Student Blogs & Vlogs | College Study Abroad Programs, IFSA-Butler

English in Costa Rica

Many people choose to study abroad at least in part because they want to get to know another culture.  For me, the subtext of “I want to get to know another culture” is “I want to see something exotic,” and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.  But what happens when another culture is not exotic?

In a way it’s nice that I’m studying at the Universidad Nacional, because I hate the city.  If I got to live wherever I wanted in Costa Rica, it would be in an idyllic agricultural landscape backed by a virgin rainforest.  And when I go on weekend trips, I try as hard as I can to see Costa Rica as I want to see it: wild, rustic, and exotic.  But during the week, I’m forced to see the Costa Rica that the majority of Costa Ricans see: city life in the Central Valley.  And city life in the Central Valley isn’t all that exotic.

To illustrate that point a little more objectively, I walked from my house to the IFSA office along the main street on the west side of central Heredia (the same way I take to the university) and recorded all of the written English I saw.  I have included brand names that may not technically be English words but are equally effective at measuring American influence.  In addition to a few English T-shirts and too many car makes/models to keep track of, this is what I found on my 1.2 km walk:


Coca-Cola (half of sign for neighborhood grocery store)

Servicio Express (on pizzeria window)

E-mail (on sign for tow truck business)

Internet / Fax (on business center sign)

English Spoken (next to phone number on dental clinic sign)

Express (next to phone number on Bufalos Mojados buffalo wings sign)

Genesis Early Learning and Daycare Center (name of daycare center)

Maternal Prekinder Kinder / Email (on sign for daycare center)

Electroburger Underground (name of restaurant)

Echnosystems (name of technology store)

Suki Craft (name of craft store)

Scrapbook (on craft store window)

Beach House (name of bar)

Wifi free (on Cafetería Amigos sign)

Liftmaster Professional (on a sign, not sure what for)

Ultimate Fitness (name of boxing and martial arts club)

Stadium (name of bar/restaurant)

Copy America (name of copy store)

Coca-Cola (painted on snack stand)

Reposteria Food Market (name of snack store)

Pepsi (on sign for snack store)

Quizno’s / Pepsi (flyer handed to me) (on truck)

K Bar: Red Berries (for sale in snack stand)

Burger King

Coca Cola / Café Internet Open / Coca Cola (sign for internet café)

Quizno’s Sub

Whopper Jr. (on Burger King sign)

Pizza Hut

Taco Bell

Pepsi (restaurant sign)

Pepsi (restaurant sign)

Pepsi (restaurant sign)



Super Max / Nachos supreme / burrito supreme / pepperjack crunchy wrap (on Taco Bell sign)

Papa John’s

Spoon (name of café? on random sign)


Sushi Home (name of sushi place)

Sexy Shop (name of sex shop)

Game Master (name of game store)


That’s 43 English sightings in about 15 minutes.  When you see the marks of your native land about every 20 seconds, it makes it pretty hard to feel like you’re somewhere exotic.

As a tourist, I found this very disappointing.  I wanted coconuts and quetzals and cattle—who doesn’t?  But as a student, I eventually learned to appreciate what I was seeing.  It was not a lack of culture, but evidence of a culture different from the one I was hoping for.

Urban Costa Rica of the twenty-teens is not rural Honduras of the nineteen-eighties (where my mom worked in Peace Corps, the stories from which shaped my fantasies of Latin America).   In the days of the Spanish Empire, Costa Rica’s portless Caribbean coast and uncrossable thicket of canyons and mountains relegated it to a backwater.  But the geography that was so hostile to transportation also hosted some of the best terrain in the world for growing coffee, and the growth of that industry catapulted Costa Rica ahead.  With the help of a couple more economic successes and social advancements—especially the establishment of free public education and the abolition of the army—Costa Rica eventually came to be the richest and most stable country in Central America.  One of the effects of that wealth and stability has been a growing relationship with the superpower that has alternately abused and aided i.  Costa Rica’s somewhat bland national identity is actually the result of its unique history.  The words and logos I see may be familiar, but they represent a cultural dynamism unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.


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