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”.

  

     

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!

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).

Monolingualism.

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.

 

My First (Official) Cultural Exchange

cultural exchange shirt with signatures

I was excited for the 1:30am wake up call.  It didn’t matter much since the anticipation was so great to begin with I knew I wasn’t going to sleep much anyways.  Today was day 1 of the Costa Rica – Wisconsin high school exchange.  18 hours from now we’d be in a snow frosted parking lot, temperatures in the teens, and students darting off the bus into their host families arms not only to greet them after months of emails and phone calls but to receive hats, gloves, and winter jackets, all scarce in the tropics.

For me this was a homecoming exchange in the fact that my alma mater and hometown was playing host to this exchange.  With them providing the families that would adopt the visiting students for the next two weeks and inviting them to school for a few days, the exchange had its firm foundation from which to work from.  Even my parents were delighted to be hosting their son and daughter in law for two weeks.  From there students could explore their surroundings and see all that snowy Wisconsin had to offer.  It didn’t take long for us to hit the ground running.

Just our second night we hosted a welcome event for the exchange families and community to come together and get to know the students.  Very few anticipated the number of interested community members that would turn out for this event and almost

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Big news for small town 🙂

no one expected the local newspaper to be there taking pictures and interviewing.  I was however very proud of the group as they showed no fear in making a small presentation about Costa Rica to the audience and even treated them to a mini salsa recital.

 

With cultural exchange activities and English language practice being our objectives we took in everything I’d been lacking since my childhood and then some.  Sledding and ice skating were at the top of our list but even activities such as ice fishing were prominent memories for the group.  And by group I include myself and a lot of the host parents/siblings as not all of us grew up ice fisherman. We pretended to stand on the ice and look knowledgeable during the demonstration to not lose face in front of the students.  Between these events, schools visits and family time the experience ended up turning into one of a lifetime.

I couldn’t help but notice the bonding going on between the local and visiting students.  Watching them explain how to skate or how to get maximum velocity on a sled was emblematic of the whole experience.  Every day the students would get together to share stories and funny experiences they had.  The amazement of the lack of rice and beans present in a Wisconsinites diet, the wonderment of how cows stay warm in the winter and how ice could form so strong that someone could walk on it, let alone drive a car on it were just some of the conversations had between students and their hosts.

Some people wondered why we chose to come in January.  Costa Ricans know what summer is all about but why not choose spring, or fall?  Well to begin with we were limited

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First time for everything!

due to the summer break in Costa Rica being Dec/Jan but to find the most diversity and biggest departure from the norm winter is what it has to be.  None of the Costa Ricans had seen snow before this trip and I don’t feel a bit of regret facilitating this experience.  Wisconsin does not have coffee plantations, volcanos, rainforests, or beaches that are within an hours drive of each other so we have to get creative with own nature and natural beauty.  Sure you’ll find a big enough cultural difference but the difference in climate is literally the icing on the cake of a winter exchange to Wisconsin.

 

I don’t believe the impact of this experience really set in until it was actually over.  We had gotten into this routine and we felt like it was never going to end.  But it did and the realization was almost instant.  When we boarded the bus to head back to the airport my

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Who could forget this?

phone began to explode with host parents and students expressing their gratitude and happiness with the experience.  As that was going on the Costa Rican parents were anxiously messaging us about travel plans and flight arrivals. 14 hours after bidding farewell to Wisconsin the students were back in the arms of overjoyed parents.

 

I think back now to the first meeting I had with parents in the fall and all their quizzical looks and even the parent who point blank asked me if I had children (I don’t).  Leaving that meeting casted some doubt on how I could ever convince a parent it was safe for them to send their child with me to a foreign country and to stay with a family they had never met before.  I could stand before them and give as much assurance as I could but until I have my own no one is really giving me the benefit of the doubt which is why host families make the exchanges so magical.

Whenever I talk to students and host families I can’t stress how important they are in the success of an exchange.  Months and years later a student doesn’t remember falling while ice skating or building a snowman but they do remember who they were with.  You might go on vacation or take an educational tour but there is no better way to learn about the place you are visiting than experiencing it with a local.  These bonds, created with the goal of learning one’s culture stay with us much longer than a week spent at an all inclusive resort where asking for a cerveza from the wait staff qualifies as culture.

With technological advances students and families can live the experience through each other, even if they are not actually on the exchange.  Every school we visited and every

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Hi mom, I’m on Wisconsin!

activity we did there was an opportunity to snap a photo and share it with all of the Costa Rican parents.  Watching a hockey game, participating in class, or even eating at food court, parents were able to see what we were up to and that was very reassuring for them.  Combining that with the pre-trip communication they had with their host family via email and video calls everyone felt confident with the trip and this was the backing I needed to convince parents my empty nest was not a cause for alarm.

 

At the end of the two week whirlwind trip I could have slept through four alarms having maxed out all the energy in my body.  As I write this now a month has gone by since the exchange ended and recalling all these fond memories provokes the same excitement all over again.  This inaugural exchange couldn’t have gone better and I’m hopeful to carry over these positive vibes to many more exchanges in the future.