Bend But Don’t Break Teaching in Costa Rica

Costa Rica.  The Central American symbol of progress and stability in a region historically known for chaos.  You may have heard of it as a tourist destination.  Fly in, take the tourist bus straight to the all inclusive resort and be shuttled around to places the country wants you to see.

Just like a coffee bean has various layers of skin, Costa Rica can be peeled back one by one to reveal its deeper qualities.  When you sift through all the “Save the Americans” propaganda, and go beyond the beaches and rainforests, you’ll find a culture very dedicated to becoming much more than volcanoes and sloths.

Case in point: Education.  A long way from the standard US public school you’ll find quite a contrast in Latin America. Many school systems lack any kind of technological resources, are overcrowded, have teachers that are untrained and overworked, and the majority work with rural or impoverished communities where school is not seen as a priority.

Enter Costa Rica.  Without having to support a military for over half a century, the resources available for public use have been extensive in comparison to other area countries.  Thanks to a visit from Teachers2Teachers International, a non-profit US organization dedicated to revolutionizing STEM training for teachers all over the world, those differences were put into context and many generalizations need not apply when it comes to education in Costa Rica. 

The mission was to spend a week immersing ourselves at a rural Costa Rican school observing, sharing, and reflecting on the school system.  The school serves a community of about 150 families with children grades 1-6.  Hardly a walk in the park for the teachers, they all teach two grades alternating mornings and afternoons.  A normal day starts at 7am and stretches to 5pm.  And that’s just class time.  Where they find time to lesson plan and complete the many extra curricular activities assigned to them was beyond understanding at times.  Even for them.

Our schedule was very day to day as our visit fell during “fair season”.  During the week we were there, there was an art and a science fair, plus spelling bee practice for the school’s regional qualifier.  Not to mention the principal was replaced two days before our arrival.  By day three the custodian had become the go to person in getting information.  With interruptions seemingly a way of life, we were quickly turned on to the art of improvising, which must loosely translate to pura vida

Our host school fields three full time teachers and they are stretched every which way to meet the requirements that all schools are held to, regardless of size.  That meant one teacher leaving her 5th graders working on a project by themselves so she could do administrative tasks in the office.  A larger school would have a secretary, but here that responsibility gets passed around.  It also meant one group didn’t have class one day because the teacher had to accompany another group of students to a fair at a different school.  It also meant we only saw the new principal once the whole time we were there.  It wasn’t like he was at the school either, he wasn’t.  Whether running paperwork around or attending meetings, the Ministry of Education seemed to keep somebody on the road running errands.

Having digested the shock and awe at the “organized chaos” we were uncertain we would be afforded the opportunity to share with the teachers.  Our moments may have been brief, however the engagement was sincere and I think everyone would agree they took at least as much with them as they left.  It didn’t take long for them to put us on our heels with a long division method that was familiar in operation, but completely backwards in structure.  It was like learning to read all over again, but this time reading right-to-left instead of left-to-right.

Where’s the remainder?

On a classroom level, we were also able to contribute to the learning process.  One of our initial observations was that students spent a lot of time sitting and reciting/reading information.  Luckily, the classrooms were equipped with flat screen TVs and access to the internet, but besides that it was hard to identify much innovation in student engagement.  That observation lasted until day two when the teacher turned to us and offered us her group for 30 minutes.  With the theme of the week to improvise, we knew we couldn’t let the moment pass, even if we didn’t have anything prepared.  It just so happened, we had shared an animal book with an adjoining tangram activity previously with the teacher and it fit right into the science review she was doing with the class that day.

tangram activity with children
Tangrams to the rescue!

Now having experienced and adapted to improvisation, we negotiated right then for the teacher to give us another section to prepare and present an activity the next day.  That day, not only did we get the class engaged in the activity, we had the teacher actively leading the activity with us.  Who thought division/multiplication practice could be so fun?

By the end of the week we were more agile than a goats in a tree in getting our objectives met.  This was my first experience on a trip like this and while it could have been smoother, I don’t think it would have been the same had it been.  One of our participants attended an art festival, another tutored the spelling bee champ, and one teacher even went next door to the high school to see how pura vida they were.

Despite all the juggling, it was reassuring to see the technology available at the school (they had a computer lab and taught programming), the manageable class sizes (<20), and the preparation of the teachers.  In Costa Rica you are required to have a university bachelor´s degree before becoming a teacher, which is a luxury in other parts of Central America.         

I think you would be stressed to find another rural school in Central America with these conditions and you could probably rank them right up with some schools in developed countries.  In my 10+ years in Costa Rica I’ve never been as involved with a school as I was on this exchange.  With the added expertise of T2T-I the sharing was much more focused and found common ground with a lot of the challenges teachers all over the world face.

teacher group shot
¡Excito = Success!

Overall, it was a very pleasant experience and a departure from the norm from what you usually think about when Costa Rica is mentioned.  When bringing colleagues together, countries and cultures apart, those extra obstacles make the experience real and the labor much more rewarding, especially since you’re educating future world citizens at a crucial point in their lives.     

Like a 7-layer cake, not all the sweetness is visible on the surface, and you shouldn’t be afraid to bite down and see what else the country has to offer.  You never know what you’ll find.  We found education, but have you tried Costa Rican coffee??

   

Cultural Exchange Brings Tingling Feelings to Life

AAAHHHH!!  Was the shriek I heard coming from the other side of the bushes.  This was no ordinary scream, as we were in an area surrounded by jaguars, pumas, and bobcats.  And by no ordinary scream, I mean it didn’t sound quite like an animal attack, but something else.  I rounded the corner to find my cousin, amongst other students, taken aback by the “massive” spider they had just spotted right outside the jaguar enclosure.    

For a group of Wisconsin teens on their first visit to Costa Rica, any creature would appear “massive” in fake spider on armcomparison to what they are used to seeing and this spider sure qualified.  Thankfully, they didn’t scream every time they saw a new insect/animal or they would have been hoarse by day two, but there was a lot of “new” for this group to take in.

Our spider encounter at the Costa Rican zoo we visited that day was just one of the many cultural experiences these students had over the course of their cultural exchange trip to Costa Rica.  When you add that to the cockroaches, gecko lizards, mutant mosquitoes and the occasional rat/mouse there’s already a lot to experience not even counting human interaction.  This was a very special group of exchange students as they had received Costa Rican exchange students in their homes January and would now live with the same students in Costa Rica.  

Over the course of two weeks, the students visited the host students high school, attended classes, participated in educational and recreational activities, and most importantly, were immersed into the Costa Rican culture.

When I talk about cultural exchanges, I always refer to “tingling” moments or sensations where cultural interaction is taking place, but there is no good way to describe the feeling as it is not something you can detect physically (unless you’re screaming).  What’s fascinating is everyone experiences these moments differently for a variety of reasons and there is no telling what their main take aways will be.

Observing these students over the course of the exchange I noticed a lot of these tingling moments. There were card games the US students shared and there was salsa dancing the Costa Ricans shared.  There was our trip to the capital city San José, punctuated be getting stranded (but not soaked) under a torrential downpour and a visit to the main central market of San José.  There was also the unique experience of living through a power outage in all of Central America.  Besides that, there were many great memories created on the other excursions such as the beach island trip, where Wisconsinites and Costa Ricans could be seen kayaking, playing volleyball, and having a good time chilling out in the jacuzzi.      

dave with host familyThe little things were also noted.  My cousin, for one, was relieved despite his limited Spanish, that there were still Costa Ricans that spoke naturally slow enough for him to understand.  There were also students very keen to pick up vocabulary and some carried around a notebook to be ready at a moment’s notice.  Even the teacher/chaperone had a list of different foods to try that was made for her by students at the high school.  (I was curious to hear from her what toad’s soup tasted like.)  

These were only the things that I could observed.  The other aspect of this trip was all the opportunities the students had on the weekends and evenings with their host families.  Even though we insisted the students only spoke Spanish when together, we could rest assured that they were being forced to try out the language while at home.  For the higher level students, this was their time to speak the language freely without feeling as if they were being graded.  For the lower level students this was their chance to see just how far they could get while having their host sibling as a backup should they get stuck trying to communicate something to their host parents.

For me (and them) it was a big accomplishment completing both stages of the exchange.  The only thing I’ve ever regretted about international travel was not starting sooner (and I started when I was 20).  These students now not only have the international cultural travel experience at a young age, but they also have international life long friends that will no doubt continue to be resources for them.  There was lots of sadness at the going away party, however I don’t foresee this being the last time they are together.     

I still keep in touch with my original host family from 11 years ago and rarely do I miss a celebration.  Even being fully integrated into my wife’s Costa Rican family doesn’t take away from that first experience and bond I’ll always have.  I visited a lot of countries after first coming to Costa Rica, but no matter how much I enjoyed the other places, it was never enough to overcome the experience I had from my first time in Costa Rica.  

The future is bright for these students as it’s anyone’s guess where this experience will take them.  I ended up in Costa Rica, however maybe they will never return to Costa Rica This exchange though will no doubt give them the confidence to take other risks putting them out of their comfort zone.  Let’s just hope those risks don’t involve jumping into a jaguar enclosure.  That would provoke one extraordinary scream.  

group photo at park

The Loss of the Iron Grandma

We got the phone call just before 6am and she was already gone.  Just like that, 90 years had been archived into the memories and minds of the people she had touched.  Now the stories and pictures will have to live on through what we tell and show our future children and grandchildren.  Grandma had passed away peacefully in her home.

I had the opportunity to know this woman the final 8 years or so of her life.  For my wife she was Grandma Belissa, but Grandma seemed to be the name of choice, whether or not you were family to her; it was the vibe she gave that invited so many people to anoint her “Grandma”.

I think it all started when you visited her home.  She was traditional for a 90 year old Costa Rican lady, living in town just a few blocks from the main commercial area, but always kept to her roots.  You entered her humble, wood home with a big smooch on the cheek and within a few minutes of sitting down she’d offer some food or a drink.  If you refused, her offer would quickly turn into a demand and eventually you’d have to give in.  She would not just offer an appetizer, but a meal that would last you a day.  Rice, beans, picadillo, pork and tortillas all washed down with a heaping glass of juice.  Just when you thought it was over, she would then emerge with a dessert as big as the previous dish.  You couldn’t leave her home without a food induced coma.  Over the years, I’d have to learn how to go to her home on an empty stomach and covertly sneak food back into the kitchen when she wasn’t looking. 

Besides chatting about what the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren were up to, there was always an anecdote to the past and she loved to tell stories.  “Abuela” as we called her in Spanish, grew up rough.  Her mother died when she was very young and ended up with 20(?) siblings as her father would be widowed three times.  She ended up caring for many of her siblings and it’s no wonder that her drink of choice from a young age was Cacique, the local liquor made from fermented sugar cane.  Then, before she turned 18, she was married and had set off to live with her husband in Monteverde.

Monteverde, at the time, was the last frontier of Costa Rica.  It took three days to get there from San Ramon (which only takes 2 hours today).  Settlers would arrive by horse and oxcart, put up a fence and that was then their property.  Abuela lived there for years, giving birth at home to all her 10+ children.  They raised a variety of farm animals which her husband would sell down in Puntarenas, which was probably a two day trip then.  They were considered well off for the time despite all the hardships.  She still has children that live in the area and while it has modernized a bit I can still picture how she must have lived every time we’d take her to visit her children in Monteverde. 

Eventually, she’d move to San Ramon to be near to medical facilities, but she never lost her toughness.  A couple years ago, she had a big health scare and even the doctors thought she was going to meet her maker.  That didn’t happen though as she eventually earned the title “Iron Grandma” from the doctors and was able to return home.  Previously to that incident, she had hopped all over the Americas between Peru, the Bahamas, and Montana.  The first time she left the country was when she was 80 as her husband had passed away and she didn’t have any brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, or fathers to look after anymore.  This was like a rebirth for her and she really took advantage of the opportunity.  I think she would say her proudest photo is the one of her atop Machu Picchu.  She displayed that in the same room that had a photo of her father with no shoes on. 

We’re going to miss a lot about Abuela, but her legacy will be a big one.  Comparing those two pictures shows just how much the planet has changed in the last 90 years.  It’s hard to find people with a mind as sharp as her’s to tell stories about the past.  Students used to visit her to complete history projects and one university even gave her an honorary certificate for sharing her experiences. 

“Abuela left us.” was the most common reaction coming from friends and family the day she passed.  While it is painful now, my memories of her will always be with me.  Just like my parents used to tell me about a relative that had passed on before I was born, I will no doubt be telling my children about their great grandma and the changing times she lived through, but I’ll probably leave out the part about taking shots with her until they’re a bit older.

RIP Abuela.

  

Learning a Language is Such a Beach

“This we-wee-weekend I’m going to the BE-BEECH.”  At that 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.

I had just asked what their plans were for the weekend.  It was a hot, somewhat stuffy Saturday morning  in San Ramon and I was leading my weekly English conversation group.  The students come every week as they are motivated to get guidance on their English conversation skills and are very supportive of one another.  The reaction to this comment though, was perplexing.

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…  Well, that was not going to happen, so I quizzically began to study the students, looking from one to the other, trying to get one to share their reaction. 

Class teaching
                    B-e-a-c-h, /beach/

Eventually, one shared, “Teacher, how do you say BEECH?”.  Now we were getting somewhere.  “Well, it’s pronounced ‘beach’”. I responded.  Mildly puzzled, they countered, “and how do you say BEECH?”.  Hmmm, hadn’t I just explain it?  Or am I going to need a visit to the ear doctor?    

I still wasn’t following what they were asking so I prodded,  “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 take the conversation any further off course than necessary, I followed up with “Oh, you mean a female dog, don’t you?”  Receiving an affirmative head nod I was finally back in the game and could take the reins of the group again.

The hold up 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’m proud of the 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.

I’ll never forget, when having dinner with my very first host family, I made a grammar mistake and they corrected me.  It was a simple mistake that I should have known, so I apologized by saying how embarrassed I was.  This response though incited laughter from the family because I had made an even bigger error.  I assumed embarrassed translated roughly to “embarazado” like so many other English words.  The word did exist, but it meant I was pregnant. 

Or the time my friend learned how to make tortillas and proclaimed she was a tortillera.  She made this claim assuming the nouns could be used for people (example: a carpenter does carpentry, a plumber does plumbing etc).  She was right about the word existing, but didn’t realize that locally, it meant she was a lesbian. 

Moments like these I’ll never forget as I assure myself that I’ll always be the “person that makes tortillas”.  I’ll never be mistakenly pregnant again, but I’m sure I’ll still make the same small grammar mistakes.

We only meet for a few hours on Saturdays to informally chat in English, but this discussion will probably stick with them long after the sessions have concluded.  These students already have a good handle on their English and they use me as an open book for detail work.  We spend a lot of time going over these details 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 might have to invest in a dictionary or really study up on pop culture as these students will push you.  I can’t think of a better way though to uncover language’s best kept secrets than in a dusty, glorified storage room with a group of eager apprentices.  The opportunity they have is something that if I had had, probably would have saved me from some “enlightening” experiences to say the least.   

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”.

Thanks for reading this blog and feel free to share your comments.  Have you ever had an embarrassing language moment?  ¡pura vida!

Why Teach a Language When You Can Share It

Dustin Dresser

When I graduated high school and then college, I never imagined I’d set foot back in a classroom.  After spending over two-thirds of my life in a classroom at that point, the last thing I wanted to do was end up back there as a teacher.  Aside from a few classes that let you run around (gym), build stuff (tech ed) and the occasional science experiments,  I can only recall sitting, listening, reading, and writing while at school.  Now, with all the opportunities in front of me as a young adult, why would I resign myself to more of the same things I already knew and was familiar with, except now I’d be expected to teach and grade as well.

Something strange though happened to me once I graduated and transitioned to adulthood.  Once I became knowledgeable about something, my mindset changed.  There came a point where I felt a desire to share my knowledge with others.  I just needed an outlet that didn’t restrict me to a classroom.  

My path in (and out) of the classroom led me on a bit of a journey.  In my case, I got out of school right as the country was headed for recession.  With my job prospects minimal, I got on a plane to Spain to…. teach classroom English.  This was clearly not my first choice out of school, but it triggered an expertise which eventually led to a passion. 

Well, I didn’t last long at my first school.  I got caught “teaching” when I realized I wanted to be sharing.   I felt the restraints of the four walls, desks, and marker boards holding me back.  For me, I realized I was driven by real world experiences.  After school, I was going to buy groceries, play soccer at the plaza and hang out with friends, all in Spanish.  I had the upper hand being forced to use the language and learn the culture, and that was what frustrated me in the classroom.  Students weren’t engaging because they saw me as only 50min/day for a semester for something they’d never need (according to them).  They couldn’t picture themselves ever traveling or living anywhere where they’d have to speak a foreign language or learn a new culture.  For me and my student’s sake, we needed an outlet that took us outside the box of the classroom.      

I didn’t discover how to effectively do that until I moved to Costa Rica and began moonlighting as a cultural exchange coordinator.  Once I was able to take the “room” out of the classroom and put students in real world situations, I began to share a passion.  Gone were the textbooks, worksheets and role plays.  Now, you really had to know how to ask for the bathroom, or where to catch the bus.  The beauty of these exchanges was that the teachers were still there, but were now sharing, coaching and supporting the students through the experience.  I cherished this experience as I was finally sharing knowledge and the student response was incredible.  

Sharing is teaching, but teaching is not always sharing, especially when it comes to language teaching.  The first school I taught at I was given a text book and a school year to get through it.  Anyone forced through such a dry system without any leeway for creativity will not last.  This is what I believe separates good foreign language (FL) teachers from great FL teachers.  FL teachers that are in it for the long haul, realize early on that they are sharers and if they can’t modify their classroom or motivate their students they aren’t going to last.  The FL teacher has the advantage over other subjects where travel can have a huge impact on student motivation, especially via cultural exchanges.  This is where all the classroom work pays off and students realize what all their studies were leading them up to.  The impact doesn’t end just there.  Regardless of their experience, they’ll be more motivated in class knowing there is a use for foreign languages outside the Department of Education requirements.  The teachers though, stand to reap the most rewards as motivated students will encourage teachers and allow them to share instead of “teach” in the classroom.   

What started out as a side project for me has now morphed into Costa Rica Frika, an immersion experience organization specializing in cultural exchanges.  I’ve found my niche that allows me to share a passion and having such a strong student response further fuels my motivation to continue sharing it.  This motivation has led me to expand and work directly with teachers as well.   

FL teachers: How do you share your passion?  What do you do outside the classroom that creates motivation inside the classroom?  Please share your thoughts!

Dustin Dresser is from Wisconsin and now lives in Costa Rica.  If you’re a foreign language teacher looking for ways to share your passion via cultural exchanges, join him on the Costa Rica Frika Teacher Exploratory Exchange this summer.  ¡Pura vida!

No Snow No Problem Winter Exchange

Wow, was this ever shaping up to be quite the cultural exchange.  After last year’s inaugural exchange, this year 50+ students and teachers from Costa Rica would brave a two week winter wonderland in Wisconsin in January, and after receiving consecutive weekend snowstorms in December, I assumed snow would be the least of our worries.

Fast forward to our 40 degree arrival and having to strain my eyes to pick out any recognizable snow banks as we pulled into the high school parking lot Friday night in Madison, WI.  Besides staying with a family and practicing English, snow was a key trip feature that had enticed students to come in the first place.  

Maybe they wouldn’t miss the snow (I sure wouldn’t) and I could smooth the disappointment by blaming global warming (assuming they believed that I believed it was real).  Luckily, there was a big enough distraction for the lack of snow, and that was the Presidential inauguration, which was happening the day we arrived.  

Students were quick to sprint into their families arms at the pickup, probably due to not having any winter clothes, but just as much due to the excitement of meeting the family. It couldn’t have been long before the topic came up though, as the town was abuzz with the Women’s march scheduled to happen the first full day the students were in town.  Those students that were interested were treated to an opportunity of a lifetime to see the march.

There is never not a good time for a cultural exchange, but there are times when exchanges are more necessary than others, and the next four years will definitively be important for cultural exchanges.  Especially with all the fake news and demeaning rhetoric, personal experience is going to end up being the only credible means to get an authentic view of the United States and its people.

So there was plenty to chat about our first weekend, but still no snow.  Wednesday was our big Chicago outing, so at least the huge skyscrapers could take our minds off the lack of snow.  At this point, we had

Drilling hole in ice
Luckily the ice was thick enough to drill holes in it?

had to cancel our sledding and move ice skating to indoor venues, which hadn’t bothered the students one bit, however I felt like we were letting them down.  Fortunately, there was some snow in the forecast for the Chicago trip, but nothing to get excited about, yet.

One thing I always joked with the teachers was how difficult it is to plan a snow day into the itinerary.  We had to assure that all our host schools would close for the day and then figure out how to rearrange the schedule to still get everything in around the snow day.  

Well sure enough, the day of the Chicago trip we began the day under a winter weather watch.  Our departure was scheduled for 6:30am and by 6am the first host school had already closed for the day.  That was great for those students, but I was still inclined to get them on the bus so they wouldn’t miss out on Chicago.  Then, about 15min later, Madison schools closed.  That knocked out another school and we only needed one more school to close for the trifecta.  Madison schools are one of those districts where they only close if they are expecting the worst, so based on that information I was ready to cancel the trip and send the remaining students to the high school to shadow, when the message board began lighting up signaling that their school had been closed too.

Snowman with girl
Poor man’s snowman

I don’t think anyone could have exhaled longer or more deeply than I did at that moment.  Gone was the necessity to make a tricky decision and potentially put students at risk, and I picked up a much needed catch-up day to re-confirm and re-arrange activities with the snow day having now been added to the itinerary.  I still found time to make a snowman and even do some shopping, but what was most satisfying was watching the photos come in of everyone out in the snow (of course, with me tucked in at home in front of a warm fire).

Thank goodness for the snow day, as it came right in the middle of the exchange and proved to be the only opportunity to catch our breaths.  The students didn’t need any downtime, but it was invaluable for the families and teachers.

The reactions from the visiting teachers were also very interesting as a lot of them had been to the United States before, but had gone to places such as Disney or New York, or went to visit Costa Ricans already living in the United States.  It was interesting because they already had experience, but having a family stay was completely new for them.  They saw a lot of things on their previous trips to the US, but didn’t have the chance to necessarily experience them.  For example, a host family treated our group to a bonfire and taught them how to make smores.  This was something that even if you had been to the US, you wouldn’t have experienced unless you were with a family.  Also, for being Wisconsin, the teacher’s hosts made sure they got to experience a brewery tour, which was definitively a novelty coming from Costa Rica.  

tshirt signing
Making memories

Thankfully, the snow day was a dream come true for everyone and we still managed to fit in most of our activities.  What really made the experience stick though were the going away parties.  At the parties you could really see how much the students and families had bonded over the two week experiences and they displayed their affection in various ways.  Some made banners to say good bye, one student put together a video of the experience, and everyone made sure to sign each other’s t-shirts as a going away momento.  

good bye poster
Time to say goodbye…

I addressed the families, but I didn’t have much to say.  By then everyone had created their own experience and at most I could do was recount what I had told the families at our pre-trip meetings in that the experience you will make on your own and no two experiences will be alike.  The “tingling” sensation that you get when you are sharing your culture impacts people in a variety of different ways and I couldn’t possibly give a blanket explanation that would cover everyone’s experience.

I’m super thankful for the families that opened their homes for this experience and I hope they will continue to communicate with their exchange students and encourage other families to take part in this experience.  We won’t get inaugurations nor snow storms every year, but in the end that won’t really matter, despite all the hype we give it.  What will matter is the experience itself and how it can impact one’s future.  

All home safe and sound, I can take another big exhale knowing I won’t have to worry about snow again till next year.

group of students
Cultural Exchange class, Winter 2017

This post was written by Dustin Dresser, director at Costa Rica Frika and winter exchange trip coordinator.  Dustin is from the Madison, WI area and now lives in Costa Rica with his Costa Rica wife.  You can read about the 2016 winter exchange here, and find out more about exchange opportunities here.

All Abroad: My Immersion Experience (Guest Speaker)

I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this.  The plane had just touched down in San José, Costa Rica and here I was, all by myself with my life packed into two little roller bags about to exit customs and head out into the unknown.  I was met with the blur of what seemed like a thousand paparazzi shouting at me, hands in the air, waving signs and trying to get my attention.  I was dumbfoundedly looking around for my name, when all of a sudden a man came up to me, said something very fast and proceeded to grab my bags and walk away…

As they say “the rest was history”, or was it?  To hear inspiring personal travel abroad stories, cultural immersion experiences, and exchange anecdotes, join or invite Dustin to speak to your group/schoolperson with 2 dogs.

Speaking dates are available year round (virtual) and in person dates are subject to availability.

Upcoming in person speaking opportunities in Wisconsin:

Oct. 24th – Nov. 3rd, 2016

Jan. 23rd – Feb. 1st, 2017 (exchange groups)

For more information contact us

Why not Embrace Monolingualism?

Author’s note: About a month ago I shared a piece written by my sister as it related to something I’m quite familiar with in Costa Rica.  Her thoughts were spot on and I totally thought the same, that learning languages opens up a whole world of opportunity (especially if you have to learn English).

I got to thinking though, and began to ponder, however, just what the world might be like if there was only one, universal, language.  This post started off as a fun, light-hearted jab at all the promotors of bilingualism (myself included).  However, the more I got into to picking arguments to justify the contrary, they didn’t seem as far fetched as I’d imagined.  I’m not sure I sold myself on the monolingual platform (languages are just too fun not to have) or if I’ll convince you, but it is interesting to analyze what a mono-world might look like.  Discussion/comments welcome 🙂

The first time I heard the term “monolingualism” used in the noun form (-ism ending) was about a month ago in this very same space.

It wasn’t a surprise that the author, my sister, would use a high-register, lexical term to send me running to the dictionary to find out what I was missing.  In promoting not speaking one language, she opened the proverbial “can of worms” in my head. Needless to say, there are two sides to every story, and even though we both chose to live in diverse, Spanish speaking countries, it seems we should be able to bend on the language aspect.

I’m not sure we really need more languages in our life.

If we break down the word “mono-lingual-ism,” we’ll find the prefix “mono” in Spanish translates to monkey.  If you’ve ever been in a forest and witnessed a pack of monkeys passing overhead, you’ll see they have it pretty good.

The alpha leads the pack and watches for predators while the mothers follow behind with their young ones. There is plenty of monkeying around for the teens and the noises they make are mostly squeals of varying degrees, but the understanding is there. Rarely do you see a monkey away from its troupe.

In all seriousness though, if monkeys can do it – and they’re close relatives to humans – there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to all agree on one language.

Think of the possibilities. Travel would instantly open up to all parts of the world and the connections made would be a lot more meaningful. No longer could someone rule out the Basque country because they don’t speak Euskera, and think how much more you could learn about another culture being able to understand it without relying on a filtered translation?

There would probably be fewer wars, and not that my mother-in-law would be interested, but at least she could knowingly nod in agreement when the Macy’s lady at the mall asks her if she would like to apply for a Macy’s card. She could even respond “Thanks, but no thanks.”

And with that, I think I just stumbled upon the economical ramifications of monolingualism.

Imagine all the business that could be done with one language. Granted, you could argue that this already exists with English being the proclaimed the world’s business language, but imagine being able to launch marketing campaigns in any country without having to translate.

Right now, if you want to see “The Conjuring 2” but happen to be in Costa Rica, you’ve got a problem. It’s bad enough you aren’t sure if it’s /kan/ or /kon/ -juring in the English pronunciation, but then think of the shame and possible humiliation trying to ask for tickets to “El Canjuro Dos.”

Besides that, it would be great to do away with all subtitles and horribly dubbed TV shows/movies. Remember when Psy broke YouTube with “Gangnam Style”? Just imagine how many more views it would have had if the lyrics could have been understood by more than 1.2 percent of the world’s population.

According to vistawide.com, there are approximately 71 million Korean speakers in the world, but at latest count “Gangnam Style: has just under 2.6 billion views on YouTube. There’s a simple explanation for how that has brought so many people to the same place: Music, like numbers, is universal.

Everyone can understand music, and apparently if the beat is catchy with a dash of humor and/or goofiness, you can reach billions. YouTube would argue the same, as 28 of the 30 most viewed videos of all time are music videos. So if music can unite us universally, language should, too.

If you aren’t born with the preferential language, you face an uphill battle to get it, and the costs can be quite high. Even in Costa Rica, a country that teaches English K-12, most students graduate shaky at best. What’s even more concerning though is that knowing English is not even enough.

A few years ago, San Ramon was buzzing because a new call center had just opened and had tons of positions to fill. Even I was excited, as this could be a potential job opportunity for me. But when I went to the job fair to get more information, I was astonished to hear the starting salary: just barely more than the required minimum-wage pay per month.

So applicants were basically better off cleaning bathrooms at a public institution and not spending their money on language classes.

Let’s face it: We’ll all have to have the world’s language as soon as we can. You shouldn’t waste time being taught the language in a classroom. Literally, you need to be born with it, because speaking it alone won’t get you ahead. You also have to be able to do something with it.

So instead of arguing against monolingualism, let’s argue for a world language. It won’t be easy, but maybe there’s some combination of singing and gestures that can unite us all in common understanding.  I nominate Psy and a pack of monkeys to get to work on it.