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Learning Medical Spanish in Costa Rica

Pura Vida

AEC Turrialba outdoor classrooms in Costa Rica
One of the AEC Turrialba outdoor classrooms in Costa Rica.

Finding and Committing to a Language Program in Costa Rica

After learning about the importance of cultural sensitivity in my Sociology of Medicine course, I decided that in order to most fully relate to my patients, I would need to speak in a language they could understand. I took four years of Spanish in high school but did not choose to continue the language in college; therefore, a course in medical Spanish naturally seemed the best way to refresh my conversational skills while also developing my ability to translate medical terminology. Armed with a strong sense of purpose and a $3,000 scholarship grant for an academic pursuit, I set to work finding the ideal medical Spanish program for my needs and goals. I punched various combinations of search terms into Google, clicking on any remotely interesting result. I quickly realized that the Internet is a vast repository of study abroad resources just waiting to be tapped. One particular program stood out to me: the Adventure Education Center’s Deluxe Medical Spanish program in Costa Rica. The Center’s offerings of small classes, program excursions, and a host family stay were a combination I could not resist. 

Before I could commit to the AEC Medical Spanish program, I needed to do some more homework. First, I emailed the program director asking for the contact information of previous participants. This proved to be a key step first in deciding whether to commit, and then also in choosing in which of the three Costa Rican locations I would study. After numerous positive testimonials arrived in my inbox, I was confident that an AEC program would be worth the trip. Next, I had to make sure that medical Spanish classes would not interfere with the summer internship I had already accepted at home. Thankfully, AEC allows its students to stay for as many (or as few) weeks as they would like; I successfully booked a 3-day orientation followed by two weeks of classes, which allowed me to return to the U.S. in time for my internship. Finally, in order to justify my receipt of the $3,000 grant, I needed to assemble a budget including all my expenses for the trip. Through with AEC’s program director, I learned the costs of a typical Costa Rican lunch, my bus fares to and from the program site, and a zip-lining excursion — among many other things. The research paid off when I received the grant and purchased my plane tickets to San Jose.

Preparing for Costa Rica

After purchasing my tickets, the first thing I did to prepare for my trip was to investigate which (if any) vaccines I should receive before entering Costa Rica. It is very important to take care of vaccinations as soon as possible once your travel arrangements are made, since certain vaccines are only effective if received a certain period of time before arrival. I explored the CDC’s Traveler’s Health website and went to my school health center to receive vaccines for hepatitis A and typhoid. Additionally, while I was there, the nurse prescribed malaria pills and a generic antibiotic to be used in case I contracted a bacterial infection. I never expected to get sick, but nonetheless I did come down with some mean Montezuma’s Revenge, which required an antibiotic to cure. Although I could have obtained the medicine fairly easily in Costa Rica, it was good to know that I had it on hand. I strongly recommend that anyone traveling to Central America bring both over-the-counter and prescription medication in case of sickness.

Besides taking these health precautions, I also prepared to encounter Costa Rican culture and to be immersed in the Spanish language. First, I wanted to bring a gift to my host family to thank them for housing me. I had no idea what would be appropriate, and so I asked the AEC program director, who advised me to bring something unique to my hometown. This proved to be great advice; my family devoured the assortment of packaged foods I brought them. In addition to preparing to meet my host family, I needed to refresh my Spanish-speaking skills. I had not taken Spanish classes in almost three years, so naturally I felt a bit unprepared and nervous. I reviewed my notebooks from high school, watched some Telemundo here and there, and wrote a bunch of letters to a friend in Spain (in Spanish) in order to re-orient my brain to think in the language. Whether or not these preparations actually enhanced my speaking ability in Costa Rica, they definitely relaxed me and eased my transition into a Spanish-speaking environment.

Handling the Transition

In order to cope with culture shock and eventually overcome the language barrier in Costa Rica, it is important to force yourself to speak in Spanish as much as possible while also remaining patient and maintaining a positive attitude. Never having spent more than a few days in a Spanish speaking country, I underestimated how alienated and discouraged I would feel when everyone around me spoke in a different tongue. When I first arrived for orientation in San Jose, I was too nervous to say anything more than “gracias” and “por favor” in Spanish; instead, I slipped into English with the program staff and looked forward to the arrival of more American students. A few days later, I boarded a bus to the small town of Turrialba where my host family would pick me up. I felt so nervous that I almost got physically sick on the bus ride — I dreaded stepping off the bus and having to speak Spanish in order to communicate.

Surprisingly, once I was forced to listen and speak in Spanish, I became increasingly comfortable and my fluency improved. I learned to listen carefully as my family members spoke and to answer them as slowly as I needed to, without feeling stupid or embarrassed. The more I relaxed, the easier communication became. In situations when I did not know the proper Spanish equivalent of a word I wanted to say, or when my host dad spoke a little too quickly for me to understand, I learned the value of asking questions: Perdon? (Pardon me?) Lo puede repitir, por favor? (Can you repeat that, please?) Que significa? (What is the meaning?). Additionally, I relied on gestures to supplement words; body language — largely universal across cultures — proved very useful in communication with los ticos. I chose to live in Turrialba over the other two locations offered to us because former students had told me that virtually everyone in the town spoke Spanish. I also hoped to gain speaking practice through living with a host family. In retrospect, I realize that while these two choices made my first few days in Costa Rica a little harder, they really helped maximize the improvement of my language skills over an incredibly short period of time.

Regina with her host mother, Yenory.
Regina with her host mother, Yenory.

When you do become comfortable speaking the language and are motivated to go out and explore town, you need to remember to exercise caution. I first studied abroad in Bath, England, where safety was not nearly as much of a concern as in Costa Rica. Although my teachers and host family reassured me that the Turrialba streets were safe to walk, I did make sure that I looked alert at all times. The Costa Rican people, also known as ticos, are amazingly friendly and always willing to talk. Costa Rican men — and Latin American men in general — tend to freely voice their opinions about pretty girls on the street. A few times a group of guys approached me and my classmates as we walked into the center of town, yelling things like guapas and various other expressions that I am glad I could not understand. On one hand, it was flattering, but on the other hand, I realized that we stuck out like sore thumbs and the guys probably recognized us as tourists. Thankfully, I never carried more money on my person than I would need that given day; additionally, I kept my passport, plane tickets, and debit card locked in a drawer at my host family’s house. When I did need to carry my passport, such as the day I went to the bank to pay my exit taxes, I carried it in a pouch that rested underneath my shirt. When exploring, I would recommend trying to go with friends, making a point to be aware of your surroundings, and carrying as few valuable items as possible.

Cultural Immersion in Costa Rica

The AEC Medical Spanish program facilitates cultural immersion by incorporating interaction with the locals and engagement with current Costa Rican issues into the curriculum. Each weekday began with four hours of personalized, one-on-one instruction in Spanish conversation and language. During this time, my professor would inform me about one particular aspect of Costa Rican society and would ask me to respond, giving my own opinion and also comparing and contrasting similar situations in the United States. For example, we spent one class discussing the changing role of women in Costa Rican culture. Whereas women typically maintain the household and raise children while the men go out to work, increasing numbers of ticas are seeking college educations and professional positions in the workforce. During the second week of classes, my professor tailored virtually every lesson to my own interests while challenging me to get closer and closer to fluency. After discovering that I played the clarinet, she took me into town to meet her father who happens to be the director of Turrialba’s community orchestra. I interviewed him about participation in the group and the financial challenges of providing instruments and funding concerts. Although I struggled with some musical vocabulary, I ultimately really enjoyed the experience of asking questions and responding to a native speaker. The unique integration of language practice and cultural encounter — a hallmark of the AEC academic experience — allowed me to learn a ton in a short period of time.

The combination of immersion and language learning also was of vital importance in achieving my goal of learning medical Spanish. Three afternoons per week, I took a 2-hour medical Spanish class taught by a physician (who spoke almost no English) and participated in different medically related activities. We took one particularly memorable trip to an orphanage just outside of Turrialba to interview the staff about the children’s medical histories and conditions. Many children end up in Costa Rica’s orphanages not because their parents have died, but because they have debilitating medical conditions that require expensive, round-the-clock care. Fortunately, other families (some Costa Rican, but largely European) who do have the time and means to care for such children often do adopt them. Normally, I would have expected that the children of teenaged mothers would largely comprise the populations of Costa Rican orphanages. Teenaged pregnancy is relatively common in Costa Rica, in large part due to the Catholic Church’s influence on the government and their recommendation that sex education begin no earlier than age 16. Abortions are extremely uncommon in Costa Rica, but usually babies born to teenaged mothers are cared for by the young woman’s family rather than placed in orphanages. In all aspects of Costa Rican life, family ties are of paramount importance and strength. 

When not busy taking classes, I seized upon the opportunity to participate in recreational activities offered through AEC. The program fee includes one cooking and one dance class per week, both of which proved very enjoyable as well as being yet another way to learn about Costa Rican culture. Two trips to tourist attractions were included as well: one to Guayabo, a pre-Columbian archaeological site, and one to a Serpentarium filled with virtually every species of Costa Rican snakes. AEC is involved in a partnership with Explornatura, a company that runs various types of adventure trips in the lush Costa Rican wilderness: river rafting, canyoning, zip-lining, and horseback riding are just a sampling of the options. Participating in these afternoon excursions was a great way to leave the books for a while and see the gorgeous landscapes for which Costa Rica is so famous.

Volcan Poas outside of San Jose
Regina at the Volcan Poas outside of San Jose, during orientation.

Pura Vida

Devoting two and a half weeks to studying Spanish and medical Spanish taught me so much more than language vocabulary. I learned the importance of leaving my comfort zone and confronting fears rather than avoiding them. Speaking Spanish whenever possible, while difficult, allowed for the development of a close relationship with my host family while achieving maximum improvement in my conversation skills. Additionally, thanks to AEC and my own determination, I gained a sense of Costa Rican culture that I never could have imagined. The combination of academic program, experiential learning, and community integration is one that can only be described as pura vida: literally translated “pure life,” or the Costa Rican equivalent of saying, “this is living.”

Lessons Learned

My experience in Costa Rica has taught me:

  1. To gain inspiration through classes. I first became interested in medical Spanish through a Sociology of Medicine course. My final paper dealt with cultural sensitivity in medical practice; overcoming language barriers is a large part of bridging the cultural gap between doctor and patient. My desire to become a more culturally sensitive doctor led me to medical Spanish and eventually to AEC.
  2. To hear from previous participants. Talking to previous participants helped me to first decide whether or not to join up with AEC, and beyond that, which of the three locations to choose. 
  3. To confront fears, rather than avoiding them. Using only gestures and speaking English whenever possible did nothing to quell my fear of speaking entirely in Spanish. I only improved and became more comfortable when I forced myself to speak the language. 
  4. To do what the locals do, eat what they eat, and speak how they speak. Living with a host family proved instrumental in my experience of Costa Rican culture.
  5. To make study abroad work for me. Since I had already secured a summer internship back home in Philadelphia, I only had a few weeks during which to travel. Nevertheless, I was able to have an intense, enriching experience by maximizing time spent speaking Spanish, participating in one-on-one Spanish classes, and seizing upon excursion opportunities.

For More Info

Adventure Education Center’s Medical Spanish Program

CDC Traveler’s Health: Destinations

Related Topics
Study Spanish in Costa Rica
Study Abroad in Costa Rica
Student Participant Stories
Living Abroad in Costa Rica: The Best Expatriate Resources
More by Regina Toto
Advanced Studies Abroad in Bath, England

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