For those learning a new language, vocabulary is a constant challenge. Language students often struggle with word lists, memorization and many unfamiliar terms. There is, however, one relatively simple, but undeniably important, part of language-learning—the use of gestures. As many language students know, one gesture can take the place of several words, encapsulating an idea through motion. In Costa Rica, there is one particular gesture—a vague arm wave—that visitors might find particularly useful.

The gesture is very simple—just an extended wave. The person making the gesture moves an arm upward from the side of the body, so that the hand ends up level with the ear on that same side of the body. The fingers point downward until the last part of the gesture, when they move up in a sort of a hand wave. The gesture is fluid and graceful. People usually accompany the gesture with a wailing sort of a “Whoooo” sound.

This gesture is an integral part of Costa Rican conversation, because it serves many important purposes. In general, it indicates a quantity, distance, number or idea so vast and imponderable that it is almost beyond human understanding.

For example, a driver who has become lost on a country road might pull over and ask a passerby, “Is this the road to the Irazú volcano?” In order to indicate how immeasurably far the driver is from her hoped-for destination, the passerby might make the gesture and say, “Whoooo. You’re nowhere near Irazú.” More specific directions might follow, but the passerby has graphically illustrated the extent to which the driver is lost.

Or you might ask someone how long he has held a certain job. In order to indicate the vast expanse of time he has been employed in this particular place, the person might gesture and say, “Whoooo. I’ve been here for years and years.” The gesture indicates that the years are far too numerous to count or even to contemplate.

Costa Ricans use this gesture for other imponderables as well. It would be an appropriate response to a question like, “Does you wife like soup?” In such a case, it would indicate that the wife’s love of soup is so immense as to be beyond the bounds of human understanding. The gesture would also serve to illustrate an event so well-established that it no longer requires consideration. The gesture in response to “Was that building demolished?” would indicate the immutable fact of the demolition. It would also be an appropriate response to “How many dogs does she own?”; “Is the Coca-Cola factory still here?”; “Did the man ever come back to pay his fine?”; or “How long have you known Fernando?”

The gesture has a subtle complexity, in that it simultaneously indicates both certainty and uncertainty. The building has been demolished, the driver definitively lost, the Coca-Cola factory long gone and the wife clearly enamored of soup. However, the extent to which each of these facts can be understood is imponderable in itself—infinite and forever beyond the grasp of human knowing.

The gesture is eloquent and powerful. Visitors to the country might consider adding it to their conversational repertoires.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.