should always live with a host family when learning a new language

Our host family provided the third element of our Spanish education.

Whilst the father, Alvin, toiled in the fields (he left the house each day at 4.30am), his wife Sara would sit with us whilst we ate our dinner (generally rice and beans, along with meat, fish or vegetables). She loved to talk and encouraged us to use our Spanish as much as possible.

As a reserved Englishman, with persistent flashbacks to a bottom-clenchingly bad French oral exam at school, having someone push me to get over my fear of speaking and making mistakes was of huge importance. It allowed me to make the most of my time in Dominical and set a solid foundation for future Spanish language learning during the rest of our trip.

Our other language-acquisition advantage in Sara’s house was the presence of her two-year-old daughter. Since she, too, was learning a language (albeit her mother tongue), she tended to speak in simpler sentences and on more comprehensible subjects. Discussion with a two-year-old child is meant to be silly, so there was no embarrassment in using hand signals or the wrong words when talking to her.

The little girl also introduced us to Teletubbies in Spanish. So it wasn’t all positive.

Practicing Spanish whilst taking a shower

Horseback trips to hidden waterfalls... all in Spanish
Credit: Andrew Montgomery

21 days learning by a beach beats 5 years in a school classroom

We spent three weeks in total at Spanish school in Dominical (a ringing endorsement in itself, as we had only signed up for a week originally).

By the end, we were capable of holding a reasonably coherent Spanish conversation.  We felt excited by using our newfound language skills and were looking forward to developing them as we travelled further through Central America.

I discovered that, as in the acquisition of most new skills, the process of learning a language was inspiring and enjoyable. It felt like I made more progress in Spanish in 21 days than I had in five years of French lessons at high school.

If you want to learn a language, immerse yourself in it

I cannot emphasise this enough. If you are serious about wanting to learn a new language, whether it is Spanish or Swahili, go to live with a family that speaks that language and don’t speak English. Don’t give yourself the option to slip back into your mother tongue.
And if you’re looking for somewhere to learn Spanish, where the countryside is varied, verdant and beautiful, and with beaches where you can enjoy the chilled surf lifestyle, Dominical, Costa Rica comes highly recommended by me.