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!