San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

English as a delightfully odd foreign language

When it comes to my mother tongue, there’s always been plenty to talk about. Countless books and master classes from the world’s finest linguists and sharpest wits have been devoted to the wonderful weirdness of English for centuries. Its fantastic foibles are quirks we love to hate – or simply love to love. After all, this is a language where “-ough” can be pronounced at least five different ways (try bough, tough, cough, dough, through).

It’s a language that can drive even the brainiest teacher, pressed yet again to explain the inexplicable, to occasionally throw up her hands and say, “That’s just the way it is!” It’s a language whose irregularities have been skewered through and through, perhaps never more cleverly than by U.S. author and teacher Richard Lederer, who pointed out that there is no butter in buttermilk, no egg in eggplant, and neither mush nor room in mushroom; that a writer is someone who writes, and a stinger is something that stings, but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce, and hammers don’t ham.

These oddities date back for ages, and in fact are a product of the language’s colorful history. However, even more fascinating than the language’s past is the way it continues to change – not only the words we use, but also the power of English itself. Costa Rica offers prime examples of both. Here, knowledge of English has been a boon to the tourism industry, a draw for businesses and a relief to countless international visitors who have gratefully received directions, menu explanations or even just a friendly greeting in a language they understand. The country has also made English its own in many ways: any country where you can eat a sandwich (sand-wee-cheh) while watching someone hit a jonrón, then friquear when you have a caraccidente on the way home, is clearly enjoying – or suffering from, depending on your perspective – some serious linguistic blending. The Queen’s Spanglish is just around the corner.

Of course, mastery of a few phrases and mastery of the language as a whole are very different things. That’s why the teaching and learning of languages in general, and English in particular, are hot topics in Costa Rica today, perhaps more so than ever before. Mastery of a foreign language has enormous potential to open doors to everything from greater enjoyment of movies and Web surfing to a better job and international opportunities. You can see this in the lines that form for a language class, or the intense demand for Community Conversations weekly volunteer-led conversation groups (for more information or to join us as a volunteer, please contact me).

This is a reality that the country is addressing through the efforts of the Education Ministry, the National Training Institute, public and private universities, institutes and more, with the coordination of the Costa Rica Multilingüe Foundation. There is so much to be done, but when it comes to addressing a national priority on language learning, the first step is starting the conversation – whether it’s a practice session with four or five partners in a community near you, or a policy discussion on the best ways to support teachers in their classrooms. No one can deny that Costa Rica has people talking.

We hope this column will be able to join that conversation, exploring some of the challenges facing English learners and teachers in Costa Rica – with a special emphasis on issues that might be of particular concern to native speakers of Spanish – and helping connect readers with some of the resources that are out there. Please contact me with your questions, topics you would like to see covered, suggestions from your own experience, and tales of split-infinitive woe. Unlike most newspapers in the world, The Tico Times can truthfully claim that almost all of its readers are learning a language – English or Spanish – or teaching one, whether in a classroom, as a volunteer, or just in their neighborhood pulpería.

So, to quote great language teachers everywhere: Speak up!

Katherine Stanley Obando is the academic director of the Costa Rica Multilingüe Foundation, headquartered at Casa Presidencial and dedicated to improving the language skills of Costa Rica’s population ( Email her at Next time: Where did English come from, and why should students care?

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