Study Spanish Abroad: Spain, Costa Rica, or Argentina?

by Laura Jelich

Studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country puts students on the fast-track for language immersion, however, not all Spanish-speaking countries are created equal. So before spinning the globe and picking a spot for your Spanish study abroad, do your research to determine which destination is the best fit for you. We’ve given you an overview of three of the most popular countries to study Spanish abroad so you can see which one is best for you.

Bullfight in Madrid, Spain

Corrida de toros in Madrid, Spain

First things first, you must know what kind of Spanish you will be learning while studying abroad.

Style of Spanish

Similar to the variations in English that can be found across the globe, like those in Ireland, Australia, and even parts of the U.S., the way Spanish is spoken around the world varies from one country to the next. It is important to be aware of the style of Spanish each location offers before choosing your Spanish study abroad program.

  • The Spanish in Spain is called Castilian Spanish and is the version closest to what is taught in American schools. The use of vosotros/as in place of the more formal ustedes is the most common exception noticed by students studying Spanish in Spain. Students not quite as confident in their foreign-language abilities may prefer the textbook-style Spanish and widespread English spoken in Madrid and other major cities in Spain. There are additional variations recognized throughout parts of the country as well, Catalan, for example, is the dominant tongue in Barcelona. 
  • The Spanish used in Costa Rica is also easily understood by foreigners, despite the softer and less trill pronunciation of Costa Rican “r”s, the common practice of dropping final consonants (i.e. asado - asa’o, todo - to’o), and the handful of country-specific slang words. While English is also spoken by nearly 10 percent of the population, it is much less common outside the tourist areas, so students excited to improve their Spanish language skills will most enjoy studying Spanish abroad in Costa Rica.  
  • The Spanish spoken in Argentina is characterized by unique grammar, phrases, intonation, and pronunciation that can make it difficult to understand, but fun to learn for students who enjoy a challenge. Argentina’s large size also lends to numerous accents and slang spoken across the country. The Italian language can also be found as a result of Argentina’s largely European influence.

Chances are studying Spanish abroad will entail studying other subjects too, so what other types of courses are you interested in?

Top Subjects

While studying Spanish is a given for students who choose to study abroad in Spain, Costa Rica, or Argentina, each location also boasts strengths in several other subjects as well. As one of top five most common destinations for U.S. study abroad students, Spain offers countless Spanish study abroad programs and courses for students with any (or no) level of Spanish language proficiency. In addition to extracurriculars, like Spanish cooking, Spanish dance, and flamenco guitar, the most common and widely offered complimentary subjects in Spanish study abroad programs in Spain include:

  • History
  • Politics
  • Business
  • Art
  • Communication
Puerto Jimenez beach, Costa Rica

Beach in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

As the “greenest” country in the world, Costa Rica is a prime location for students who are passionate about environmental studies. Finding classes that are taught in English, however, can be slightly more difficult for students studying in Costa Rica, outside of the basic humanities, business, and education courses. Additionally, secondary schools in Costa Rica are more specialized than in the U.S., so Ticos (Costa Ricans) generally enter university with some amount of relevant experience and spend all four years with classmates who are studying the same major. Students studying Spanish in Costa Rica often find the following courses especially beneficial:

  • Environmental Science
  • Wildlife or Marine Biology
  • Ecology
  • Geology
  • Botany
  • Conservation

Argentina is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as some of the most prestigious universities in South America. Buenos Aires is one of the top ten cities worldwide for study abroad, with several fine universities for students to choose from. Spanish study abroad programs are available for Spanish speakers at any and every level, and Argentina’s unique past and diverse geography make it ideal for students interested in the following supplementary subjects: 

  • History
  • Architecture
  • Latin American Studies
  • International Business 

Next on the list, be prepared for the climate and terrain you will be surrounding yourself with.

Natural Factors

Spain, Costa Rica, and Argentina each fall in very different places in terms of size, location, and climate. Spain falls in the middle between Costa Rica and Argentina on the size scale, and is perfect for students looking to tackle Western European travel as its location serves as the ideal jump-off spot. Spain is situated between France and Morocco, with the Atlantic Ocean to the north, the Mediterranean coast to the southeast, and Portugal bordering on the west.

Between the bustling urban hotspots of Madrid and Barcelona, and the smaller, traditional centers of Seville and Granada, Spain is full of mountains, beaches, valleys, plains, volcanoes, and rivers. Students who can’t stomach the extensive wetness of Costa Rica, may prefer the dry Mediterranean climate that covers the majority of Spain, with the Atlantic coast causing rainy winters to the north, and frying hot summers in the south.

Costa Rica is located in Central America, a mere three hour flight from Miami, Florida. The smallest and closest of the three locations (to the U.S.), Costa Rica connects with Nicaragua in the north and Panama to the south. It is also bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Environmentalists and animal-loving students alike will fit right in, as Costa Rica not only boasts the highest number of species per square kilometer in the world (615), but Ticos are also extremely progressive in their prioritization of environmental protection.

Surf boards in Samara, Costa Rica

Part of this wet season has its perks: surfing is one of them!

None of the latter should come as a surprise, given Costa Rica’s numerous volcanoes, rainforests, hot springs, beaches, national parks and reserves, and turtle populations that run rampant coast-to-coast. The capital city of San Jose provides an urban fix and countless options for studying Spanish abroad in Costa Rica, with various universities each featuring their own specializations. Though studying in Costa Rica is not for the faint of heart; the humidity and rain give way to two seasons in Costa Rica: wet and less wet.

As the eighth largest country in the world and second largest country in South America, Argentina wins the size contest of these three Spanish-speaking destinations. Argentina is located between Chile and Uruguay, with more than 2,500 miles of Atlantic shoreline to the east and Paraguay and Bolivia to the north. The nation’s capital city, Buenos Aires, is often called the “Paris of South America”.

Since 40 percent of the population lives in Bueno Aires, students who pride themselves as being outdoor enthusiasts will most appreciate Argentina for its endless exploration options, including the Andes Mountains, Iguazu Falls, grasslands, plains, farmlands, and white-capped peaks. From top to bottom, Argentina’s weather transitions from extreme desert to frigid cold, with mild and pleasant temperatures near the center (where Buenos Aires is located).

Successfully studying Spanish abroad requires a safe, happy, learning environment, so make sure you know what to expect from the locals too.

The Right Cultural Fit

Spain is home of the siesta, the smell of jamón (ham) smoking in every window, and countless festivals, including La Tomatina, Festival de San Fermín, and Semana Santa. A population of proud, extroverted individuals, students who enjoy a loud crowd, lots of jokes, and people who cook, sing, dance, and love their families wholeheartedly will fit right in studying abroad in Spain. Students can take advantage of the bike share system to explore local sights and opt to stay with a host family or in an apartment or dorm. Although the larger cities can be more pricey, and the pressure to take part in the abundant nightlife can add up, studying abroad in Spain will be as affordable as you make it.

Costa Rica is the place for students who enjoy living life to the fullest. Ticos embody the essence of pura vida (pure life) to the core, and studying abroad in Costa Rica may end up being just the reminder you need to slow down and gain perspective when dealing with stressful situations.

Costa Ricans are proud to be known as a peaceful people, so parents can take comfort knowing their student is in a welcoming and safe environment.

Students can spend their downtime playing soccer with locals, visiting nightclubs, learning to surf, eating abundant amounts of gallo pinto (rice and beans), and taking advantage of Costa Rica’s small size and affordable transportation to do some in-country exploration. University housing for students is generally lacking, so homestays are the most common form of accommodation for students in Costa Rica, though renting an apartment with other Ticos or international students is also an option. 

Houses in Santa Clara del Mar, Argentina

Houses in Santa Clara del Mar, Argentina

Argentina is ideal for students studying Spanish abroad who are operating on a tight budget. A melting pot of European and Latin roots, Argentina boasts a strong economy flavored by tango dance, abundant museums and landmarks, pristine wilderness, world-class Malbec grown in-country, and large amounts of beef, chorizo, pizza, pasta, and empanadas. Home to six distinct regions, traveling through Argentina can seem like many different countries in and of itself, where outdoorsy-type students will enjoy sites from real-life cowboys (gauchos) to penguin colonies. While most who study Spanish abroad in Argentina choose to stay in homestays, some universities in Argentina offer dormitories or residencies, and renting an apartment is an alternate option as well. 

Regardless of whichever of these three locales you choose to study Spanish abroad and perfect your español, consider these differences to guide you to the one that is best for you!