Are You Ever Too Old To Learn A New Language? Ex-Pats in Costa Rica Discuss "Espeaking The Espanish"

One appealing aspect of moving to a place where you don't speak the language is you no longer have to hear anything stupid. Living in New York City, where strangers rub elbows and ears together, means that you are constantly overhearing cell phone conversations, 90 percent of which constitute of "I dunno, where do you feel like eating?" and what passes for bon mots on the subway ("No azzhole, you step back"). There was also the ongoing dread of flipping TV channels, with a thumb never quite quick enough to avoid all mentions of "that hilarious photo of Katy Perry," how Vinny made Snookie cry, Beyonce's buckwild moves, or how an 11 year old girl in need of heart and liver transplants killed a 335 pound bear. (No, really! It's true! She did!)

So the idea of retiring in Costa Rica, land of jungle, beaches, poison dart frogs and two-toed sloths, was further enhanced by knowing we'd be able to ignore the conversations around us. If two Ticos were debating "Hot or Not" about Laura Chincilla, the Costa Rican President, we'd be blissfully unaware.

But 99 percent of my friends here are Tico, and being unable to communicate beyond tourist Spanish ("Hello, how are you? Where is the bathroom? I have been robbed...") was a big drawback.

When we needed to retrieve some cajas (boxes) we'd shipped down from NYC, I said I had seven faces (caras) I needed to pick up in San Jose. A strangely entertaining bit of performance art ensued as my friend Ronaldo pantomimed the act of transporting seven faces in his banana truck, while I tried to communicate where the faces were being stored, and how large and heavy they were.

How were other ex-pats faring?

One guy we know communicates primarily in onomatopoeia, dented-brain English, and made-up Spanish: "Yo, is neccisario for me a... boom boom boom.. ya? Mmm, pop-a-pop-a-popa? Es possiblay? Cabish?" He accompanies this with an ambitious little finger puppet show, and one can only imagine what the listener might be thinking: "Oh, the Itsy Bitsy spider? Went up the water spout? I see..."

Some ex-pats simply speak English with a Spanish accent ala Speedy Gonzalez, the Frito Bandito or El Kabong: "I luff leefing in joo country..." "Ees thees jour poosycat?" "Looosey, I'm ho-oome!"

Clearly, we needed to get going on our Spanish; shunned by Ticos while avoiding fellow-expats like Grim Death itself was no way to live.

We started with the basics, thanks to a Pimsleur CD ("I enjoy the broad promenades of Madrid! Do you have sardines in a can?") But the best lessons came from day to day experience.

From my baseball team I learned broad, useful, everyday terms like "Bunt," "Don't swing," "Why are you limping?" and "Do you need a seeing eye dog to help you out in left field?" Gay's yoga class is in Spanish, and she can hardly wait for the opportunity to tell someone, "Open your heart and lower your hips."

My teammates were also helpful in teaching me how to curse. Now, I grew up in New York City, the cursing capital of the world, a veritable Mecca for the potty-mouthed. A place to which men, women and children from all over the world come to curse each other out in ways they might only have dreamed possible at home. "Your mother to fc*king a pickle then, you!!" "Go! Go f*cking a new goat, guy!!" "Why you don't go back to your own country, nosebag!!?" Cursing in a foreign language, like telling a joke, can be a tricky proposition. So despite my teammates' coaching, I keep it simple, puta. And I keep that mierde in the dugout where it belongs.


Numbers should have been simple enough. But if something costs, let's say, 4,250 colones, that number might be expressed as 42-50, 42 hundred 50, or 4 thousand 2 hundred and 50. On paper, no problem; but when you're standing in the store with a line of people behind you and the cashier mumbles something like quatromilledoscientoscinquenta and it sounds like quatromillcan'tyouevencountyoustupidstupidgringo, it's a bit nerve-wracking.

If you use a larger bill (yeah, this should cover it) to avoid looking like a dope, eventually you end up with about 84 pounds of change, and the storekeepers hate you for always paying for your 75 cent ice cream bar with the equivilant of a $20 bill. Learn your numbers.

When it comes to functional communication it's all about stringing sentences together, and when it comes to sentences, it's conjugate or die. We're still on life support, having only conquered the infinitive. Here's a taste of our sparkling conversation.

I to go.
I to eat it yesterday.
To look! Frog!

Now we're the people whose overheard conversations make others cringe.

I'm still lost with regard to the whole gender thing (the mountain's a girl, the poem's a guy...), and tend to issue odd breathy throaty sounds where my els or las should be... or simply drop them completely. So I see moon, I like bike, I am imbecile.

But I to work on it!

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