I have often heard that being in a place where no-one speaks English is the best way to learn a new language–total immersion, it’s called. For the past six months I’ve been in a place where everyone speaks at least a smattering of English, and most of the people I interact with–other researchers, lab managers, even taxi drivers–speak fairly fluently. Still, many of them will at least try in Spanish first, as if giving me the benefit of the doubt, that even though I have repeatedly proven to be incapable of speaking Spanish, maybe this time the words will suddenly start flowing out, like the muddy brown streams suddenly rush down when they’re fattened by rain. I consider this to be a form of partial immersion, not the same as cannonballing in, perhaps, but at least the equivalent of dipping a couple toes into the water, and letting them stay there until they’re pale and wrinkled, and I’m fairly happy with the smattering of vocabulary I have picked up.
Of course there is the basic introduction: Hello. I am well, and you? Hola. Bien. ¿Y usted? I also know how to ask How are you? ¿Cómo estás? but usually the other person beats me to it. But more interesting is the set of vocabulary, scientific and food-related, that I’ve found most useful, important, or just fun to roll around in my mouth.
Trees are árboles, which was easy enough to learn because it sounds like the French equivalent. Bat is murciélago, a word I learned to pronounce before I could remember its meaning, because I thought it sounded so awesome. Leafcutter ants are zompopas, and these three are enough for me to spark elementary conversations about the forest.
At the dining hall I can understand a lot of the food-related words, but the ones I use most often are solo un poco (just a little), papas (potatoes), and un poco mas (a little more). Frequently sprinkled with gracias, these will get me through just about any meal.
Then there are the words that stuck because they were important to know immediately. Rain is lluvia, and okay to go out into the forest, but tormenta, storm, means its probably better to wait it out. Earthquake is terremoto, an adorably cute word for such a powerful event, and everything else can be covered by peligro, danger.
And lastly is Costa Rica’s equivalent of the sideways head nod, a saying that has no literal translation and therefore, with the right inflection, can mean just about whatever you want it to: Pura vida.