If you’ve ever been offended by the expression, “If you can speak three languages, you’re trilingual; if you can speak two languages, you’re bilingual; and if you can speak only one language, you’re an American,” it might be because, like this reporter, you’re ashamed to say it’s true. So many nationalities that make up Costa Rica’s expatriate population have been so sheltered from the experience of delving into a foreign language that one as rapid and melodic as Spanish can seem more than a little daunting.
Aiming to help people overcome this struggle to get out of the classroom environment and into the kaleidoscope of colloquialisms, expressions and slang that is Costa Rican Spanish is the new Web site www.intercambiocentralamerica.com, developed by Brit Hannah Thompson, 29.
The site is specifically designed for language students but takes a different approach than the horrifying exploration of Spanish grammar. And, as the name suggests, this site is all about language exchange.
Since its quiet start-up in June, the site has signed up some 77 users and counting. Participants sign up for free and are encouraged to arrange safe, public meetings to practice conversation with other users. Thompson says this system aims to provide an opportunity to increase conversational language skills and to meet new friends for no more than the price of a cup of coffee.
Thompson explains how it works: “A U.S. national staying in Costa Rica registers with the site and fills out a profile stating that she speaks English and would like to practice Spanish, and giving her location. She then searches the site to find a suitable intercambio (language exchange) partner, in this case a Spanish speaker who wants to practice English. They make contact through the site, exchange messages and then meet up in a local café, for example, where they divide their time speaking in Spanish and English.”
Thompson acknowledges that taking classes is also important but says that “only by speaking do you realize how much, or how little, you really know.” “English-Spanish is likely to be the most common exchange,” she says. “But you can use the site to offer or seek exchanges in many different languages.”
Having moved to Costa Rica only last year, Thompson, an occasional Tico Times contributor, knows all about being suddenly immersed in a new language. She humorously recalls the trying situations that arose in her initial stages of learning Spanish; one particular conversation with a hotel manager still makes her smile.
“I wanted to tell the owner that there were ants crawling all over the mattress – except I said that the bed was full of hormigón (concrete) rather than hormigas. Naturally, I got more frustrated when she didn’t seem to have a clue what I was talking about.”
Inspired by her own learning experiences, Thompson decided to help bridge the gap for learners who needed a way to arrange to meet native speakers.
“When I arrived in Costa Rica, I enrolled in two months of Spanish classes. When that came to an end, I found I wasn’t getting much practice using what I’d learned – only brief conversations,” she says. “So I put a poster up at UCR (the University of Costa Rica) in San Pedro, asking if anyone wanted to meet up with me for an intercambio to practice their English and help me with my Spanish. I got lots of responses, so it occurred to me that there was a demand out there for this type of learning.”
When asked why she chose to focus on Costa Rican residents in particular, Thompson replies simply, “I love Costa Rica. It is truly a beautiful country, and the longer I spend here, the more I appreciate all it has to offer.
“The site is set up for all the countries of Central America, but I believe that Costa Rica is the perfect country for a site like this to work,” she adds. “On one side, there are the huge numbers of foreigners here – students, volunteers, ESL teachers, travelers, retired people – wanting to learn Spanish to get the most out of their time in the country. And on the other side, there is the great demand for English as business links with the English-speaking world and tourism continue to grow.”
Hosted and aided by Web expert Paul Marin of PaulDomains.com, Thompson’s site offers tips on meeting up with fellow learners, space to upload/download and discuss articles of interest, and the opportunity to give feedback and suggestions to improve the program.
Despite the site being plagued by a few spam artists who upload “naughty” articles from time to time, participants seem genuinely pleased.
Carlos Cortés, 33, a graphic designer from Tibás, north of San José, says his experience with the site has been immensely positive.
“I had an intercambio; we talked about lots of things, about jobs, hobbies, life in each country, popular words in Costa Rica, etc.,” he says. “It was really interesting.”
Cortés says he appreciates listening to and learning native English accents, and that his arrangement through the site was simple. Like many users of the site, he is eager for his next intercambio.
“I believe anyone can do it easily,” he says.