Communicating in another language by Helen Dunn Frame

When I lived in England and Germany years ago, I learned the languages spoken there. Believe it or not, British English was quite different from American English in the 1960s. Over the years, the two societies have adopted vocabulary from the other. Back then, friends would tell me that they often consulted a dictionary to understand my letters because I assimilated the Queen’s Own. When I moved to Germany, I attended the Volkhochshule (people’s high school) at night to learn German. The class numbered 100 with students from all over the world and they learned a level of German only graduate students studied. After three semesters, I received a certificate.

In the 1960s, Americans living in Europe lamented that the natives did not speak English! Even then, I felt that as guests in a country we should make the effort to speak their language. While I will be focusing on Spanish here, I firmly believe that when you are a guest in any country, you should make an effort to speak the native language. It also will facilitate your daily life.

According to, as of December 2017 Spanish is tthe third most spoken language behind English and Chinese. Even though I had studied Spanish in high school and college, and later had taken group and private conversation lessons, I entered Costa Rica without the ability to say much. Fortunately, I could read and write it that made recalling the spoken language from the computer in my mind much easier. Luckily, I lived in Puriscal where few natives spoke any English. Little by little, I could make myself understood even if for a time I suffered from present tense-itis. After a while, I could even communicate over the phone and think in Spanish. Nearly every day I learned or recalled a word heading toward conversational fluency if not perfection. I continue to study daily online on

Initially, I would tell Costa Ricans “Español es en mi computadora de mi mente pero no puedo enviar las palabras a mi boca!” It was especially true when I first settled in Puriscal because the spoken words felt locked in the recesses of my brain.

I soon learned that I knew more Spanish than I realized, just like you do even if you have not studied the language. For example, one day I asked a cab driver what the word in Spanish was for the wide street with tall trees in the middle of the parkway that led to my house. He said, “Bulevar” but I imaged it as a boulevard. Obviously, I knew the word from English and French.

Costa Ricans have used the phrase “Pura Vida” since the mid-fifties when they adopted it as they often do with words they take a fancy to speak. The phrase denotes a greeting, farewell, or an expression of a philosophy that includes enjoying life and having good spirits. Ticos delight when foreigners use the expression and such responses as “con mucho gusto” that replaces “de nada” used in other Spanish speaking countries like Mexico.

Many people who have lived in Costa Rica for years have never learned to speak Spanish; some think they do, which causes people to snicker. I wish I could do a study to determine whether a person’s inability to communicate correlates to their tales of bad experiences. When I need to transact business in English, I begin in Spanish and then asked for assistance in English. I found if I asked immediately, the person would say, “No hablo Ingles, Seňora”

When I have to transact business in Spanish when the words are not in my Spanish vocabulary, especially over the phone, it may require extra patience by the other person. People the world over become more helpful, I have found, if you first make the effort in their native language.

Some people feel that learning a foreign language presents a learning challenge when a person is a senior citizen but no one is too old to study even if he or she learns more slowly. Compared to German, Spanish is a piece of cake. It has nowhere near the two million words that English purportedly contains. Actually many words are similar in both languages. You already know quite a few which gives you a head start to assemble a vocabulary of about 600 words when you can certainly begin to communicate at least according to the experts. While not every English word appears the same in Spanish, you will delight at how many exist. Incidentally, one man I knew learned essential vocabulary words and infinitives and managed to convey basic information.

Words you know include those that end in “tion” in English because they end in “cion” in Spanish. Accents show the emphasis rests on another syllable other than what would be the normal pronunciation. Check p 557 in 501 Spanish Verbs for clues about pronunciation. It’s a book along with a Spanish-English dictionary that you should have in your library. Change nation to nación, action to acción, and repetition, repetición. How many words can you list ending in “tion”?

Words ending in “ly” in English end in “mente” in Spanish. Words ending in ssion like passion translate to pasión. To me it is interesting that Spanish will drop one of the double letters from an English word, but will make a double letter in some cases, for example Hellen. The meaning of some words like difícil, gasolina, and garaje seem obvious, even if pronounced differently. Words that end in “al” like special usually end in “al” in Spanish. In this case especial. Espinaca that means spinach essentially contains the English word.

Sometimes adding an “a” or an “o” to an English word nets the correct Spanish word but then most often not. A couple of examples: form translates to “la forma” and document, “el documento”. Another hint: each syllable generally ends in a vowel like ga-so-li-na. Just remember the “i” sounds like an “e” so natives pronounce it as ga-so-lean-a.

Another hint, the vowels are the same as those in English. . Spanish does not have the letters ‘K’ and ‘W. However, I have seen the word Komplete on a cereal product advertised in a newspaper. Spanish used to have words starting with a CH that separated them from those beginning with C but they are fading from the language. In any case, in order to learn even basic Spanish the secret remains: practicar, practicar, practicar. It does not matter if you do not say it correctly, just that you communicate. Ticos differ from the French who allegedly do not care what you say as long as you pronounce it correctly.

My accent sounds American no matter what language I speak although my dialect comes across as more International than from any particular area of the States. Check out this source for vocabulary:

With these tools, you can make a list of words you know that end in cion, mente, and words you suspect are correct in Spanish and verify them in the dictionary. While you may speak in the present tense to begin with, you can learn the simple past or preterito in the Verbs book. One way to start speaking in the future tense is to use “yo voy a” before an infinitive. You may even drop “yo.” For example, I am going to go. “Voy a ir.”

This blog is based on a chapter in the third edition of my book Retiring in Costa Rica or Doctors, Dogs and Pura Vida available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. This blog will replace the chapter in the fourth edition.


Helen Dunn Frame, formerly a commercial real estate broker in the Dallas/Fort-Worth Metroplex specializing in retail and restaurants, developed professional writing skills. In addition, living in England, Germany, and Costa Rica; and her love of travel (in 50 countries where she gained an appreciation of the value of diverse cultures) have provided background for books, blogs, and articles.

Helen wove many threads of her experiences into the fabric of GREEK GHOSTS followed by the second in the mystery series, WETUMPKA WIDOW. Living in Dallas during a major scandal resulted in SECRETS BEHIND THE BIG PENCIL. In a third edition, Helen advises Baby Boomers in her book about RETIRING IN COSTA RICA or Doctors, Dogs and Pura Vida. It features a new chapter, Retirement 101, which is also a booklet available on Kindle.

As a graduate of Syracuse University (Journalism School), and New York University (Master’s Degree in Sociology/Anthropology), major newspapers and magazines as well as trade publications in the United States, Costa Rica, England, and Germany have published her writing. She has edited newsletters, published a newspaper and other author’s books, created business proposals for clients, and spoken to groups.

One thought on “Communicating in another language by Helen Dunn Frame

  1. Carolyn Howard-Johnson says:

    This is one of my favorite topics. I hate to see politicized because linguist dicks and language is so much fun and we can learn so much from every single language. Both the similarities and the differences.

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