Writing in a Foreign Language

 

I’ve always loved writing.  At my parents’ house, there are still boxes under my bed, full of notebooks I filled with half-written stories and ideas.  I have tons of files on my old computers and on my flash drive with more stories and essays.  I’ve changed my mind several times on what I like to write most, but I’ve never fallen out of love with writing.  I’ve done it my whole life, and I’m not planning on stopping anytime soon.

Since I’ve had so much practice with writing, especially for school, I like to think I’m fairly good at it.  Since I learned to write a five-paragraph essay, structured, written thought has come fairly easily for me.  When I first began writing serious papers, it took me awhile to get to the point I wanted to make.  I would have to go through several rounds of edits to shorten and clarify my thoughts.  But as I did it more and more often, it got easier.  Now, if an assignment requires an essay, I can crank out a pretty good paper within a few hours to a day.  While I might make a few changes afterward, I typically say all I need to say with relative ease.  (Of course, every piece of writing could use some editing.  But when I also have to block out time for other things, a few hours to a day for a fairly high-quality essay is pretty good.)

But that’s all for essays I write in English.  With Spanish, I’m finding it’s a different story.  Throughout my Spanish classes, I’ve had to write a ton of papers.  They started out short and simple, as ways to practice vocabulary, sentence structure, and specific grammar rules.  As I got farther along, they began to get more complex.  They became less about practicing the language and more about engaging with the culture.  I learned more vocabulary, and essays in Spanish started to get almost as easy as essays in English.

Almost is the key word here, though.  I got fooled into thinking I knew Spanish well enough to use the same one-day process I use for English papers.  So last weekend, that’s how I wrote two papers for my capstone — one Saturday, one Sunday, and done.  Then a few days later, I got them back from my faculty adviser, and while overall the papers were okay, my grammar was all over the place.  I figured out very quickly that I need to take a few steps back in my writing process for Spanish papers.  Ideally, here’s how it should go:

  1. I need to make a list of grammar mistakes I make often, using already-graded papers as a reference.
  2. Start the paper at least a week before the due date.  (This means I need to be diligent about finishing the books I’m supposed to be writing about on time, too.)
  3. Take one or two days to write it, and then let it sit for a day or two.
  4. Read back through the paper, fixing any glaring mistakes, and polishing it if need be.  Make sure I’ve put everything in the paper that is required.
  5. Go over it again, this time with my list of common mistakes, and fix those.
  6. Finally, either run through a grammar checker or have someone else look over it.  Or maybe even both.

It’s a much longer process than my one-and-done style.  But it will help me write better quality papers.  And I think that the more Spanish I read, the better my writing skills will get.  That’s a big part of how I learned to write well in English, after all.  It makes sense that it would work that way in Spanish.

Spanish: More Than a Language

Since I first mentioned my Spanish capstone project on this blog, it’s changed a bit.  Not drastically — my overall focus is still immigration, and I’m still reading a lot of books.  But even though I’m still fine-tuning my thesis statement, I’ve already learned something valuable.

For background: I’m white.  I grew up in a two-parent home.  Both my parents are college-educated, and they have always earned sufficient income to give me and my two siblings everything we need, plus extracurriculars such as 4H, music lessons, and summer camps.  Spanish language and culture has been an interest of mine since I was 8, and my parents had the means to allow me to learn.  Now, I’m about to graduate college with a Spanish degree, with a highly commendable command of the language.  I’m proud of this.  And I’m grateful.

More background: for my capstone, I’m mostly focusing on the work of Esmeralda Santiago.  Santiago, if you don’t know, is a Puerto Rican woman who moved with her family to the US when she was 13.  She did not speak much English when she arrived.  It was not her choice to move here, so unlike me, learning English wasn’t something she did for fun, or because it was interesting, or because she had dreams of being able to speak other languages.  Santiago learned English because she couldn’t have survived here without it.

It hit me, as I was reading Santiago’s two memoirs, that for me, Spanish is a luxury.

I have worked hard at learning Spanish.  I’ve worked hard for confidence and accuracy.  Languages come fairly naturally to me, but it hasn’t all been easy or fun.  I’ve continued my study of Spanish just as much to gain an advantage in the job market as I have because I enjoyed it.  But that is the difference between Santiago, and every other Spanish-speaking immigrant, and I — I had a choice.  I chose to study Spanish because I could, not because I had to.  And I was not thrown into the Spanish-speaking world before I was ready.

One of my old roommates was also a Spanish major.  She now works at a refugee resettlement organization, and teaches Spanish to kids after school.  She uses Spanish all day, every day.  Spanish, for her, is a talent and a passion, but also a way to do what she really wants to do, which is care for people.  While Spanish may have started as an interest for her, now it is entwined with her purpose.

Honestly, that is my goal too.  I want to be able to use Spanish in my daily life.  One, because I enjoy it, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning it, but also because it enables me to expand the circle of people to whom I can be useful.  Being able to speak Spanish opens me up to other parts of the world, and by extension those I’m connected with.

A few posts ago, I put up a graph of the results from a personality test I took.  I scored very high on the “dutiful” aspect, which makes sense.  When I realized that Spanish began as a luxury for me, I felt kind of spoiled.  But then I thought about Bill Gates — his asset, now, is that he is very wealthy, and he puts his money to good use through philanthropy.  While being able to speak a second language is a little different than being worth millions, I can try to turn my own luxury into something that is useful to the world as a whole.

What I’m Reading: Spanish Capstone Project

I have about 12 weeks until I graduate.  Which means I have about 12 weeks to finish 3 big projects and pass 2 other classes before I can walk across the stage in my cap and gown.  It seems like a ton of time and also like not much at all, especially when I think about the fact that for my Spanish capstone, I’m planning on reading 7 books (at least) and have so far finished 1.  But honestly, I’m not too stressed.  I’m making progress, and I’m on the right track, and I’m excited to begin really diving into this project.

The overall theme for my capstone is the immigration of Spanish-speakers into the US.  I don’t have a definite thesis yet, because I’ve only read one of my sources.  Also, this what-I’m-reading post will be a little different from the others because I haven’t read most of these books yet.  But I figured it would be a fun idea to briefly introduce my books here, and then once I’ve finished my project, I’ll do a reprise post on what I thought about them and how useful they were to me for my project.


Books I’m Definitely Reading

Cuando era puertorriqueñaThis book is the one I’ve finished, and it’s a memoir about growing up in Puerto Rico and then having to move to New York.  Santiago is the child of parents who fight more often than not, and who must provide for eight children.  Family stress and the stress of growing up are magnified by having to move to New York just when she feels she’s beginning to get a hold on life in Puerto Rico.  But interspersed in these struggles are the stories of a mother who would do anything for her children, and a girl who got herself out of Brooklyn all on her own.

Resultado de imagen para casi una mujerThis is the sequel to Cuando era puertorriquena, and it details Santiago’s life from her teenage years to adulthood.  During her struggle to figure out who she is — Puerto Rican? American? both? — Santiago helps translate her mother through the welfare offices and takes on prestigious roles at her performing arts high school.

Resultado de imagen para la otra cara de americaRamos, an executive at Univision, has written essays and collected interviews from immigrants to the US.  Told in an editorial, persuasive style, Ramos sheds light on the reality of those “living in the shadows” and reveals just how vital they are to US society.

Resultado de imagen para vivir en dos idiomas

 

Alma Flor Ada is a renowned Cuban-American author and professor who writes children’s books, poetry, and novels.  Vivir en dos idiomas is her memoir, detailing her life, which has been spent mostly not in Cuba.

 

AResultado de imagen para la casa en mango streetlmost everyone has heard of The House on Mango Street.  It is one of the most famous coming-of-age novels there is.  I’ve skimmed the book a few times, and honestly, have not loved it.  But I feel I might appreciate it more within the context of this project.  It’s not quite a memoir, like the others, but Cisneros did draw heavily on her growing-up years to craft this novel, so it’s still a good candidate for my project.

Resultado de imagen para a cup of water under my bed

 

Another memoir about growing up Latina in America, this book adds a new dimension in that Hernandez is also bisexual.  It details her growing up years and her struggle not only to find the balance between two cultures, but also to maintain family ties while not hiding all of who she is.

 

WResultado de imagen para the distance between us reyna grandehen she was little, and living in Mexico, Grande’s father left for the US without her, her siblings, or her mother.  Her memoir tells the story of virtually losing one parent, and then regaining him, and a new home, when her father finally sends for her.

 

 

Once I have read these books and have a better idea of what they are about, I’ll link back to this post and review them again.  I’ll be honest; judging by the one I have read and the others I’ve flipped through, I have high expectations for all of them.


Books I Probably Won’t Use for My Capstone but Want to Read Anyway

Resultado de imagen para atravesando fronterasThis is Ramos’ own memoir about moving from Mexico to the US.  I know I like his writing style, and admire him as a person.  But there are several reasons I probably won’t use it.  For one, I already have seven books to read, and for two, this book is quite a bit longer than most of my others.  Finally, I realized that all the rest of my books are by women (besides the other one by Ramos, but in that he interviews men and women), and given the difference in countries of origin I already have, I’d rather keep my mostly-female-author pattern going.

Resultado de imagen para morir en el intentoWhen I initially picked this, I thought it was going to be more like academic nonfiction.  Instead, it’s the story of 19 immigrants who died on their way to the US in 2003.  I’m sure it’s a tragic story, and definitely one that should be spread.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit with the other books I’ve chosen.  But that’s not going to stop me from reading it when I finish my project.

Resultado de imagen para sonar en cubano

 

This is another coming-of-age novel, and honestly, I don’t know much about it.  I didn’t look into it as much as the others, because I changed my focus from novels to memoirs.  But I like coming-of-age stories, so this will be going on the TBR as well.

Fall 2016 Goals Update #2

Another month, another update.  Without further ado…

Goals for Employment

  1. Apply for entry-level jobs in marketing.  Still doing this!  The day I wrote this post, I actually had my first interview ever for a big-girl job.  I think it went pretty well, and I am excited about the possibilities with that company.  So we shall see!
  2. Utilize university resources.  Check — I went to a resume workshop, both to polish up my own resume and to give a COB Ambassador presence.  I think my resume looks quite a bit better than it did.  Also, we’re doing mock interviews in my Spanish class, so that will be awesome practice.

Goals for Extracurriculars

  1. Video Production Team: Work at least one game per sport.  I’ve worked a lot of soccer, a couple volleyball games, and am signed up for almost every basketball game we have in November.  It’ll be busy, but basketball is really fun, and the paycheck will definitely be nice.
  2. COB Ambassadors: Work one event a month.  This month I worked the Majors Fair on preview day, and the resume workshop also counted as an event.  Coming up next month the COB will be hosting its own career fair, so I’ll probably be involved with that somehow.
  3. COB Ambassadors: project manage one project before graduation.  Still working on this.

Goals for Daily Life

  1. Don’t add unnecessary stress.  This is surprisingly still going quite well.  I got really bad road rage driving to see my family a few weeks ago, but honestly that was warranted.  There’s just something about vehicles that make people do stupid things.  And I know I need to not let things bother me that I can’t change, but sometimes that’s just how it goes.
  2. Cut back on buying coffee.  *closes eyes*  It’s kinda weird how my list jumps straight from 1 to 3…oh well.
  3. Make time for friends.  The semester has gotten a bit busier than it had been, so I’ve slacked off on this.  But a few friends and I are planning a Netflix night next week, and another friend’s birthday is this month as well, so that should remedy that.
  4. Make time for myself.  Again, class work has started to creep into my free time, but I still find some time to read or watch a show or two.

And finally, the goal of goals:

  1. Enjoy senior year.  So far, so good.  I’m very tired of being school — I would much rather being doing something than sitting passively in class all day, but the end is near and I’m trying to remember to relish the time I have left at college.

This semester has gone by so fast.  Here we are at the end of October, and I feel like September just started.  My very last advisement is coming up, and graduation is starting to feel so close!  I’ve started a list of what I want to do and get involved in once I graduate.  Really moving out on my own is so exciting to think about.  Here’s to the rest of my second-to-last semester!  Next time I post a goals update, I’ll be studying for finals.

Why Jane the Virgin is One of the Best Shows Ever

Today is October 17, and it’s a great day because season 3 of Jane the Virgin has begun.  I started watching this show in the spring, and honestly have never devoured a show faster.  In honor of this momentous occasion, here is why Jane the Virgin is one of the best shows ever made.

  1. Nuanced, relatable characters.  All, and I mean all, of the characters on this show are incredibly realistic.  They all make good choices and bad choices.  Not one of them is a stereotype.  All of them have traits that you would see in a real, actual person.  All of them have contradictions and baggage and unique personalities.  Bad characters turn me off to a show faster than anything else, but Jane the Virgin nails amazing characters.
  2. No filler episodes.  In case you weren’t aware, Jane the Virgin is modeled off the typical Spanish telenovela, or soap opera.  It employs insane, soap-opera-typical plot twists to give the telenovela impression, but also maintains realistic plot points as well — crime rings mingle with first-time parenting, for example.  Because of the dramedy, million-different-plotline nature of the show, there are no “filler” episodes like you would find in a normal drama.  Every single episode moves some aspect of the story right along. 
  3. Spanish!  Because most of the characters are Latino, there’s a good amount of Spanish in the episodes (with subtitles, of course), which I love.  Also, most of the actors are Latino, which they should be, and it’s awesome!  If you haven’t heard of Gina Rodriguez, who plays Jane, go follow her on social media because she is an incredibly cool person and an excellent role model.
  4. Creative filming/storytelling.  Jane is a daydreamer, and if that’s not fun to work with as a director, I don’t know what is.  Every few episodes features a daydreaming scene with fun costumes and scenarios.  On top of this, the show is set in 2016, so social media features widely and texts and tweets show on screen as the characters type or read them.  Finally, the narrator interacts as a viewer of the show and it is hilariously entertaining.

If that’s not enough to hook you, you are a lost cause you should just go watch the first episode because then you will be.  The show sucks you in like a black hole, and I couldn’t be happier.  Now excuse me while I start watching season 3.

Photo source

3 Lessons I Learned From Being a Tutor

Tutors are everywhere in American culture.  Almost everyone I knew growing up, including me, had a tutor at one point or another — music lessons and ACT prep were as common as dirt among my group of peers.  As a society, we are very focused on individual achievement, so it makes sense that we have tutors to hone our skills and make us the best people that we can be.  What we don’t realize is how much our tutors learn from us, too.

I have a (very) little experience being a tutor.  The summer before I started college I taught a beginner flute student, and last semester I was asked to tutor a beginner Spanish student here at Tech.  I knew both would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how inadequate I would feel.  Through teaching, I learned a lot of important lessons about teaching, business, and myself.

1.  Teachers aren’t responsible for output.

I am very results driven.  I love to cross items off lists.  If I spend two hours working on a project and don’t finish it, it bothers me a bit that I can’t mark it out of my planner yet, because if I don’t acknowledge accomplishments somehow, that time feels wasted.  I really had to rethink this last semester when I had my Spanish student.  Foreign languages aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that they are difficult.  But even when I did my best to quiz my student on vocab and explain weird grammar concepts, her grades didn’t improve much.  For the first month or so, this really bothered me.  I felt that I was failing her as a teacher, and thought that maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

I talked to my mom about it, because she has been a tutor for years.  She helped me realize that I wasn’t responsible for my student’s grades.  My job was to do my best, and the rest was on her.  There was only so much quizzing and explaining I could do in an hour a week, and then it was up to her to study and quiz herself.  Teachers can explain stuff till they’re blue in the face, but students are responsible for their own learning.

2.  Boundaries are extremely important

Last semester, I really wanted to be a good tutor.  I wanted to make myself as available as possible, and that desire led me to hold several extra sessions without asking for payment.  Part of this was because, as I said above, I felt bad that my student’s grades weren’t improving, and I didn’t feel that I deserved to be paid.  But this meant that I lost hours of valuable homework time during one of my busiest semesters ever.  By the time I realized I should have been compensated for my time, I had already set a precedent.

If I ever decide to take on another Spanish student, I won’t be so altruistic.  Tutoring, like any other service, is a business, and I needed to separate my own emotions from the service I was offering.  If there is a next time, I need to be sure to mention up front whether or not I’m willing to fit extra sessions in, and need to explicitly mention that I expect to be paid for every session, which most people, I think, would find reasonable.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every time someone benefits from my Spanish knowledge, I expect to be paid.  I’m more than happy to help a friend with an assignment or read over a paper.  However, this was an instance where I needed to view tutoring as work.  I wouldn’t have taken an extra shift at a regular job for free, so I shouldn’t have tutored for free either.

3.  No one ever stops learning.

When I first took on my flute student in high school, I had 9 years of my own private flute lessons under my belt.  I wasn’t the best player by any means, but I could definitely hold my own in a band or as a soloist.  But when I started teaching my beginner student, I realized there was a lot I had forgotten.

The very first lesson I taught was a disaster.  I had trouble filling up the half hour because I didn’t know what to do or say.  I showed my student a few things, but I realized I didn’t remember enough about being a beginner to teach.  That week, I went back to my own teacher for pointers, and she reminded me of several things to look out for — good posture, finger positioning, and embouchure techniques that had become second nature to me.

This happened with my Spanish student, as well.  I was used to using a lot of different verb tenses, for example, but had to remember how to explain when and why each was used.  I also had to relearn a lot of vocabulary that I had been taught, but had not used in a long time.  Both of these experiences were very humbling, and it reminded me that just being good at something doesn’t make me an expert.  Albert Einstein once said,

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

I don’t know if I will ever tutor again.  I enjoyed it, but there are so many other things I want to try to do with my life.  However, my small experience as a tutor has definitely given me a whole new appreciation for teachers everywhere.

Summer Goals

At the beginning of the summer, before classes started, I made a list of goals for myself.  It consists of things I’d like to get back in the habit of, and also things I can do to reverse bad habits I know I have.  I know my blogging habits tend to drop off during the school year because I get busy, but for this summer I’m going to try to do regular updates of these goals to keep myself on track.

So to begin, here are my summer goals, straight from my journal:

  1. Be positive!!  So far, this is touch and go.  I’ve good days and bad days.  This is definitely something I need to work on all the time, but I’m trying to remember to have a good attitude (especially about work).
  2. Plan meals for the week and cook at least 4 times a week.  Pretty good on this so far.  Plans change a bit when I accidentally make enough chicken and quinoa for 15 people as opposed to one, but at least planning keeps me cooking!
  3. Research job options.  I have definitely been doing this!  I’ve explored real estate certification quite a bit.  Need to keep that up and look into jobs with study abroad programs as well.
  4. Do sewing projects.  None of this yet.  I’m supposed to be doing a 4H quilt for my sister and a tulle skirt for a friend, but I don’t have all the supplies I need for either.  May need to take this off the list and save for next summer?
  5. Read Spanish.  Borrowed several Spanish books from the library a few weeks ago, but didn’t finish any of them.  Need to find an interesting one and be diligent about reading.  Also could look for Spanish TV shows.
  6. Go hiking.  Haven’t done this yet.  As a small female, I’m a bit wary of hiking alone.  Need to find someone to invite.  I have been for a drive out to the more rural parts of the county, though.
  7. Go home.  Plan to in the next few days!  So excited!
  8. Look into selling erasable calendars.  Random idea I had for an Etsy shop since I made myself one for freshman year, and most of the ones on Etsy are a bit pricey.  Need to do some research on frame and paper prices so I can decide if this is something I might want to do next year (as a side project after I graduate — definitely can’t spend that kind of money now).
  9. Make savings plan and budget.  Haven’t looked at this at all yet.
  10. Blog a little.  You’re looking at that accomplishment!
  11. Exercise at least 4 times a week / every other day.  I’ve got a good start on this!  Two days ago I ran a mile and this morning I modified an exercise ball routine to do in my living room since the school fitness center was closed.

Overall, I’m not doing too bad so far!  We’ll see how the rest of the summer goes.

Also, here’s the workout I did this morning:

 

What I’m Reading: February 2016

I have always been a reader.  The written word has always been and always will be my favorite form of entertainment, information, and self-expression.  And in my honest opinion, I happen to read some pretty cool stuff.  Here is just a glimpse of what I’ve been reading lately.

marriageplot

 

Book Title:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Why I’m Reading It:  I read Eugenides’ Middlesex when I was in Costa Rica, and his writing style is absolutely incredible.  It’s definitely more literary than many of the novels I read, but the story flows better than almost any of the other books I tend to pick up.  The characters are incredibly complex and flawed, but also easy to relate to and like.  The settings he creates are more realistic than most movies.  Plus, I got it in the bargain priced section at Books-A-Million.  Does it get any better than that??

littlelovely

 

Blog Title:  Rants You Didn’t Ask For

Why I’m Reading It:  Apart from the fact that the author of this blog is a great friend of mine, the posts are a great mix of fun lists and actual rants (hence the title!) that are really well thought out and awesome to read over coffee (although what isn’t, really?).

donquijote

 

Book Title:  Don Quijote by Cervantes

Why I’m Reading It:  It’s for a class.  But I am still reading it, thus it belongs on Ye Olde List!  In all honesty, this is not my favorite book.  It’s in antique Spanish, which can be difficult to read, and even if it were in English the story is kind of boring.  It details the misadventures of Don Quijote and his servant, Sancho, as they seek the honor worthy of a knight — but most of the time their opinions are the exact opposite.  Although the book is not up my alley, it’s a lot of fun to discuss in class.

 

casualphil

 

Blog Title:  The Casual Philosopher

Why I’m Reading It:  Because this really is one of my favorite blogs, and it would still be even if it wasn’t my sister’s.  For the past few months, in addition to her usual essay-type posts, she’s been chronicling her journey towards going on a crazy-long trip to Wyoming and then Mongolia to do missions with horses and people, two things she’s really good at working with, and it’s incredible to see how it’s all coming together!

 

Am I Bilingual Yet?

There’s a point when you study a foreign language where you find yourself wondering, could I be considered bilingual?  As in, could I put this on my resume?  On job applications?  (More importantly, can I throw the words “I’m bilingual” into a conversation and thus feel like a total badass?)  What is the point where one goes from a learner of Spanish to a Spanish speaker?  Of course non-native speakers will always have a learning curve, and of course it will be different for everyone, but where does one draw the line?

If you count every single Spanish class I’ve ever taken, beginning in middle school, I have taken at least 2 years of grade-school Spanish (but probably more because I’ve taken so much Spanish it all blurs together), plus a little in high school, plus seven semesters of college level Spanish.  I’ve gone from being barely able to tell time to analyzing Spanish literature and researching historical Spanish events in Spanish.  Then, this past summer, I went to Costa Rica for four weeks.  Because of this, I went from a halting speaking rate and about a 50% understanding rate to being able to understand 99% of what is said to me in Spanish, and being able to respond fluidly without having to think about what I am going to say.

That being said, though I can speak and conduct business in Spanish if I need to, my grammar isn’t always perfect, especially orally.  I confuse tenses and forget vocabulary.  Different accents are hard to understand.  But on the basic level, I know enough to be able to converse, read, and write in Spanish, if imperfectly, if slowly.  I can communicate passably, even well.  Does all that make me bilingual?  Or must I wait until I have an even higher level of proficiency?  Am I putting a higher standard on myself than someone else would, or am I jumping the gun wanting to describe myself this way?

Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t even matter.  Maybe all that matters is that I truly enjoy Spanish, and using it makes me happy.  Words are my passion, and what is really thrilling is that by learning Spanish I have vastly expanded the amount of people I can talk to, and read, and learn from.  I’ve opened myself up to dozens of entirely new cultures and opportunities just by learning one other language.  So I guess it doesn’t really matter whether or not I’m technically bilingual.  What matters is that I am ever, as my dad would say, expanding my horizons.

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

It was months ago when I wrote about my plans to travel to Costa Rica, and it’s been weeks since I’ve been there and back.  I had planned on writing about my trip each week while I was there, but as it happens, it’s much more fun to go do stuff and write about it later.  So here I sit in my very U.S. living room, thinking back to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

It had been about three years since I’d been on a plane, so the night before I left I was super nervous and couldn’t sleep.  I had to catch my flight pretty early Sunday morning, and my wonderful boyfriend  and parents drove me to the airport.  I’ll be honest; I had been super excited before that point, but exhaustion and excitement caught up to me and in that moment I really didn’t want to go.  But I hugged the people I love and got on the plane, and about seven hours and a few transfers later I was on a 12-person plane over Costa Rica heading for the coast.

20150517_193814426_iOS

When I landed in Quepos, which is a small town right next to the more touristy Manuel Antonio, there was a bit of confusion on where I was supposed to go next, but eventually I ended up with my host parents, Carlos and Janett.  They showed me to my room and let me unpack my stuff, and then they took me on a mini-tour of Quepos and Manuel Antonio, showing me where my school and bus stops were and how to get to the beach.

At this point, I was exhausted, and I understood only about 60% of what was being said, because, of course, everything was now in Spanish.  That night I met about half of Janett’s family when they all got together for a party, and I’m afraid I had exactly zero idea what was going on.

That got better the next day, after I had slept.  I found my way to the bus station with only one wrong turn and made it to the school early.  There, I met the director, David, who thankfully spoke English.  He gave me a brief oral exam to assess my level and put me in a class, and then I met my teacher.

La Academia de Espanol D'Amore
La Academia de Espanol D’Amore
my view from the classroom
my view from the classroom

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Both my teachers and the classes were amazing.  I went through the Intermedio I textbook during my stay, which covered every verb form imaginable, plus vocabulary and culture studies.  A lot of the grammar I had seen before, which was helpful.  But I learned it much better this time around because I would use the grammar immediately and continuously when chatting with the teachers, my host parents, and locals on the street.

My confidence in speaking grew exponentially.  For one, I was forced to speak Spanish if I wanted to order food or ask questions about the town.  For two, once the person to whom I spoke realized I was a student, they were almost always happy to speak slower and correct my grammar if need be.  And I got much better at using words I do know to explain something I don’t know how to say, rather than just using the English word, as I would in a U.S. classroom.  A lot of the verbs and vocabulary I’ve learned but could never remember are now solidified in my brain, because I had to describe them in Spanish.

The school was only a thirty minute walk to the beach, and it’s impossible for me to be near a beach and not go.  In the four weeks I was in Costa Rica, I think I only skipped the beach two or three days.  It became my routine after class to buy a smoothie or falafel from the falafel bar up the street, then I’d take a walk.  While it was a steep walk, the view was absolutely worth it.

view halfway to the beach
view halfway to the beach

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For the first two weeks I was there, I was the only student my age at the school, so I hung out on my own for most of that time.  I will admit, it did get a little lonely.  But it was easy to distract myself from that at the beach.  I love me some good people-watching, and man, it was great in Costa Rica.  There were always people surfing, both professionals and amateurs of all ages and nationalities, no matter how far down the beach I walked.  On the left side, the side of the beach closer to Manuel Antonio National Park, there were a lot of restaurants and shops across the street.  This was where non-locals hung out, and where surf instructors and the parasailing vendors set up their tents.  Farther down, toward the middle, there were chairs set up for rent, where families both local and foreign came to play in the waves.  The right side of the beach butted up against ritzy resorts, and that was where fruit and jewelry vendors walked back and forth selling their wares.  And of course, monkeys and sloths could be spotted anywhere along the beach at any given time.

I did get the chance to take a guided tour of the national park, which was expensive, but worth it because of the pictures.  Admittedly, they’re not the best quality, but that doesn’t take away from the level of awesomeness.

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“Yes, we will steal your food if you’re not looking.”

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To my delight, another student, F, showed up my third week into the course.  She and I hit it off, and we hung out after class most days, at the beach or walking around in Quepos when it rained.  Sometimes we chatted in Spanish and sometimes in English, and mostly a mix.  We spoke at roughly the same level, which was nice, and we even had class together during my last week.

F likes to dance, so one night we went to a salsa club and danced bachata and merengue and another very complicated Latin dance that I never quite caught the name of.  I had never been to a club before, and I don’t know if Latin clubs in the U.S. are similar, but if they are, I’ll go.  It was a lot of fun to dance, even though I had no idea what I was doing.  I just followed while my partners swung me around — one even dipped me several times, which caught me off guard every single time.  It was a blast.

It was also with F that I discovered what kind of alcohol I like.  I’m underage in the U.S., but not in Costa Rica, so I got to try a few different things.  I’m not ashamed to admit that my favorites are the fruity ones with little paper umbrellas.

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hello lovely daiquiri

By my last week in Costa Rica, I was using Spanish without even thinking about it, at least some of the time.  In the morning, Carlos would ask me a question, and I would respond immediately, my brain pulling the words I needed automatically.  I would only realize I had spoken Spanish after the words left my mouth.  It was absolutely amazing.  I was nowhere near perfect, however — during the last week, I helped out some with a children’s class in the afternoon, and I really had to think to remember some of the vocabulary we were teaching.  Still, it was great review for me, and the speed at which the kids learned was astonishing to see.

At the end of my trip, I left Costa Rica wanting to go back as soon as possible.  I know I want to keep using Spanish in the future — hopefully, eventually, in my job.  It’s not going to go away.  But there really is nothing like being in a completely different, completely amazing culture.  There’s always something new to learn, no matter how long you stay.  I’m already saving up to go back.

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Bonus: My Travel Guide to Quepos (or, tips because I’ve been there once and am now obviously an expert)

  • For cheap, authentic food, eat at the sodas!  Restaurants can be nice, but they get pricey.  Follow the locals!
  • Buses are cheaper than taxis.
  • But if you must take a taxi, use the red ones, which are registered and insured.
  • Don’t forget that in Costa Rica, pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way.
  • Make friends with locals on the beach and you might get a discount on chairs, surf lessons, and other stuff.
  • If you’re female, try not to go out alone after dark.
  • In the national park, don’t pay for a guided tour.  Just be sure to look where the guides are pointing as you walk by and you’ll see animals (although if you want pictures, the guide is the best option).
  • Don’t exchange your money at the airport!  It’s expensive!
  • Leave your passport hidden in your suitcase unless you’re going to the bank.
  • When on the beach, don’t leave your stuff too close to the trees.  Leave it in the open where you can keep an eye on it from the ocean.  Thieves are less likely to steal from exposed areas.
  • Don’t put your purse or backpack on the back of your chair in a restaurant.
  • Mostly, it’s okay to note differences between your home country and Costa Rica, but don’t get hung up on it!  Just have fun!

Disclaimer:  All these tips come from my personal experience and the people I met there.  Always use your own judgment when traveling abroad.