Learning Spanish in Costa Rica
While it's true that you can live happily in Costa Rica without speaking Spanish, I cannot stress enough the value of even beginner language skills. There are so many benefits to learning Spanish: daily tasks are easier, your pool of potential friends increases, and language-related frustrations are minimized. Speaking Spanish literally opens doors. String a few words together, and you may find that new acquaintances, neighbors and future friends open their homes and lives to you.
Costa Rica is a wonderful place to learn Spanish. The accent is fairly easy to understand -- words are enunciated, endings are not dropped, and there are few variations from by-the-book pronunciation. Costa Ricans speak more clearly and slowly than locals in other Latin American countries and they are known for their patience with language learners, and will make every effort to understand you. They'll even smile while doing so! Unlike the Castilian dialect that is spoken in Spain, there are no lisped "c's' and "z's,' and the Costa Rican "r' or "rr' sound is very understated, making it easier for English-speakers to mimic.
Luckily, there's no better way to learn Spanish than to live it. Open your eyes and ears: Are your neighbors speaking Spanish in the street? Can you watch the local news in Spanish? Are your home appliances labeled in Spanish? There are so many opportunities to learn through experience, and this kind of passive osmosis can be very successful. Change your electronics (TV, voicemail, etc.) to display in Spanish; favorite a Spanish-language radio station; and turn on Spanish-language subtitles for TV programming. In addition to teaching you vocabulary, just listening to Spanish will help you pick apart rapid-fire sentences and decipher individual words.
For a more active approach to Spanish learning, I highly recommend taking formal Spanish lessons. More than ten years ago, I studied Spanish in Costa Rica, and it was one of the most enjoyable and intense experiences of my life. Most local programs offer 20 hours of weekly group lessons (groups are usually 2-5 individuals), and private lessons are also available. Many language schools offer classes combined with a homestay, which includes two meals daily and laundry service. In a homestay, your Costa Rican host family will speak only Spanish, encouraging you to communicate with them. You may be surprised at how affordable Spanish lessons can be: A four-week plan (20 hours weekly + homestay) costs about $1500, while classes alone run less than $1000 per month.
More informally, your acquaintances and neighbors may be interested in exchanging Spanish conversation for English conversation. Ask around, or simply suss out who of your friends is taking English lessons, wants to learn, or has studied in the past. Invite them over for coffee, and split your time between speaking English and Spanish. You'll not only improve your Spanish skills, but you'll have fun in the process.
Above all, make friends. Find people with similar interests, and jump into the experience. Your friends will be an incredible resource to you, especially when it comes to questions. Among my friends, no language question is too ridiculous -- which is invaluable, considering the potentially embarrassing mistakes I've made!
Over the past eleven years, I have used a combination of the above to build and improve my Spanish-language skills. Six weeks worth of class taught me a huge amount of vocabulary and grammar, increased my listening comprehension, and built my confidence. After that experience, I continued to immerse myself, listening to as much Spanish as I could.
During my first few months in country, I was nervous to speak with strangers, afraid that they wouldn't understand me. Soon, I learned that some wouldn't understand me, but that it didn't matter -- so I spoke Spanish at every opportunity. Today I'm completely fluent, thanks to the patience of friends, perseverance, and lots of practice. Oh, and having a Costa Rican husband doesn't hurt!