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Posted by on Jan 12, 2014 in Spanish, Uncategorized | 22 comments

Spanish Sundays – Número Dos

Spanish Sundays – Número Dos

It's all about attitude…Right?

It’s all about attitude…Right?

Welcome back to Spanish Sundays; my way of holding myself accountable to my goal of being able to carry on a conversation in Spanish by the end of the year. It is also a way to help others who might be starting a language program, by sharing tips and tricks I am learning along the way. In the end, I am starting to learn, you just have to get out there and be uncomfortable and use the words you know.

Communication Breakdown

There were 2; very humorous to Jen, very frustrating to me, conversations I endured this week. The first was at a bus stop where a lady started speaking rapid Spanish to us and through body language and picking out a word here and there, I understood her to ask what bus we were taking. My response was a staccato, “Cajon.” Her response to my response was to point to a bus stop several streets over and speak a machine gun spew of Spanish. I was able to pick out a few words, enough to get the gist that she was telling me “The Cajon bus does not come here”… Bullshit, I might not know Spanish but i do know where to catch my bus. “Use your words Greg” I encouraged myself, “Siempre”  “Aquí” and I point to our bus stop while she gives a dubious look. It’s at this point in the “conversation” that a neighbor of ours walks up and I breath a sigh of relief as it is confirmation that I am at the right place to catch my bus, as if I had any doubts. The nay sayer starts chatting up our neighbor using many of the same words used with me and points several streets over to the other bus stop. Finally, our bus arrives and our neighbor looks at Jen and I, rolls her eyes and smiles.


The second conversation was just as frustrating as the first but it was a bit less intimidating than the bus stop episode because it involved someone who we know. I was in a not unfamiliar position, prone on the couch, when Jen informs me someone was here. Shaking the cobwebs from my head and wiping the spittle from my mouth I walk to our door to see our next door neighbor standing in the doorway. Our house is like a beach house, it is built on stilts such that to get to our living quarters one has to climb stairs. This aspect of our house keeps visitors to our doorstep to a minimum. The Upe’ers rarely ascend the stairs. So, it was not just my vulnerable position but the fact that we were not expecting anyone, that startled me. Being startled is not a great mental position to be in to begin to try to understand a Spanish conversation. Yet, this was what happened.

Normally, in a Spanish conversation, I can pick up a word here and there and, along with exaggerated body language and context, I can get the gist of what is being communicated. This time around I had nothing; nada, zero, zilch. I lost count of the number of times I said “No Entiendo”(I don’t understand) but it was very many. It turns out our neighbor, who is also our landlord’s caretaker for our property, was just telling me that he had connected a water hose to our faucet to water the lawn and that he was going to leave it connected and that we could use it if we wanted to. How do I know this? A bilingual friend came by later for a visit and we asked her to ask our neighbor what the hell he was trying to tell me.

I understand there is frustration in learning a language and that language can either be the fuel to power my learning or a torpedo that sinks the language ship. I choose it to be the fuel. Being embarrassed and uncomfortable is driving me to learn so that I can effectively communicate and not be uncomfortable.  There is a distinction here that needs to be made – the frustration I have is with myself…not with the speaker, it is my responsibility to be able to speak the language of the country of which I am a guest in.

Last Weeks Goals

Last week I had several goals. Here they are and the results of my efforts.

  • Learn the A, B, C’s – Learning the A, B, C’s helps in pronunciation Spanish words. I have a pretty good grasp of the letters.
  • (Re)Learn numbers through 100 – once this is learned it is not a long stretch to learn to 1,000.  I did pretty good however, when I hear a long number I get lost – especially when it comes from a native speaker. See my goal for this week below.
  • Watch Seasame Street in Spanish – 5 episodes – I did not do this at all. Instead I downloaded some Spanish conversations from the internet and loaded them up on my iPod and listened (and repeated aloud) as I took my daily hike. It was funny the few times I spoke out loud (loader than intended because of the earbuds) as I passed a Tico – “¿Dónde está el baño?” – smile, snicker, laugh.

This Weeks Goal

I only have one goal this week. To force myself to understand and communicate numbers when making a purchase. The exchange rate in Costa Rica is, roughly, 500 colones to $1, making the conversion math easy but also making, just about any purchase, be a large number of colones. For example; 2,525 (about $5) would be, dos mil-quinientos-veinticinco, and when heard in real-time, is quite difficult to get.

There are a few number hacks I have used up till now that are keeping me from fully comprehending a long number when spoken. In the example above, all I would listen for would be the dos mil (2,000) part, and I would pull out 3 mil’s to pay with thus looking like I knew what I was doing without having to understand the hundredths and tenths positions. Another cheat, is that most places of business rely on the super-smart technology of the calculator and the cashier will show you the amount calculated on the calculator to HELP you get there faster.

This weeks goal – to not look at the calculator AND to give exact change in each transaction. I think I will be using the words “Más despacio, por favor” a whole lot.

Hasta Pronto,


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Greg Seymour is a quitter. At 41 Greg and his wife Jen quit their jobs, sold damn near everything they owned and became Intentionally Unemployed and retired early to Costa Rica.
In addition to writing on this blog, Greg has written for other online publications and has written two popular books about living in Costa Rica:
Greg Seymour Amazon Author Page

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  1. Good luck with this weeks goal…………make sure you let me know how that works out for you……….jajaja

    • As always, thanks for your support Jim. You know I will let you know how it works out – the good, bad, and ugly.

  2. Enjoyed the article and kudos for your efforts – Thought you might like to know that “No Entiendio” means I don’t hear which would be exasperating to the speaker and you might prefer ” No comprendo” which means I don’t understand and might lead the speaker to slow down. Also you mistook 25 for 45 in your money example…. Sorry…. Keep trying !

    • Thanks! It is my understanding that no entiendo can be used as “I don’t understand” in fact that is how my neighbor had used the phrase. I will keep my ear out for it’s usage. Yeah, I put 45 instead of 25 – I had changed it in my head and and written out but forgot to update the number when I changed it. Thanks for commenting I appreciate all the pointers I can get.

      • Actually, you were correct in your usage of “no entiendo” – it means “I don’t understand.” Both verbs entender and comprender mean “to understand,” but comprender is scarcely used in Costa Rica. You’re better off doing as you are. Keep at it!

          • Yeah, I think “no entiendo” is more standard in most places. “No comprendo,” is more like, “I understand your words but don’t comprehend your point.” At least that’s how it is used in Argentina/Chile. You can say “no te escucho” if you don’t hear something…even though this literally translates to “i didn’t listen to you” haha.

  3. you are not alone. I too have difficulty with understanding the rapidly spoken long numbers. Keep up the good work, it will get better for both of us.

    • Thanks, my goal in sharing is to share the struggles and triumphs – it is certainly motivating to hear about others trying to learn as well. Good luck.

  4. Cute. Someday you will be annoyed when they push the calculator towards you, without uttering the amount out loud. In these scenarios, I say the number out loud to them, so they know I know… you know? 😉 We have to be proud of our little accomplishments. Keep fueling!

    • Thanks Emily. Yep, small wins are celebrated in a big way for me – mainly ’cause that’s all I got. Lol. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Yeh. 45. Became. 25. But nice try amigo!!!

  6. We are currently visiting and are amazed at how hard it really is getting around with only rudimentary Spanish. Thank goodness for phrase books! Its been a life saver. Today – first bus trip! Keep up the studies. You’ll be surprised how many words you really know so far

    • Thanks. Phrase books are awesome. Enjoy the country.

  7. Props for tackling Spanish, Greg! Learning a new language is always an entertaining experience….you just gotta laugh it off. When I was learning Spanish, I got a job working on a farm in Spain. One day, my employer started yelling at me “donde está la china?” At least that’s what I heard. We went round and round, me trying to figure out why he was asking me to locate a major asian country and him getting louder and louder and more annoyed. Finally I figured out he was saying “hachina” as in little “hacha,” or axe. That was just one of many hilarious miscommunications…

    • Great stories Syd. Thanks for reading and the comments. I am sure the stories will continue…on and on.

  8. Love reading these experiences! Is this your first language you are trying to learn? I know from my experiences through school learning French and German (I got pretty proficient in French, not so much in German!) that it can be tough picking up other languages. I always found the tough part to be understanding the tenses and how to incorporate the past tense, future tense etc. in tandem with gender which I don’t know much Spanish so don’t know if it’s as big of a deal as it is in French/German!

    Great post though Greg and look forward to seeing how your Spanish develops!

    • Thanks. Took the mandatory year of language (German) in high school but I don’t remember much. To this day I couldn’t tell you why, in Texas, I decided to take German and not Spanish. Being in Costa Rica it is actually fun being able to immediately put into practice what I am learning.

  9. Starting with basics is the best- just learn numbers, simple words and phrases and of course, the dreaded verb conjugations. Without that, it’s near impossible to have a smooth conversation. I remember the days when I would be sitting at dinner with 6 Ticos and have absolutely NO idea what was going on. Thank goodness that doesn’t happen anymore but it’s so hard in the beginning. Just keep at it and it’ll come together – practice practice practice! Good luck! Also something useful is “Mas despacio por favor” or “podrias repetir por favor” which means slow down please or repeat please.

    • Thanks for the tips. We are very lucky in that we live here…very easy to find someone to practice with.

  10. Good luck as you continue learning Spanish! I took 5 years between highschool and college and barely remember a damn thing. I’m going to tackle re-learning it this year. I really want to kick myself in the ass for not practicing it more then.

    • Good luck with re-learning. While I am intimidated and sometimes frustrated it is also exhilarating when a word or phrase pops up at the right time, in the right context or when someone says something and I get it…I get what they are saying, even if I don’t understand every word.

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