There it was shaking, like a fish out of water. Or was it trembling? Like my dog after (and before) he gets a bath. It was a hand, slowly raising itself as if to ask forgiveness. So nervous, that if called upon, it may not have the motor functions to articulate a response. Once so talkative, all of a sudden this student was playing the unnoticed mouse in the corner, hoping their hand might be somehow overlooked.
I had just asked what people’s plans were for the weekend. It was a hot, stuffy Saturday morning on the University of Costa Rica West campus in San Ramon and here we were jammed into a meeting room / storage space for English conversation hour. In these quarters, not even the smallest mouse goes unnoticed, especially with a teacher that knows a thing or two about learning a second language. I paced the front of the room and seeing no movement amongst the students I latched on quickly to the timid spaghetti string slowly working up the courage to waver in the back of the room.
We made eye contact and she knew what was up. I trapped the mouse and now it was time for it to speak. I was ready for anything, maybe she had to REALLY go to the bathroom, work out a cramp, or maybe she just wanted to know if I had a girlfriend or not. She lowered her hand, took a deep sigh and said, “This wee-week-end I’m going to the BE-BEECH.” At this moment her face turned red and her eyes darted around the room to see the reaction of the other students. There were a few raised eyebrows, some half hushed gasps, but more importantly, an ensuing silence that only Donald Trump could break.
At that moment, I felt like doing one of those movie detective pauses, like when something just doesn’t add up. The flow had been altered and I needed my Sherlock Holmes hat to decipher this conundrum I had apparently led us into.
I needed more facts. Something was going on here, like an inside joke that I was not let in on. My haunch was that it was a cultural or lexical detail that I had missed. If only my wife were here to whisper the answer into my ear though. With that not happening, I quizzically began to stare at the students, looking from one to the other, trying to get one to crack and share their reaction.
Just when I felt my arms begin to shake in frustration, like a construction worker running a jack hammer, a student came to my rescue. They asked simply, “Teacher, how do you say BEECH?”. Now we were getting somewhere. In my fairy tale I’d have slid over to him, lit a cigarette, and took a few puffs before responding, but instead I just responded “Well, of course we pronounce it ‘beach’.” Mildly puzzled, they countered, “and how do you say BEECH?”. Hmmm, I’m going to need a bigger Sherlock Holmes hat or a visit to the ear doctor, I thought to myself.
Hadn’t I just explained it? I had to dig deeper. “What do you mean by BEECH?” I asked. The response I got was in Spanish and was something along the lines of someone doing sexual acts for money. Then it hit me, and not wanting to dig an even deeper hole I followed up with the “Oh, you mean a female dog, don’t you?” Receiving an affirmative head nod it was then my turn to blush, however at least now we were all laughing together.
I’m proud of my students for coming and having the courage to bring their language concerns to me, even at the expense of embarrassment. I was in their shoes too, and the best way to never forget a word is to have a memorable moment using it.
We only meet for two hours on Saturdays to informally chat in English and the discoveries we make are sometimes quite deep. We could spend hours going over these curiosities and often times discover new nuances we never knew existed. (Did you know if you really fudge the pronunciation of ‘beer’ you can make it sound like ‘mirror’.) I even learn new Spanish words as we sometimes have to reconfirm conclusions by translation.
Our hold up in the session that day was that the “bi” sound sounds like the “be” sound in beach when pronounced in Spanish and is why Spanish speakers tense up when using this vocabulary. I would too, knowing the consequences of any little mistake.
I probably should invest in a detective’s cap, or maybe a magnifying glass if only for these instances, as they do come up. I can’t think of a better way to uncover language’s best kept secrets than in a dusty, glorified storage room with a group of eager, although sometimes hesitant, apprentices.
So the next time you are in Costa Rica, or any Spanish speaking country in Latin America, think back to this article before you tell the locals you’re going to “hit the beach”.