I was five years old when I visited Costa Rica the first time, and seven years old when we visited again. Although my mother spoke to me in Spanish, I was around a lot of her Spanish-speaking friends and their children and I was even in a bilingual classroom in school, there was nothing quite like those trips. Even though I was a child, I still remember what it felt like, coming to the swift realization that there was more to the world than my little corner of it, that other people lived in a completely different place where things were done differently, too.
The memories of those trips are still quite vivid. I met all kinds of cousins, none of whom spoke English. We played in my Abuelita’s yard and made trips to the pulpería—the little corner store—and bought mentas, violetas, botonetas and other kinds of candy. A boyero passed through town and took us for an exhilarating ride down the dusty road in his oxcart. I drank coconut milk straight from the coconut and drank water straight from a creek, out of a cup my dad’s friend fashioned out of a huge tropical leaf (I still remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever). I admired the neighbors’ nativity scenes (we called them portales), and learned that el Niñito Dios, not Santa, would be bringing me my gifts that year.
Last year, my husband and I decided to make a yearly visit to Costa Rica with our children a priority. I know I am extremely lucky to be able to pick up and head to Latin America for a month, and that having family I can visit here makes it much easier. I am a freelancer, so in the months leading up to August I’ve taken on way more than my usual workload in order to partially make up for the loss of income, and I do the same thing after our vacation, as well. As my husband has a limited number of vacation days himself, it means he can’t come every year, either. But it is so very worth it, and crucial to my boys’ language development.
If I were really on the ball I would make sure we had some structure during our trips, or I would be more deliberate about creating learning opportunities, but I’m on vacation, too, so I don’t. But there’s a lot to be said for soaking up the language and culture, right? Here are some of the things we’ve been up to so far:
We’ve watched a whole lot of TV. I’ll just put that one right out there, since it’s not necessarily something to be proud of, I know. My boys watch way more here than they do at home. Now watch me try to justify it! They play hard and spend a lot of time on the beach, in the pool, or on bikes and scooters. When we head home we’re often hot and exhausted, so some quiet time in front of the TV feels really, really nice. The only rule? Spanish shows only. We don’t have cable at home, so watching shows like the Backyardigans, Blue’s Clues and Mister Maker is a big treat. Discovery Kids en español is my friend, and so is their website with all of its fun games in Spanish.
We’ve eaten a whole lot, too. I am capable of making gallo pinto (rice and beans), plantains, refried beans and ceviche at home, but I do it infrequently. Plus, for some reason it all just seems to taste better here. My kids aren’t crazy about all of the food, but at least they’re trying it. They do love the fact that their tía slips them chocolate and they always get a lollipop from the ladies at the farmacia across the street, though. (Not all of the eating we do here is healthy eating, that’s for sure.)
We’ve had to deal with unexpected situations—in Spanish. Unfortunately, my son Secondo has had to see the doctor three times while we’ve been here. He’s been a total champ and was totally unfazed when the doctor spoke to him in Spanish. He proceeded to impress the doctor by identifying his otoscopio, a word he learned on Las pistas de Blue (see Watching too much TV, above). I love the all of the ideas on this site for creating a perceived need for our children to learn the minority language, and I use a lot of them, but there’s nothing like an actual need. (Though I later found out the doctor speaks perfect English. I’ll never tell Secondo.)
We’ve made new friends. We run into other kids at the pool and at the playground. My friends’ children love to entertain my kids. My cousins come to visit with their children. My kids’ developmental and social delays mean they’re still working on peer interactions and aren’t always interested, but I try to encourage it as much as I can.
We’ve learned a lot about fútbol. The boys loved watching World Cup soccer back home this summer, but they’re being schooled in all things fútbol here, thanks to my brother. He bought them a World Cup sticker album and made them memorize Lionel Messi’s jersey number. He’s taught them what his local team’s chants and colors are, as well as the team song. He plans on getting them little red and yellow jerseys and is going to make me take pictures. Yes, my brother can go a little overboard, and I love it—I’m certainly useless when it comes to teaching them about soccer.
We’ve created new memories. This is why we’ve made it a priority to come visit. I want them to remember their Abuelita the way I remember mine. I think of my childhood memories, and wonder what they will remember. Maybe the unlimited juice boxes, the néctar de pera they love so much. Maybe playing soccer in the backyard with their uncle, the geckos that are everywhere, or the bus ride through the mountains to get to the coast. Maybe they’re too little to really remember much yet—but I want to make sure they have many memories to choose from.