As part of my Monday Language Learning series I’ve been talking to other travelers and families to find out how they have learned a language for their trips. This week Mary from Bohemian Travelers shares her family’s journey as they tackled Spanish in Costa Rica.
What is your language background?
My husband and I both are from the United States, our first language being English. I studied French quite extensively in school, but that didn’t translate to any sort of fluency at all. My husband studied Spanish and held on to the basics but that was about it.
We moved to Costa Rica in 2006 and found that learning Spanish was essential to us enjoying our time there. When we still lived in the United States we taught the children some basics from multiple languages but English was by far the primary language spoken. Moving to a foreign country was, in one part, to force ourselves to immerse in a different language.
Do you speak a second language at home? Why?
We do now! After being in Costa Rica for a few months we took classes and immersed ourselves into the community in order to progress our language. We found that speaking with locals was by far the best way to learn.
We try to speak Spanish as much as we can while also trying to learn local languages in the countries we visit now. Some days we practice better than others, but everyday we are using a far more diverse landscape of language in the home then we were in the US.
Did you start learning ahead of time? If so, what materials did you use?
When we decided on Costa Rica we promptly went out and purchased the Rosetta Stone series for the computer. We only played around with it a little bit before we moved, as selling our belongings, and everything that goes into making a big move really took precedence. It would have been beneficial if we had put time into it ahead of time though I think.
We did find it to be a really engaging program but it seemed that there would be more useful and conversational ways to start the language. I think learning how to call for help or order food in a restaurant would be more useful than knowing how to say ‘The boy is jumping!”
Are your children learning at different rates? Any factors influencing this (local job, taking classes with local kids, etc.)?
I have 3 boys that are 4 years apart in age each. This large age difference factored heavily into their progress rates.
The baby, now 4, was in Costa Rica from birth, with a Spanish only speaking nanny, so he learned pretty much right alongside English. Interestingly, he has seemed to lose his language skills most since we left.
My oldest learned the quickest, simply by hanging out with kids in the neighborhood. I strongly encourage people to live in a local community rather than a fancy gated community. Language immersion in every facet of daily life is vital, I think, to increasing skill.
My middle son, who is 8 now, just never took any interest in the language. We unschool the boys so I did not force him to learn the language. I did, however, try keeping him conversational at a minimum so he would be able to function safely in the community. It wasn’t until he tried school for a couple of months (that is a whole other story) that he really exploded with his Spanish. For him, I think the school environment was essential to his grasp of the language.
How are you learning the language? What differences do you notice in how you and your children learn?
I learned slowly but surely. I used Rosetta Stone a bit, took some private lessons in the beginning, and then just spent more time immersing in the language, forcing myself to speak only Spanish. The immersion is what helped me the most, and although I am definitely NOT fluent, I can function quite well and even carry on a pretty in-depth conversation with someone. I could always improve, but I left Costa Rica feeling pretty content with my level. It did take me the whole 5 years to get there though.
What tips would you offer to other traveling families who want to expose their children to a language?
There are many things, some of which I mentioned above, like living in a local community and immersing yourself in any way possible that can really be a huge benefit. I also think it would make the transition easier if you try to learn, at least some basics, before getting to a new location where a different language will be a necessity.
Kids attending local school may seem like throwing them to the wolves, but honestly if total immersion and language acquisition is the goal I would say that it would be the best option. If not then I think private lessons at least for the basics would be a good start. Then try to immerse them as much as you can, try karate classes, ballet, soccer, etc. It really will help and they can meet new friends at the same time.
Mary at Bohemian Travelers left the rat race in 2006 with her husband and sons and hasn’t looked back! After living in Costa Rica for 5 years exploring Central America they took to the nomadic life and are currently 7 months into a 2 year world travel adventure.