In the October 2002 Issue:
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Many people approach learning a foreign language as a totally new kind of learning task, different from any they have ever tackled. They assume that whatever they have learned in other courses or through life experiences has little bearing on learning a foreign language. Some teachers also treat their students as if they were a tabula rasa, or blank slate, on which the new language information will be inscribed.
The fact is that all of us possess a wealth of knowledge that can he brought to bear in learning a foreign language. Following the principle of “going from the known to the unknown,” if you wisely use what you know, you can make the process of learning a foreign language more efficient and rewarding. You will feel in greater control because you can relate the new information about the language to knowledge you already have.
The most common kind of information you possess is cultural knowledge. Consider the following sentence: “Barcelona is currently enjoying fame as the host of the Olympic games, which will run from July 25 through August 9.” A Martian might find it difficult to interpret this sentence, but you, as a world citizen, should not have too much trouble understanding it. After all, you bring a great deal of cultural knowledge to your reading. By answering the following questions you will see what kinds of knowledge you possess that help you interpret the sentence: 1. Where is Barcelona? 2. What are the Olympic Games? 3. What is the weather likely to be at this time of the year? 4. What does hosting consist of?
Knowledge of Facts
The answer to question 1 (Barcelona is a city in Spain) demonstrates your knowledge of geographic facts. This allows you to place the event in an urban setting. The answer to question 2 (the Olympic Games are a major international sports competition that dates back to ancient Greece) demonstrates your knowledge of historical facts. This allows you to predict that what follows might include a description of sports activities included in the Games. The answer to question 3 (the weather will be on the warm side since in the Northern Hemisphere July and August are summer months) can help you narrow the kinds of sports that will be featured.
Knowledge of Procedures/Rituals
The answer to question 4 (hosting consists of providing sports facilities for the games, housing for the athletes, and hotel rooms for visitors) demonstrates your knowledge of procedures or rituals. This knowledge helps you anticipate that the article will discuss these in further detail.
When you study a foreign language, you bring a knowledge of many facts and procedures that can help you make sense of what you hear or read. For instance, you know how to behave in a restaurant: how to order, what the sequence of the courses is, whether you should share your food with others, whether to tip, and how to address the waiter. This knowledge will help you make better sense of a conversation in a restaurant because you can fill in the gaps in your foreign language understanding. For instance, when the waiter approaches you and says something incomprehensible in a foreign language, you might guess that he is asking you what you would like to order.
This refers to your knowledge about how people usually talk and how to interpret what they say. For example, you know who usually speaks first: anyone who cares to, the most important person, or the oldest person. You also know whether it is all right to interrupt that person. These examples represent a small part of your knowledge of the ways people usually talk in your language. Of course, since there may be major differences between cultures about how to talk, you will need to use this information judiciously.
Another part of sociolinguistic knowledge is awareness of how to express your intentions and interpret what people say. In your own language, you know how to say no politely so you don’t insult someone; how to recognize a polite but indirect refusal; how detailed an expression of gratitude needs to be, and how to determine if someone’s expression of thanks was detailed enough; and how to greet people appropriately, depending on their status. When studying a foreign language, you need to find out how social purposes, such as thanking, greeting, and refusing, are accomplished. You will need to note similarities and differences in expressing these social functions between your own language and the one you are learning.
In addition to cultural knowledge, there are many kinds of linguistic knowledge that you bring to your study of a foreign language. You already have a large vocabulary in one language. In studying a foreign language you should use what you know to recognize foreign words. Many languages are historically related and share similar words, although they may be pronounced or spelled somewhat differently. For example, English and French share about half of their vocabulary. Compare English aunt, uncle, cousin and French tante, oncle, cousin. In addition to similar words due to a common parent, languages also borrow words from each other, either with or without adjustments to make them conform to their rules of pronunciation. Thus, when Japanese speakers borrow English words, they adapt the words to the Japanese sound system. As a result, English baseball, football, sports become beesubooru, futtobooru, supootsu in Japanese.
Similarities in vocabulary should be noted because they simplify your learning task. Consider, for example, English words ending in -tion (information, institution, action). In Spanish, similar words end in -ción (información, institución, acción). If you use your English vocabulary and apply this rule, you will recognize many hundreds of words in Spanish.
Once in a while, however, similarities can turn out to be false. For example, in Russian, miting means “rally,” not “meeting,” and aktual’niy means “current,” not “actual.” The Portuguese word for rubber is borracha, but in Spanish borracha means “drunken woman”! Sometimes, familiar looking words are used differently in another language. For example, in English the word handsome can describe both animate and inanimate objects, as in handsome young man and handsome desk. In Spanish, however, a young man is guapo, but a desk is bonito. Conversely, in English, people are tall and buildings can be either tall or high, but in Russian and Chinese, there is only one word to describe height. So in using words that appear similar, be sure to look out for the context in which they appear.
If a language you have already studied has more than one equivalent for a word in your language, you may expect the same thing to happen in another language. For example, if you know that the verb to ask has two equivalents in Spanish (preguntar, “to ask a question,” and pedir, “to ask for something”), you should not be surprised if there are two equivalent words in Russian (sprashivat’ and prosit’), in French (demander and prier), and in Chinese (wen and qing).
If you know a language other than your native one, you can also use what you know about pronunciation rules. If you have studied a language such as German, in which final consonants are “devoiced”-that is, Hund (“dog”) is pronounced with a final t instead of d, you can apply the same rule to some other languages, such as Russian, in which the d of parad, “parade,” is also pronounced as a t. Or if you have learned how to trill an r in Spanish, you can use this knowledge in Italian or any Slavic language. But watch out for variations. For instance, the trill may be longer, shorter, or differ slightly in the position of the tongue.
Even though you may not be able to state the formal rules of your own language, you know a great deal about its grammar. You may remember that Lewis Carroll used the word uglify in Alice in Wonderland. Uglify was not an English word until Carroll created it. But you recognize it as an acceptable English word. How do you know that? Well, you know that there is an adjective, beautiful, and that it can become a verb beautify. Then there is an adjective, ugly, and by analogy it can become a verb, uglify. You can apply the same process to a foreign language.
Another kind of grammar knowledge that you have is that of word order-i.e., the normal order in which words occur. That order can help you predict what is to follow or decipher what you have missed. For example, if you speak a language with a sentence structure like English and you see the sentence “An independent judging organization will read every….” what word do you anticipate to come after every? Probably a noun, like entry or submission. When you study a new language, you need to start noticing if the word order is similar to your own. If it is, you won’t have to learn new information about it. If it is not, then you may have to note the differences.
When you listen in your own language, there is a great deal you pay attention to besides the language in order to interpret what is being said. The physical setting may give you some clues as to what may be said. For example, if you are in a post office and see a man with a big package talking to a clerk, you can predict reasonably well that they are talking about where the package is being sent, what type of delivery is desired, how long it will take to get to its destination, and how much it will cost.
Gestures and Facial Expressions
These might give you further clues as to what is being said. If the man with the package looks angry and keeps pointing to his watch, it probably means that he has been waiting in line too long or that the post office hours are inconvenient. Action and Interaction These clues will also allow you to narrow your expectations. If you see two people at the train station embracing each other, you can guess that they are saying good bye, promising to keep in touch, or making plans about getting together again.
In trying to understand a story, conversation, or passage, it always helps to look for the main topic, mood, or setting. This comes from noticing the physical setting, the action and interaction, and gestures and facial expressions. Doing so will help you focus your attention and guess other important information. Ask yourself where the conversation is taking place. Is it in a store? Then there is probably talk about buying and selling. Does it take place in a restaurant? The conversation is probably about ordering food. Who is involved in the situation? If it is a doctor and a patient, you can assume that they are talking about health and medicine. If it is a police officer and a tourist, they may be talking about directions. Use what you know about contexts to help you narrow your expectations and guess more accurately.
In reading and listening, information from the text itself can help you interpret what is being said or written. By considering what has already been said about the setting, the time, the characters, and the events, you can narrow down the range of things that can follow. Further, since you may not be able to understand a particular utterance by itself, you may need to consider how it relates to other utterances. For example, to ask for directions to the subway in Russian, you would say Vy ne skazhete, gde tut metro? (“Can you tell me where the metro is?”). The response Ne skazhu (“I won’t tell you”) may strike you as a little annoying or strange. However, a succeeding sentence, such as Ya ne zdeshniy (“I am not local”) indicates that the intended meaning of ne skazhu is not really “I won’t tell you” but “I can’t tell you.” As you can see, you need the second sentence to determine the meaning of ne skazhu and to keep you from misinterpreting it. Also, some words gain their meanings largely from the physical context. For example, the Chinese sentence Ya’o bu’ ya’o chi fan? means “Do you want rice? (as opposed to noodles)” when in a restaurant or sitting at a table, while elsewhere it means “Would you like to eat?” (i.e., “Are you hungry?”).
Certain kinds of logical processes are quite widespread and may help you make better sense of something you hear or read. Also, there are some universal scripts-ways of organizing dramatic stories that occur quite frequently – that can help you anticipate information that may be forthcoming. For example, in Western European cultures, fairy tales usually have a hero, a villain, a conflict, resolution of the conflict, and often the illustration of a moral principle.
There are a number of logical relationships that turn up in many parts of the world and that can help you understand oral or written texts. Sometimes, relationships are expressed by such logic markers as however, because, and if…. then. If you see or hear the word however, you can expect that what follows will contrast with what was said earlier. If you encounter the word because, you can anticipate that what will follow will be a reason. As you can see, you can make use of logical relationships to help you understand what you are reading or hearing in both your native language and the foreign language.
A universal script is a story that turns up in many parts of the world. Recognizing that a passage contains that script can help make it more comprehensible and predictable. Here is an example. A famous professor was visiting a colleague in Indonesia, and they decided to see an epic play written in classical Javanese. Neither of them knew any Javanese, nor had they read or seen the play before. In one scene, the hero was battling a villain and managed to strike him. The villain doubled over in pain, and the hero turned to gloat about his victory with his friends. The professor said “Don’t turn away. He is going to get you.” And at exactly that moment, the villain struck the hero a heavy blow. The question is, how could the professor know what was going to happen next since he knew neither the language nor the play? The fact is that this kind of script is quite common in world literature, so the professor guessed that the same things could happen here. Universal scripts can sometimes be quite useful.
In summary, you bring a great deal of background knowledge to your language learning. If used judiciously and regularly, this knowledge can vastly improve your skill and speed when learning a new language.
Excerpted from “How to Be a Successful Language Learner”, by Joan Rubin and Irene Thompson, published by Heinle and Heinle Publishers.
So you don’t have much time in Costa Rica and you really want to see a lot of the country. I, Anna Davis the Coordinator of Registration and Billing, highly recommend the Highlight’s Tour.
This one-day tour takes you to ten different locations. You first aboard the air-conditioned bus in San José at 6:15 am and are off to have breakfast in the hills of Alajuela. You will be surrounded by some of the countries best coffee plantations. Next you will go to the Poás Volcano and take a glimpse of the crater and it’s beautiful sky blue colored water. Along the way you will see birds, butterflies and other wildlife.
After the Poás Volcano you will be taken to two beautiful waterfalls. These waterfalls are surrounded by some of the most lush and gorgeous fauna Costa Rica has to offer.
Next on your Highlight’s Tour is the cross over to the Caribbean side of the country. Here the land is much flatter and the temperature is warmer. You will stop at Selva Verde Lodge for a typical Costa Rican lunch on the terrace over looking the Sarapiquí River.
After lunch your guides will take you on a riverboat tour of the Sarapiquí River. If you are lucky you will see monkeys, sloths and iguanas along the river. Keep your eyes open!
Your last stop before heading back to San José is through the National Park of Braulio Carrillo. Again you will be exposed to the vast variety of plants and trees that are indigenous to Costa Rica.
You will arrive back in San José around 6 p.m. I am sure you are thinking “Oh what a long day!” Yes it will be a long day but well worth it. Plus the activities are not all that strenuous and you get to travel in a very comfortable tour bus. This is a tour not to be missed if you really want to see a lot of Costa Rica in only one day!
Like many of its neighbors, Costa Rica long depended on world markets for a few agricultural products (chiefly coffee and bananas) and has had little power to influence the terms of that trade. Like them, Costa Rica plied up huge foreign debts by defaulting on soft loans from international financial organizations. And like them, soon after a world economic crisis became acute in 1980, it had to bow to the dictates of these creditors to save its credit rating and remain eligible for further loans.
The budget cuts and reforms demanded by the World Bank, the lnternational Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank have been wrenching and controversial. On the one hand, the economic growth rate climbed steadily for some years, thanks in part to the wider variety of exports demanded by these lenders. On the other hand, the wealthiest 10 percent have benefited most from this growth. Cutbacks have been deepest in health, education, and welfare programs.
Although many Ticos now complain of pervasive unease and anxiety, Costa Rica is still noted for its remarkable stability. It is a peace-loving nation with honest elections and a comparatively high quality of life. This stability is often attributed to the relative cultural homogeneity of its people.
Since 1990, when the United Nations began to compare more than 150 nations by various human development indices, Costa Rica has ranked consistently high. In 1995 it was judged to have the highest quality of life in Latin America and ranked twenty-eighth in the world in terms of life expectancy at birth (seventy-eight years for women, seventy-four for men), educational level, and real per capita income.
In comparison with most other Latin Americans, the majority of Costa Ricans are physically and culturally very much alike. Most are descendants of both Spanish colonists and indigenous peoples; many also have some African ancestry. Most would be called mestizos in, say, Mexico. But few Ticos use this or any other term that acknowledges their mixed ancestry; most see themselves as white.
Regardless of social class and other differences, such as the greater extroversion of lowlanders compared to their Central Valley cousins, most Ticos share similar ways of thinking, acting, and feeling. Roman Catholicism is the official religion and, to varying degrees, that of eight Ticos out of ten. Although the Roman Catholic Church enjoys a constitutional position as the state religion, the Catholic majority is proud of its lack of fanaticism. Almost everyone speaks a non-Castilian Spanish rich in archaic expressions and words as well as words adopted long ago from the various Indian languages.
The capital, San Jose, and the national government dominate almost all aspects of life even in remote areas: education, health services, the mass media, political administration, religion, the fine arts, provisions for water and electricity, and commerce. This centralization also fosters homogeneity.
But the boundaries of Costa Rica have never been closed to outside influences. Since the early nineteenth century, people of many nationalities have come as immigrants or permanent residents-particularly Chinese, West Indians, Nicaraguans, Germans, and Italians. From 1870 to 1920, between 20 and 25 percent of the population growth could be attributed to immigration; after 1920 its effect was minor. Then in the 1980s many thousands of refugees from Nicaragua and El Salvador entered Costa Rica, and many have remained.
When we refer to “Ticos” or “most Ticos,” we generally have in mind the politically and culturally dominant niestizo (in Ticos’ own eyes, white) majority. Ticos of all classes, political parties, and regions share a sense of national identity. They believe they have a unique way of life and a distinctive national character. They may explain an action by saying, “We Latinos are like that” but are far likelier to say, “We Ticos are like that.” They feel set apart from (and superior to) their Central American neighbors not only because of the lighter skin of the average Costa Rican but also because of cultural differences. They often say something is muy tico-very Costa Rican-and assert proudly, “I’m as Tico as gallo pinto,” referring to a favorite dish of rice and beans. They constantly measure proposed-or even accomplished-changes according to how well they fit their “Idiosyncrasy” and “the national reality.” Decisions must be made “a la tica.” This means, above all, that they must not violate their most cherished values: democracy, peace, the family, and education.
Surrounded as they have been by military dictatorships, Ticos are keenly aware of and apprehensive of threats to their democratic tradition. They often mention freedom as their greatest blessing. They also profess the essential equality and dignity of all human beings. Ticos loathe arrogance and expect people in high places to act humilde (humble). A public speaker citing his own accomplishments may refer to himself as “this servant” rather than “I.” There is an easy give-and-take between boss and employee. Except when the occasion clearly calls for coat and tie, presidents typically go about in sports clothes or shirtsleeves and are addressed by their first names or nicknames, preceded by the respectful title don.
The values of liberty, dignity, and equality include an insistence that Costa Rica, though small, is a sovereign nation with the right to make its own decisions.’ Ticos express great concern for the nation’s image abroad. They were exuberant when President Oscar Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to promote peace in Central America and when the Costa Rican soccer team defeated Scotland in the 1990 World Cup. When swimmers Sylvia and Claudia Poll win Olympic and other international medals and when Costa Rican-born astronaut Franklin Chang makes still another space flight, Ticos no longer feel that they live in a forgotten backwater.
Costa Ricans have long considered their country a peaceful haven in a violent world. They speak of their Nicaraguan neighbors as prone to violence and boast that even today their own president can mingle freely with a crowd. Schoolchildren rather than soldiers parade on patriotic holidays and line the streets to welcome visiting dignitaries.
The constitution declares that the family is the natural base of the society and it is the duty of the state to give it special protection. Most Ticos prize family ties, and many confine intimate friendship to relatives.
Costa Ricans see formal education not only as the best means of achieving material progress but also as a condition of democracy. Framed school diplomas adorn humble homes, and parents urge children to show visitors their school notebooks. University graduates with professional degrees often introduce themselves by using their own graduate titles and address others by their titles. Many Ticos distinguish, however, between formal training in skills and knowledge on the one hand and actual behavior on the other. They consider a rude or graceless person mal educado no matter how much schooling he or she may have had.
These dominant values guide behavior. The value of peace, for example, is expressed in various ways. Raised voices are seldom heard, fights rarely seen, and Ticos will nod or say “si” even when they don’t mean it simply to aid conflict. Few Ticos express great hatreds or passions. Anthropologist Maria Bozzoli considers her typical compatriot a fence-sitter. “He says, ‘Quien Sabe? (Who knows?), ‘Tal vez (Maybe), ‘Mas o menos’ (More or less). He doesn’t want to commit himself.” Playwright Melvin Mendez agrees: “People in other countries can be categorical. Not Ticos. We beat around the bush to avoid saying ‘No,’ a syllable which seems almost rude to us, and rather than hurt someone, we say one thin-, and do another.” A young Cuban immigrant comments, “Ticos are so polite, but rarely open or sincere.”
This si pero no (yes but no) attitude allows Ticos to find ways out of difficult situations by means of compromise. Decisionmaking a la tica means constant bargaining in an effort to avoid conflict, even though the problem may not really be resolved. Decisions are postponed indefinitely and, once made, may never be implemented. Some Ticos scorn this behavior as palanganeo, evoking an image of riding the waves unsteadily in a palangana or basin, tilting- from side to side, getting nowhere. Others call it achieving consensus.
The saying “Each in his own house and God in all” indicate the high value Ticos place on convivencia, or peaceful coexistence. They often refer to their nation as a family. In their relations with others, Ticos want above all to quedar bien (pronounced Kay-DAR bee-EN), to get along and make a good impression in an encounter, to appear amiable. Their use of diminutives is often an attempt to quedar bien by expressing affection or softening a word or assertion. “I will get your facturita [little bill]:’ says a salesperson. The desire to quedar bien often wins out over other values, such as keeping one’s word. (A university professor told us, “You North Americans are insulted when someone calls you a liar. We Ticos are not.”) It is easier to promise to do something ahorita (in a little while) or manana and thus avoid possible friction at the moment than it Is to tell someone that it cannot be done soon or perhaps ever.
The masked gunmen who trapped Supreme Court magistrates in the court building for several days in 1993, demanding ransom, were assumed at first to be Colombians involved in narcotics traffic. When their speech betrayed them to be Ticos, wrote Dery Dyer, editor of the Tico Times, we suspected the jig would soon be up…. It’s one thing to be up against an unknown, unpredictable menace represented by anonymous masked men of undetermined nationality; it’s quite another when you know you’re dealing with a couple of majes [ordinary guys] from Tres Rios. Costa Rican cultural idiosincrasia is so strong, it … supplied the government with its most powerful weapon to use against them. Once unmasked, [the kidnappers] deflated like leaky balloons, reverting almost immediately to their Tico selves.
The members of the “Death Commando” were real terrorists as long as nobody knew who they were. Once their identities were revealed … the kidnappers found themselves facing the dreaded disapproval of family, friends and countrymen. They wrote a letter pleading for understanding: Guillermo, they explained, was desperate to get a liver transplant he believed he needed, but they would never have hurt their hostages. They pleaded for their families’, friends and society’s forgiveness and apparently felt they had regained the right to re-enter its loving embrace: outcasts no longer, they were Ticos among Ticos, civilized, peaceful and gentlemanly. So thoroughly had they slipped back from terrorist into Tico mode that they ended up trustingly laying down their weapons and walking wide-eyed into a police trap.’
And how did they acquire those weapons? By convincing the local police chief-a friend and neighbor-that they wanted to practice target shooting and maybe do a bit of hunting. If it occurred to the police officer that the guns they asked for were a bit heavy, he handed them over anyway-because he, too, wanted to quedar bien.
Rituals such as the proper ways of greeting and leave-taking govern much interaction. Men shake hands; pat shoulders, and perhaps embraces; women, or a man and a woman, embrace and pat shoulders, perhaps touch cheeks and kiss the air. They ask after one’s health and that of the entire family. Similar queries and salutations begin and end phone conversations.
There is something specific to say in almost every situation. Upon first seeing another member of the household early in the day, the standard question is -“Como amanecio?” (How did you awaken?) and the standard replyeven when untrue-is “Bien, por dicha” (Well, fortunately). The visitor approaching an isolated rural house shouts “Upe!” from a distance. Upon entering a house, the visitor asks permission-“Con permiso.” Whether leaving for Miami or the supermarket, one is wished a good journey accompanied by God. Flowery language and compliments are common even in business letters. (When Richard wrote a letter to a University of Costa Rica dean requesting a library card, a Tico friend, finding it overly curt, rewrote it with the proper compliments, thus tripling its length.) These rituals ease interaction and give Ticos their reputation for politeness and friendliness. Properly followed, social rituals take time. In Costa Rica, time takes a backseat to courtesy and enjoyment. Despite the clockbound programming of TV programs, school sessions, and working hours, many Ticos still have a rural sense of time.
Emphasis on dignity and courtesy often takes the form of saving face for others as well as oneself. Ticos rarely accept blame for mistakes and usually take care not to embarrass others, especially in public.
Though fond of jokes about national shortcomings, Ticos very seldom tell jokes on themselves as individuals. They are delicados–easily offended. The criminal code provides a prison sentence of ten to fifty days for one whom by word or deed offends a person’s “dignity or honor.” Face-saving is so important that the sentence is far heavier if the slander is committed in public.
When one Costa Rican feels insulted by another, the desires for facesaving and for peaceful coexistence may be at odds. Fifty years ago a man might have challenged the offender to a duel-with fists, not guns or swords-on a date months in the future. By the appointed time,” says a small-town dentist, “tempers would have Iong since cooled, and the two would meet and shake hands. If both simply showed up, the honor of both was preserved.” In today’s rapidly changing society, customary solutions to such dilemmas are fewer.
A Swiss-born psychologist sees his adopted country as underdeveloped not solely because of dependency on and exploitation by richer and more powerful countries but also because of the prevailing “culture of the pobrecitico” (the poor little thing). In this paternalistic culture, says Pierre Thomas Claudet, people seldom develop assertive, autonomous personalities. They are pitied much like helpless children simply because they are expected to accept responsibility and cope with the normal problems of life. In many conversations one hears the word pobrecito applied whether the person is sick, pregnant, hung over, suffering unrequited love, tired, working at a job, studying … or because this person must study, work, get up early, walk, cook, take an exam, do a task; or because he or she got a bad grade, was punished, was scolded…. Not only is the person a pobrecito but also salado [unlucky] because he didn’t get away with ignoring the rules: he is caught copying, fined for driving drunk, got the current cut off for not paying the electric bill, arrived late, overslept, lost a job, had to do extra work.
[People brought up in the culture of paternalism and commiseration] are invited to perceive themselves and others as “victims” of their situations, duties and obligations. Furthermore, this phenomenon serves as a shield to justify not assuming the responsibility and discipline of vital personal, family, social and work situations.’ Claudet may be too sweeping in his judgments; nonetheless the term pobrecito is often used in much the way he describes it as we saw in the story of the Supreme Court kidnapping.
When we confronted an attorney who had defrauded us, he told us that his judgment had been impaired by a recently discovered brain tumor. Another attorney to whom we mentioned this howled with laughter. “That’s a classic excuse-that and ‘My mother is dying.’ He wants you to think he’s a pobrecito.”
Ticos greatly value individual liberty. Some note a “negative attitude toward all forms of association and collective enterprise” except for the circus aspect of politics and the similarly superficial emotions aroused by soccer. And even so, “the Tico is such an individualist that he plays soccer only by a miracle.”‘ Individualism, say social critics, often means selfish concentration on personal and family affairs and an unwillingness to cooperate or to sacrifice for the common good. In recent years the phrase “Mmmmmimporta a mi?” has entered common parlance. “What does it matter to me?” shrugs off responsibility and justifies lack of involvement. A strong strain of resistance to law goes along with the belief in individual liberty. This tendency is especially evident on streets and highways. Anonymous behind the wheel, free of pressure to quedar bien, many Ticos drive recklessly, both fatalistic and confident that they can get away with breaking laws. Either padrinos (patrons in high positions) or a charming smile will work, especially if one is clearly of high social standing. Traffic cops, many hope, can also be bribed to overlook infractions.
One of the strongest social controls among Costa Ricans is fear of what others will say. They are quick to gossip about others, especially if they are different in some respect, but are afraid to become subjects of gossip. It is safer, therefore, not to make friends because your confidences may be repeated. Signs in some public buildings ask people to avoid malicious gossip; clergymen preach against it.
Choteo – mockery – keeps people in line without confrontation or violence. “We don’t chop off a person’s head,” Ticos say; “we lower the floor he is standing on.” Cartoons often depict a smiling speaker quite unaware that a saw is cutting a circle around his feet and that any moment his pride will suffer a fall. Young men ridicule others’ blunders with choruses of falsetto hooting.
Choteo ranges from friendly irony to rancorous attacks. If it is done with humor it is very effective and may even be appreciated by its targets. It may also discourage ambition and imagination. Costa Ricans, say some social critics, want to keep everyone on the same mediocre level; they envy someone who excels and pity anyone who falls below the common level as a pobrecito.
Along with conformity go conservatism and caution. Not only are Ticos reluctant to accept change but they are suspicious of large-scale organized planning. Columnist Julio Rodriguez often writes that doing things a la tica means “little by little, now and then, and half way.”
Such conformity and conservatism are supported by fatalism. Many Ticos believe they must be resigned to the will of God and habitually add the phrase “si Dios quiere” (God willing) to any mention of plans, even something-, as simple as “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Death, they believe, comes only at the preordained moment, and therefore one must be accepting and resigned.
One is born either lucky or unlucky. But one can help one’s luck by making the right connections-with God and the saints through prayer, with good witches who help thwart evildoers, and especially with relatives and “godfathers” who have wealth or political clout. In a small society where “everyone is everyone else’s cousin,” personal contacts are often more important than merit.
Costa Ricans tend to be formalistic and legalistic as well as conservative. They pass laws, create agencies and institutes, and hold meetings and symposiums to “solve” problems–often only symbolically. “Saying is more important than doing, announcing than acting,” says writer Carmen Naranjo.
Although these generalizations about Costa Ricans are subject to many qualifications and exceptions, we see these common values and norms reflected in such institutions as the family, education, government, and religion, as well as in the class system.
Many deep-seated cultural patterns clash with what some Ticos see as the traits of a developed society. In the minds of other, more tradition-oriented Ticos, moral and spiritual values are eroding as cars, VCRs, and trips to Disney World become the measures of people’s worth. Individualism and liberty, they add, are threatened by the tyranny of the job and the clock. (Hora tica means perhaps an hour or two after the appointed time; hora americana or hora exacta means punctually.) Some observers also see a far greater emphasis on work, planning, and enterprise, especially among the middle class, since the 1940s. And cooperation is evident in many associations and community projects as well as in the growth of arts demanding teamwork such as dance, symphonic music, and theater. As the society grows more complex and new subcultures emerge, old social rituals no longer apply in many situations, and confusion and anxiety follow.
Despite all the changes of the past half-century, numerous observations made in the 1940s-and even in the 1850s-still apply today.
Excerpt from: The Ticos: Cultural and Social Change in Costa Rica, published by Lynne Rienner Publishers.