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 not Embrace Monolingualism?

howler monkey hanging out

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.