As I mentioned in my last post about why I’m glad I studied in Costa Rica, I don’t at all regret my decision. However, there are downsides to every decision, and I’m writing this post so that those who may be considering studying in Costa Rica can see both sides of the coin.
The longer I lived in Costa Rica, the more familiar I became with distinctions between Latin American countries. Studying in Costa Rica is not the same as studying in Mexico, Peru, or even its neighbor country, Nicaragua. Here are some reasons I would consider looking at another Latin American country.
- Costa Rican Spanish. I know I had this as one of my positives in the previous post, but while I love the accent and quirks of Costa Rican Spanish, there are some aspects that make it less than ideal for Spanish learners. For example, Ticos always use the formal “usted”–for elders, peers, children, and even pets. Therefore, I never got much practice using the informal “tú”, and now I end up speaking a weird mixture of formal and informal when I try to speak the peers.
Alternative countries: Colombia or Peru (I have no firsthand experience, but these are the countries I’ve heard have relatively clear and neutral Spanish.)
- Too many dang gringos. I only ran into a couple of foreign Latin American students and a few Europeans; the rest of us were American. Although I met some foreigners while traveling in Costa Rica, I met a lot more in Panama and Nicaragua. Costa Rica is more expensive than most Latin American countries and very much an American destination. I would have liked the opportunity to meet more international people.
Alternative countries: Anywhere but Costa Rica.
- Not a literature hotspot. I initially hoped to take a couple of biology classes in Costa Rica, but my vocabulary wasn’t up to the science level the first semester, and I had other priorities (such as literature) by the time the second semester rolled around. So while Costa Rica is ideal to study botany, it’s not really a center for Latin American literature, although I did read some interesting Costa Rican poetry and a bit of prose. I took a couple of solid literature classes, but it would have been neat to have studied where Jorge Luis Borges published some of his work, for example (Argentina).
Alternative countries: Argentina (Buenos Aires), Mexico, Colombia, Chile
- Many Ticos speak English. This can be a good thing for transition issues, but bad if used as a crutch. I had the self-motivation to force myself to speak Spanish at (most) times, but there is a huge temptation to speak English when Spanish gets to hard (i.e. all the time). It is possible to slide through with English-speaking and bilingual friends and only be forced to deal with Spanish in class. But what’s the point?
Alternative countries: The less developed the country, the better.
- Lack of deep history. There are certainly interesting points in Costa Rican history, but the country wasn’t built on the ruins of an ancient indigenous empire, for example. My Latin America Culture and Civilization professor for this semester got a bit snarky and was quick to point this out when I mentioned I had spent a year in Costa Rica.
Alternative countries: Southern Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala…
- Bonus: Should you study in Spain? I never considered Spain since I’m more interested in Latin American issues, but there are some fellow exchange students who really wished they had studied in Spain–these were the ones who never really adjusted and tended to complain a lot. Their main reasoning for studying in Latin America was that Spain was too expensive, and Costa Rica is one of the more developed Latin American countries, so it must be almost the same. Nope. If you really want to go to Spain, you know it, and I recommend you do whatever it takes to get there. Start applying for scholarships so you can go where you actually want to be.
Alternative countries: Spain, y’all.
In conclusion, Costa Rica has a special place next to Texas in mi corazón, but I’m sure these other countries are great, too. Presumably.
I have little experience abroad outside of Latin America, so my recommendations are based mainly on hearsay and some research. Have you studied or lived in another Spanish-speaking country? What advice would you give to a student on where to study?