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.

This Week in San Ramon….

Some observations around town the past week or so…

Tractor parked on city street

Tractor parking downtown San Ramon

I know you are thinking how dumb can this guy be for parking on yellow?  Well that isn’t a concern for anybody here, notice the van parked facing oncoming traffic?  My guess is he ran out of compost for his coffee plants and decided to drive into town to get it rather than pay for a truck to come out and deliver.  While in town he probably spotted a friend and pulled over to have coffee with them.


Biker-dog gang on the streets of SRMotorcycle dog

You should probably keep your dogs at home, at least on a leash, unless you want problems with this little guy.  Known to cruise the streets and frequent the park on the weekends, he’s as tough as they come.  Although, he keeps a pretty straight face whether going 0mph or 50mph.


Friendly squirrels at the park

These little love squirrels put on quite the show at the park.  Ahhh, to be young and in love.  They seem pretty content and hopefully the won’t get hassled by the biker dog gang.

squirrels on treesquirrels on tree








The Gods love San Ramon

I can count the number of times I’ve seen a rainbow on my hands and never would have imagined I’d witness a double rainbow, but stranger things have happened.  This picture doesn’t quite capture how we saw it live, but it has been a good luck charm for us since the day we saw it.

Double Rainbow


Reminds me of the time I witnessed this in La Fortuna:

Sky divided


Grade school kids receive scholarships

Congratulations to the second semester scholarship recipients in San Ramon!  The Community Action Alliance of San Ramon organizes English conversation groups throughout the year and the proceeds go to a scholarship fund to help K-12 students purchase school supplies for each semester.  Students receive vouchers to redeem at select retailers for school uniforms, shoes, and school supplies.  Find out more about the Community Action Alliance and the education committee’s scholarship program.
Scholarship dispersement

Eradicating Monolingualism

This is a special guest post from my sister, Ashley.  She rarely writes about Costa Rica, but this topic touches a wish that is prominent in Costa Rica (and one that I can totally relate to too).


The first time I heard the word I thought it was some kind of disease,

although this probably had to do with the way it was pronounced to me. Europeans, in

particular, tend to let it escape from the back of their throats in that same gently

horrified tone that one uses to talk about leprosy or syphilis. Monolingualism! they

gasp, The poor thing will have to be sent to the nun’s convent. Or Monolingualism?! You

should really get that checked out.

In the Basque Country of Spain, where I live, monolingualism was never even a

tangible threat. One could argue that it had its heyday during the rule of Spain’s

dictator, Francisco Franco, but Spain’s regional languages never really went away,

they just moved to being spoken behind closed doors. Nowadays, many parts of Spain

are trilingual – a regional language (such as Basque), Spanish, and English being the

languages of instruction in school. Multilingualism is the norm for many schools

across Europe and while it’s not always easy to find a utopia balance, most agree that

it is certainly better than a monolingual upbringing.

As a foreign language teacher, I often hear: “I wish we didn’t have to learn so much

languages,” (so much instead of so many, because I’m direct quoting here), but I’ve

never heard anyone say that they wished they only knew one. Furthermore, my

students frequently enjoy complaining about monolinguals and Americans above all.

While not all of us Americans suffer from this troubling malady, enough of us do that it

has become our established international stereotype. In reality, we aren’t even the

only country guilty of being monolingual, but as I’ve been schooled in more than one

classroom discussion, we just happen to be the most annoying. Not only are most

Americans blissfully monolingual, but we also appear to have the nerve to obligate the

rest of the world to learn our language if they want to secure any longstanding

economic opportunities.

I frequently remind my determined, but often tired English learners that most

Americans are not personally hell-bent on ruining others’ lives with their language.

Myself, as their teacher, being the exception. The rest of us are too busy eating fast

food and buying firearms. (They laugh.) But in reality, our lingua franca has more to

do with luck and politics than personal vendettas. Before, it was French, now it’s

English, and our children will probably be learning Chinese. Would anyone like to try

their hand at Chinese? I ask them. Silence.

However, even though I owe the majority of my international career success to the

fact that English is the current lingua franca, I would argue that this is both a blessing

and a curse. Monolingualism might not be a disease, but it is a severe handicap and we

should be working hard to eradicate it from our country. Because unless we require

all of our citizens to go about the monumental task of acquiring another language, we

will never fully understand the insurmountable effort that our counterparts are

making, year after year, to communicate with us. And that deeper understanding and

appreciation for this effort is fundamental to our survival and respectability in a

global society. Language learning must work both ways.

The good news is, we are getting better. On one of my annual visits home to Verona, I

was delighted to see that my former elementary school had taken steps to post

signage in both English and Spanish and that bilingual programs are very much alive

in the school district. However, there is still a lot of work to be done in actively

encouraging a multilingual ideal outside of the school environment.

It isn’t enough to take a crash course on a foreign language in university or show off

your Spanish food vocabulary at a Mexican restaurant. Nor can we claim to be a

multilingual nation just because “many languages are spoken”, when those languages

are predominantly used only by those who consider it to be their native tongue.

Tolerating foreign languages is simply not the same as actively speaking one in your

daily life.

Well beyond just another school subject, the ability to speak a foreign language is

perhaps the most powerful resource available to us. It teaches us humility, because

when you are suddenly stripped of a skill that you’ve had nearly since birth and

handed a blank slate, you must swallow a lot of pride. It pushes our patience, because

fluency is a lifelong journey. It doesn’t happen overnight and you don’t “learn a

language” and then know it forever; you have to maintain it. It even helps our

creativity to flourish, because we’re forced to find new ways to convey our message.

Most importantly, a multilingual society builds solidarity between cultures. Taking the

time to learn a foreign language is perhaps the most authentic gesture of goodwill. It

says, quite simply: “I care about you and where you come from.” It’s the perfect design

for mutual respect that I experience every time I rattle something off in Spanish and

receive the reaction: “Wow, where did you learn your Spanish?” and I respond, “Right

here. From you. Because I wanted to learn and you took the time to teach me.”

-Ashley writes about travel with her husband on her own blog http://www.elbigmonday.com, but obviously, could write about anything, including Costa Rica sometimes.