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August 6, 2009

ULM students experience total immersion through study abroad program

Costa Rica, a tiny Spanish-speaking country that lies between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, entices visitors every year with its pristine beaches, pleasant climate and gem-colored rainforests.

So it was no surprise when University of Louisiana at Monroe senior Heather Black, 21, of Mer Rouge, recently returned from her Costa Rican tour armed with plenty of downloadable digital photos, inexpensive trinkets and typical tourist souvenirs.

The foreign languages major, however, found that the most cherished memento had little to do with postcards and pictures of the gorgeous surroundings – it was the experience of total immersion in a world that represented the flip side of her northeast Louisiana upbringing.

“It was the most eye opening cultural experience I've ever had,” she said. “I have over 700 pictures, but the best souvenir for me was just the experience. I'm not going to have anything like it in the U.S.”

Black joined 17 other students who recently completed the Study Abroad Program in Costa Rica, sponsored by the ULM Department of Foreign Languages.

Department Head and Professor Ruth E. Smith led the group of freshmen through graduate level students through the program, though not all are Spanish-language majors like Black. Many have combined a minor in Spanish with other majors such as biology, mass communications, sociology, political science, English, and General Studies.

Such is the case with Brittany Miller, 20, a Monroe native and biology major at ULM. Miller said she wanted to be able to communicate with Spanish-speaking patients following her eventual graduation from medical school.

Miller agrees that immersion in a language compels the learner to speak it more fluently – to the point it becomes second nature.

“When you are fully submerged in it, you have to speak it,” she said. “You use what you know to convey the message. And you learn new vocabulary words and remember and use them later.”

“For students who are serious about learning languages, study abroad shows them that the effort was worth it — they actually begin to use their skills with the language and gain the confidence that they may have lacked,” added Smith. “The experience of the other culture is irreplaceable.”

The students lived with host families in San José and studied for two weeks at the Instituto Profesional de Estudiantes Extranjeros, according to Smith. The Spanish-speaking host families also worked with students to help with language development, she said.

Depending on the student’s level of comprehension, each class enrolled between two and seven learners. Since most participants in this session had at least three semesters of Spanish, they were placed in intermediate or advanced classes where they could immediately use and perfect their skills, said Smith.

“For me the program in Costa Rica is especially successful because the students have the opportunity to use their language skills and to work with well-trained teachers at the Instituto,” she said.

Black said a typical day started with an early-rise breakfast, where “momma tica” served Costa Rican staples like gallo pinto, fried plantains, eggs, and an abundance of fresh fruit. Two hours of Spanish grammar and two hours of conversational Spanish followed. Afternoons could be spent visiting the market to chat with other Ticos — as native Costa Ricans are called — or completing extensive homework assignments.

But the study abroad program always extends beyond learning Spanish in the classroom. Students are also able to take advantage of tours throughout the countryside to experience firsthand the ways the Costa Rican government protects its natural resources.

The students spent one weekend at Manuel Antonio, a natural preserve and rainforest on the Pacific Coast. Many, such as Miller and Black, also traveled northwest into the mountains to explore the region of Arenal, an active volcano.

“My favorite was Manuel Antonio, where you walk through the rainforest to get to the beach — it was the most beautiful beach I’d ever seen in my life,” said Black.

The entire group also visited Braulio Carrillo, another natural preserve near the capital, and the Sarapiqui River region, where students are directly in contact with rainforests’ flora and fauna.

Still, the goal is better comprehension of another language — a goal these students seem to embrace following their return to Louisiana.

“I learned a lot more than I thought I would,” said Black. “I actually came back and learned how to say so many things in a different way. I understand more about the variety of Spanish dialects from different countries . . . all it did was increase my appreciation of the Spanish language and culture even more.”

“The trip is what you make it. If you want to learn Spanish, that's what you'll do,” concluded Miller.

More information about ULM's Study Abroad program can be found at

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