If learning Spanish is one of your goals then language immersion can be a powerful part of the learning experience.
Immersion is so powerful because it creates learning situations as part of every-day life. The whole Spanish-speaking world in which you find yourself serves as a classroom.
It is similar to how you learned your first language, as a child. You hear the language used in the environment; meaning and context of the words and phrases become clear with experience; and, you start to naturally use the language without translating in your head.
Researchers at Georgetown University conducted a study in 2012 which concluded that adults who learned in an immersion setting acquired the ability to process grammar similarly to a native speaker.
Those students that only learned in a classroom did not acquire that same ability.
I’m not recommending that you never take a traditional Spanish course in a classroom. However, I know first hand that classes plus immersion is a powerful recipe for learning Spanish quickly.
Spanish immersion in Costa Rica offers this powerful combination of class plus immersion.
Why Choose Costa Rica for a Spanish Immersion?
There are Spanish schools all over Latin America and Spain. No doubt, many of them are great, most are good, and there are probably a few that aren’t that great.
I have personally done language immersion in three countries. All of the experiences were acceptable, but Costa Rica stands above, for the following reasons:
- The overall education level is high.
- The Costa Rican accent is clear and easy to understand, unlike some other countries (I’m looking at you Dominican Republic!)
- Language and culture are inseparable.
- There are so many activities to enjoy on the weekend.
- It is a relatively safe country.
- While it isn’t the absolute cheapest place to study, it is reasonably priced.
The Educational Level is High
According to the CIA World Factbook, Costa Rica enjoys a literacy level of 98%, the same as Spain, Argentina, and Chile. Only Uruguay, at 99% rates higher.
In the World Economic Council’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2018, Costa Rica ranks #23 out of 140 nations in the skillset level University graduates. It is the highest in Latin America and ranks just ahead of the United Kingdom and Luxembourg.
Roughly 25% of the nation’s federal budget is spent on education. Less than 10% of the University of Costa Rica’s annual budget comes from direct payments from students.
At the Costa Rican school where I studied Spanish, Intercultura, every professor held a masters level or higher University degree.
The Costa Rican accent is clear
The Spanish language is geographically diverse. Depending on how you count them, there are between 20 and 22 Spanish-speaking countries in the world.
Each of those nations, and often regions with those nations, has a distinct accent and local vocabulary.
It makes sense if you think about it. It’s the same in the English-speaking world. A Texan will have a different accent than a rural Australian, and both will be different than the received pronunciation of southern England.
Costa Ricans, for the most part, speak at a reasonable speed, with a clear accent, rarely omitting sounds (like many coastal Latino accents do–still looking at you Dominican Republic).
Language and culture are inseperable.
Scholars who study the subject, asset that language and culture cannot be separated.
Word meanings are informed by the culture.
Culture is transmitted via language.
When you do a Spanish immersion, you will learn the language within a specific culture. Each country, region, and, city has its own unique variety of Latino culture. Just like accents can be varied within the Spanish-speaking world, so is the unique culture of the place.
In other words, a language immersion is also a cultural immersion, and Costa Rican culture is rich and lovely.
By now, you probably already know that the national slogan is pura vida. This meaningful phrase arose in popularity in the 1970s. Now, you can hear it used as a greeting and a farewell.
You can say that something is pura vida to say that it is good. When someone asks you how you are doing, you can respond pura vida, to communicate, “doing great!”
Pura vida is shorthand for happiness, according to Nuria Villalobos, a professor at La Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica.
It turns out that Costa Ricans tend to be happy. In fact, the country often leads the entire world in happiness, as measured by the Happy Planet Index.
Environmental responsibility runs throughout Tico culture, too, as the Central American country makes strides toward becoming the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021.
So. Many. Activities.
There is so much to do in Costa Rica.
If you are serious about learning surfing or yoga, some Costa Rica Spanish schools offer dual education opportunities.
Perhaps serving as a volunteer working with children or animals is part of your plan. You can do both of those while pursuing a Spanish immersion program.
Weekend excursions can be a blast!
When I studied at Intercultura, in Heredia, there were many excursion opportunities. Jerry, the school’s excursion leader, took us to some of the most interesting places.
We did short cultural activities, like an evening of local culinary arts and dance at a local jewel of a restaurant that overlooks the Central Valley. Or, a visit to the Pre Columbian Gold Museum in San José.
He also took us on interesting day trips, to Poas volcano and La Fortuna.
Jerry also takes students on multiple day trips, to places like Lake Nicaragua and Manuel Antonio national park.
One of my favorite activities was attending local soccer games.
The Costa Rican top-level professional domestic league, with twelve teams, plays games all over the country.
In Costa Rica, you won’t have to worry about finding something to do.
It is safe
Costa Rica is a relatively safe country.
Violent crime is rare, especially against foreigners. The most common form of crime in the country is petty theft. If you take a few basic precautions, your stay in Costa Rica will be safe and secure.
Since 1975, five people have died due to volcano eruption.
The two best things that you can do for your safety in Costa Rica are:
- Get your vaccinations
- Don’t ride a motorcycle
Costa Rica provides an excellent balance between value and cost.
There are less expensive countries, such as Guatemala, whose language classes are often lower in price than that offered by the best schools in Costa Rica. For me, I am willing to pay a bit more in order to enjoy all of the advantages that are described above.
What Is It Like to Do a Spanish Immersion in Costa Rica?
Learning Spanish in Costa Rica was among my all-time best life experiences. Of the many good Spanish schools in Costa Rica, I chose Intercultura, with campuses in Heredia and Sámara.
What is a homestay?
Many immersion students choose to live in the home of a local family. These homestays often provide the best memories, as students build meaningful relationships with their host families.
During my first weeks of study, I lived in the home of a nice woman named Alice. I enjoyed delicious gallo pinto for breakfast and equally satisfying casado for dinner, at her table.
The homestay experience is also valuable because of the conversation opportunity. Your host family will only speak in Spanish with you, so you get the opportunity to practice and grow your vocabulary in a real-world situation.
Do I have to do a homestay?
Nope. While a homestay can be valuable, it isn’t necessary to the experience.
In fact, as soon as I became comfortable on my own, I changed from a homestay to a more traditional independent lodging, and ultimately a temporary apartment.
Homestays aren’t always appropriate, especially for older students (like me) or those that need higher levels of privacy for medical reasons. The schools understand this. They are going to be most interested that you are happy in your living situation so that you can devote your energy to learning in your Spanish classes.
What does the average day look like?
The sun comes up between 5:30 and 6:00 the entire year. And, when the sun comes up, so does everything else in downtown Heredia. Roosters crow. Dogs bark. Delivery drivers get an early start on the day in their big trucks.
My school day began in the six AM hour with a shower and the normal hygiene routine. It is wise to pay special attention to hygiene. After all, it is a tropical country.
Breakfast was usually some combination of fresh fruits, eggs, gallo pinto, and coffee. The fruit was purchased the day before and was at the height of sweet ripeness. Ticos don’t eat fruit that isn’t ripe.
Around seven in the morning, I would depart my living quarters. My first stop was two blocks away.
Musmanni is a popular bakery chain with at least 200 locations throughout the country. The orange and brown logo is well known. More importantly, the coffee is good.
With coffee in hand, I walked across the street, to enjoy a few sunny moments on a bench at Juan José Flores Park.
Around 7:30 I walked the two blocks from the park to the school.
In the thirty minutes before my first class started, I usually topped-off my coffee, read over my homework or lessons from the day before and read the local newspaper, La Nación
Class started promptly at eight in the morning and ended around noon, with two or three breaks in the middle.
When class was over at noon, sometimes I would hang around to do an optional (and free) language exchange with a group of local English students. We spent 30-minutes talking in English, so they could practice with a native English speaker. Then, we spent 30-minutes in Spanish conversation.
Sometimes, for lunch, my fellow students and I went to one of the local restaurants or sodas, for an inexpensive lunch. There are a delicious Caribbean restaurant and a ceviche shop on the same block as the school.
Afternoons were reserved for errands and short excursions.
The Britt Coffee farm is only a 15-minute bus ride from the school. The local gym and swimming pool are just two blocks away. One of the oldest and most tradition-rich cantinas is across the street.
I would like to say that I spent more time at the gym than I did at the cantina, but that would be a lie.
Once the sun went down, I returned to where I was staying, had dinner (if I hadn’t already eaten out), and then I got to studying.
On the weekends, a lot of students would go out to the big, popular discotheque.
While this was my experience as a student on a city campus, it is quite different for my fellow students at the beach campus.
Intercultura has the distinction of being the only Spanish immersion school in Costa Rica with a campus right on the beach. Specifically, the school is located in Playa Sámara, on the Nicoya Peninsula.
The student routine at this campus includes a lot of beach activities. You can literally leave your final class and be surfing in less than five minutes. Some students enjoy beachside yoga.
What are classes like?
Classes are entirely conducted in Spanish. In fact, in most schools, it is expected that students will only speak Spanish, with few exceptions.
Typically, on the first day, you will take some sort of assessment test. It might be written or oral or some combination. Based on the results of that test, you will be placed in a class that is appropriate for you.
My previous Spanish-school experiences, before studying in Costa Rica, were filled mostly with grammatical drills and conjugation tables. While there is certainly some value to these kinds of drills, it wasn’t something that we did in Costa Rica.
These classes were different. We read Gabriel Garcia Marquez short stories. And, then we rewrote them from the point-of-view of one of the characters. When I made a grammatical error, my professors kindly corrected me.
I learned about a part of modern Latin American culture by analyzing the lyrics of a Calle 13 song.
One professor taught me about the racially-fraught historical casta system of colonial Spain. That lesson certainly included new and interesting vocabulary.
It was always interesting.
Private Classes or Group Classes?
One of the basic decisions that you will have to make is whether to take group lessons, with three to five other students or private lessons, one-on-one with the professor.
I would say, if you are studying for at least a few months, group classes are appropriate than private lessons. There is good value in socializing with other students at your level. Plus, I found that I learned from my classmates’ experiences.
If you have a short amount of time in order to accomplish a lot of language learning, then I would opt for private lessons, for a more intensive Spanish learning experience.