The Two Languages I Learned in Costa Rica

I chose Costa Rica for the same reason many students do: to work on my Spanish. After years of practice in the classroom, I was ready to test out my language skills in the real world.

However, Spanish was not the only thing that drew me to Costa Rica. As an Environmental Studies major, I looked forward to taking ecology classes in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. One of my classes was tropical ornithology, which I took with just 5 other girls.

My tropical bird class classmates, instructor and I on a morning field trip near San José.

Going in, I knew next to nothing about birds. By the first field trip I learned that I am not a natural birder. I would almost never be the first to notice a bird, and anytime a classmate or the instructor pointed one out I would struggle to find it with my eyes. Spotting them with binoculars proved even more challenging. In class it was easy enough to learn the species by their pictures and their songs. Outdoors, however, the birds had this inconvenient tendency to fly away before you could study their features well enough to see if this one was a social flycatcher, a great kiskadee, or one of the many other species that share a yellow underside and a white face crossed with a black stripe. Unlike the recordings we studied in class, which allowed us to listen repeatedly to a single song in isolation at full volume, in the wild countless calls blended together in a beautiful, but meaningless, mishmash of sounds.

A great kiskadee, seen through binoculars.

I realized that in many ways learning to bird mirrored my experience in Spanish classes. From the beginning, grammar rules came naturally, but actually using them in conversation without taking long pauses to think about it was a different story. Individual words were perfectly easy to memorize. But listening to people speak all I could hear was an ongoing stream of noise; pretty noise, but at that point, meaningless to my ears.

I remember when I first started realizing I could pick out actual words here and there out of rapid, fluent speech; cabeza, feliz, cebolla. Over time, the sound of Spanish spoken became less a torrent of syllables and more breakable into discernible units of meaningful sounds; words, sentences I could actually comprehend. The feeling is not unlike the first time I recognized on my own the distinctive song of the Montezuma Oropendola, whose call is unlike the sound of any musical instrument I can think of–except maybe a synthesizer. Just as I became comfortable speaking Spanish and using grammar rules on the fly, I learned to quickly identify some birds before they flew away.

I would not be the first to compare bird-watching to language learning. Coincidentally, just a few days ago I read in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing of her experience learning to recognize birds:

“The sounds have become so familiar to me that I no longer strain to recognize them; they register instead like speech…Indeed, the diversification of what was previously ‘bird sounds’ – into discrete sounds that mean something to me – is something I can only compare to the moment that I realized that my mom spoke three languages, not two.” – Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

A collared aracari, spotted at La Marta wildlife refuge on our last field trip.

I still have a great deal I would like to learn in both Spanish and birding. Learning any language is a never-ending process; I will never know the songs of all 11,000 species of bird, nor every single word of Spanish. When I return to the U.S. I hope to continue practicing both but will be sad to leave behind a place where I had easy opportunities to practice Spanish every day, an incredible, colorful diversity of birds including quetzals and toucans, and the wonderful people who helped me see it all.

Hannah Nuest is a college student at University of Kansas. She is an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in San Jose, Costa Rica.

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