Learning a Language is Such a Beach

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.

students in class
Who’s the brave one?

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.

students studying
Some of the Saturday crew 🙂

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”.

  

     

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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

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

Costa Rica Frika provides technical expertise and funding for classroom project in Piedades Norte

19 February 2014

PN- The community of Piedades Norte is in a difficult situation.  They have computers, but no place to use them.  With their previous place having been demolished and an offer on the table from INA (National Learning Institute) to teach free computer courses, the community is now in scrambling to build an adequate classroom.  That’s where Costa Rica Frika and the University of Minnesota Construction Management class got involved.

Dustin with Association President Alejos
Dustin with Association President Alejos

The construction management class from the Northern U.S. university came down for two weeks in January and worked tirelessly to provide the community with some building solutions to house their computers.  In the end, they were able to budget and estimate three different solutions for the community, two of them which utilized an existing community structure.

The community was overjoyed to receive the proposals. Now armed with construction ideas,  they have moved on to fundraising for the project.

With estimated costs projected to be around 25 million colones (approx. 50,000USD), the community is actively looking to raise money to make this project a reality.  Costa Rica Frika began the drive by donating 350 thousand colones (approx 700USD) to help support the engineering and architectural costs of the project.  If you would like to donate or get involved in the project please contact dustin@costaricafrika.com for more information.