As the dry season and the high season kick into gear in Costa Rica, we locals look forward to the arrival of tourists and visitors. As a recovering New Yorker, I love to see the range of languages and cultures I find on the streets. Even though the streets are crowded and it takes longer to maneuver the delivery trucks, public buses and clueless drivers, I still love the microcosm of the planet the town becomes. It’s as if the world comes to us, with all its flavors and sounds.

The best way to learn a language is to go out there and try, stumble, brush off and try again. Language is in the doing each moment you have a chance. Go out there and engage. It starts with the simplest of moments, at the checkout or at a restaurant look your server in the eyes, smile and say; ”Hola”, “Buenas”, “Buenos Dias”, all of which express the same sentiment. You can be bold and try “¿Como esta hoy?”, or just simply “¿Como esta?” and try not to panic when they smile and the person speaks back. 99% of the time you will get back a ”Todo Bien”, “ Gracias” or “Pura Vida”. You have just had your first conversation. Do this each time you go out and you will find people are friendlier and more patient with you than if you just speak English at everyone.

Pura Vida is your go to phrase, not since Shalom have we had such a well-rounded sentiment. Pura Vida expresses so much about the people, the culture and a way of life. Although it means Pure Life, Pura Vida can be a salutation when you are arriving, just passing or leaving. It can also be a suggestion, a proverbial chill pill, a reminder that all around life is popping and happening and your petty worry is no match for its greatness, so relax and look around. Once Pura Vida enters your life and you can sit in 30 minutes of traffic to go 5 blocks, you remember where you are and that all those people are coming here to get away from traffic and stress. You can use it in a pinch when someone is expecting a response, try it out and you will most likely receive a smile and a couple more minutes of their time.

How you listen is also very important. You are not listening for complete comprehension, you’re not even listening for 50%, your goal is each time understand more and more. Don’t just focus on the words, look at the bigger picture. Add tone, mannerisms, expressions and any other clue that allows you to understand what the person is saying. Just take a deep breath and think “Pura Vida, anywhere I go people will be late for any appointment I make so I am not in a hurry either”, or something to that effect. The important thing to do is be there, at that moment, using all your senses to understand whatever mundane concept this person is trying to express. Take wild guesses and giant leaps of faith, the worst that can happen, you laugh at yourself and in many cases, you will make a friend that will engage with you each time you do.

The brain is amazing, the more you engage the more it creates real memories and you learn. Language is also a whole brain activity, it utilizes every sense and ability to make things happen. There is nothing better, no supplement or pill better at keeping your brain healthy than learning a second language. If you think the daily walk on the beach is good for you, just add a stop here and there to engage in Spanish and you have given your brain a super boost and workout. In order to grow your vocabulary there is so much you can do, read one of the local bilingual papers, watch the news, soap operas, movies or shows you have already seen, pick up a book at Jaime Peligro’s or listen and sing along to Spanish tunes. Join a class or get a tutor if you want to get to the next level of understanding, but nothing beats getting out there and engaging.

Here are some words and phrases to get you talking right away.
Greetings – Hola, Buenas, Farewells – ¡Adios!, ¡Chau!, ¡Hasta luego!, ¡Hasta pronto¡, ¡Que le vaya bien!,
Good Morning – Buenos Dias, Good afternoon/evening – Buenas tardes Sorry – Perdon, Lo siento,
My name is – Me llamo, Good to meet you – Mucho gusto, Excuse me – Perdon, Con permiso,
How are you? – ¿Cómo está?, ¿Qué tal?, Good – Bien, Muy bien, todo bien, Thank you – Gracias,
How much does it cost? – ¿Cuánto cuesta?, I would like – Me gustaría, Quisiera

And when in doubt, throw big smile on your face and say ¡Pura Vida!

Sylvia Monge owns Spanish for Expats, a tutoring and translation service ( ), and thinks the brain is ridiculously cool. She uses her knowledge and study of the brain to make learning Spanish and English easier, more entertaining and engaging. Join one of her classes and learn Spanish while realizing your potential.

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