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Languages in Costa Rica

The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. Learning the language and specific dialect of any foreign country is by far the single most important investment one can make, especially if planning to live there for significant periods of time. This can help ease integration and also avoid misunderstandings or other negative/embarrasing situations.


It is important to know the basics before arriving; this will give added confidence and also make an integration or vacation easier. It could also make time spent in Costa Rica more enjoyable and less stressful.

It is a such a shame to see how much people miss out on because they have no idea what is going on. Even though many Ticos can understand or speak English, it is still a very nice gesture to speak the language of the country. Plus, this skill provides many advantages and freedom when one is living in Costa Rica.

Also, the Ticos are typically humble and will deny any knowledge of English, because they are shy about what they know.  They tend to be reserved in speaking English because they are afraid of how bad it may sound.  Many times you speaking Spanish to them will allow them to open up and return the favor by speaking English.

Costa Rican Spanish is actually considered to be one of the easiest dialects of Spanish to learn. It is one of the clearest forms of Spanish and Costa Ricans are very patient, forgiving, and helpful when it comes to learning the language.

Costa Ricans don't use the same Castilian Spanish that's spoken in Spain. The Spaniards lisp their c's and z's and they use the "vosotros" person, while Costa Ricans use for "you" the antiquated form of "vos", and the more formal "usted".

Even if someone knows formal Spanish, they will quickly notice that Costa Ricans speak differently, have a different accent, they have their own sayings, their own slang, and their own way of saying things. Costa Rican Spanish is as dynamic a language as any other, and it's full of "Tiquismos" or unique sayings. One of the common Tiquismos is the use of the diminutive- Costa Ricans are called "ticos" because they add this word as a suffix in order to create a diminutive. In other words, instead of saying "blanquito" (small, white), they might say "blanquitico" or "blanquititico", which means the same thing.

Ticos are also famous for using tons of terms of endearment, which shouldn't be misinterpreted as mean or cruel nicknames. For instance, it's common for Ticos to call people "flaco" (thin one) or "gordo" (fat one) without intending any offense at all. People of other races are usually called by their race, as in "chino" (Chinese) or "negro" (black one). Do not be surprised if you are referred to as a Gringo regardless of where you are from or the color of your skin. Almost all foreigners are referred to as Gringos.  At first, you may feel like this is offensive, but Costa Ricans explain that it is the same that they refer to themselves as Ticos it is simply an easier way of referring to a group of people. Of course this is completely 100% politically incorrect, but everyone seems to get along quite well and it is not as racially tense as it is in the US, for example.

You will also notice that Costa Ricans are extremely polite when speaking Spanish. Costa Rican Spanish, as most Spanish in Latin America, is extremely polite and sometimes formal. Some key words to learn, in order to keep up with the politeness are: "Gracias" (thank you), "Por favor" (please), "Buenos dias" (good morning), and, Mucho gusto" ("It's a pleasure" or "with pleasure").

The Catholicccc influence has also influenced their speech as Costa Ricans are especially known for  often saying very religious things like: “Que Dios le bendiga” (God bless you), “Gracias a Dios” (Thanks be to God) , “Si Dios quiere” (God willing), “Que Dios lo acompane” (God be with you) etc.  Just learning the word God (Dios) will help you to understand several common words and phrases.

The best way to learn the language is to really immerse oneself in the culture and to try and spend as much time with Costa Ricans.  At first, one may just have to listen, then after a while one starts to take a shot at talking, and then before long speaking like a native. At least try it. Life will become so much simpler, one can earn the respect of the Costa Ricans just for trying, and it is much less likely to get ripped off.

Take 12 week intensive courses or select a more leisurely course. If working in a certain profession, there are also special business courses which teach the terminology needed to do a job. In smaller classes one will receive more personalized attention.

The best way to learn any language is immersion, so even though studying can help, it is best to get involved in the culture and with its people to really dominate the language. Language schools abound in Costa Rica, and they range from a few mediocre ones to a majority of excellent ones. Some are located in universities,  in private institutions, in rural areas, near rain forests or in beach areas.

A great way to learn a language is to do a home stay. A home stay is when a person  lives with a Costa Rican family and are surrounded by Spanish almost 24 hours a day. People who incorporate an extended home stay usually have much more success in learning the language and tend to pick up the native dialect and in some cases the accent too.

There are certain stages when learning a language (just like a baby learns):

  • Stage one: Total and utter confusion and frustration.

  • Stage two: Start piecing together and making connections and associations in the brain from listening.

  • Stage three: Begin to understand what people are saying some of the time.

  • Stage four: Begin to understand more and even start trying to respond back even if it sounds funny and is wrong. If able to speak and not be embarrassed during this stage, one will learn a lot more, a lot  faster.

  • Stage five: Understand almost everything that is said with the ability to respond in a semi-coherent manner. At this point one can start to read and write even if one makes a significant amount of mistakes still.

  • Stage six: Is never ending where you continue to learn more and more vocabulary and improve  speech patterns.

  • Note: Obviously these stages time periods vary depending on personal ability to learn a language, motivation level, and desire, or necessity to learn the language.


English on Caribbean Coast

The Caribbean coast is the only place in Costa Rica where the main language is English. This is because the population living there are decedents of Jamaica. Due to this fact, many people have a Caribbean accent. There are many people in this area that also speak a dialect that is called Patua. Patua is a mix between English, French, and Spanish. Some people find this language easy to understand, others have more difficulty, but the fact of the matter is that it would be difficult to try and communicate in this language.


Native Indigenious Languages

There are several different native tribes still living in very remote areas of Costa Rica that speak their own special languages. Many of these tribes languages are now extinct

  • The Boruca Indians speak Boruca which is a Chibchan language of Central America, still spoken by only a few elders in Costa Rica. To learn more about this click here.
  • The Bribri Indians speak Bribri which is a Chibchan language of Central America, spoken by 10,000 people in Costa Rica and Panama. To learn more about this click here
  • The Cabecar Indians speak Cabecar which is a Chibchan language of Central America, spoken by 4000 people in Costa Rica. To find out more click here
  • The Dorasque Indians speak a dialect of the Chibchan  language of Central America, spoken by 10,000 people in Costa Rica and Panama. To learn more about this click here.
  • The Guatuso Indians speak Maleku which is a Chibchan language of Central America, spoken by 500 people in Costa Rica. To learn more about this click here.
  • The Teribe Indians speak a dialect of the Chibchan language of Central America, spoken by 2000 people in Panama and Costa Rica. To learn more click here.
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