When Immersed, Failing is Harder Than You’d Think

The server jotted it down his order, nodded her head and went back to the kitchen. No follow up questions, no odd looks.

My cousin, now three weeks into his visit to Costa Rica had just ordered a hamburger, no tomato, no ketchup, with cheese, lettuce and onion – in Spanish.

I was excited. Three weeks earlier, that order would have been a disaster, however now that his Spanish had picked up and he nailed the order.

In early April, he had contacted me about coming down for a few weeks this summer to help me with my business and immerse himself in the culture. He was going to graduate high school and wanted to do an extended stay, as in his previous visits he had been on vacation or participating in an exchange program.

I said sure, knowing we’d be in for some fun.

My cousin, you see, has the perfect personality for cultural immersion. He knows no shame and will throw himself into any situation, whether or not he has the vocabulary. He might embarrass himself, but he learns a lot from the experiences and will tell you all about them.

Young traveler with drink and chips
No fear of foods

For this particular trip, he decided to journal every day about his experience and shared it with friends and family to follow. It was excellent insight to how someone would react to being in a new culture and a great way for me to see just how immersed/uncomfortable I could actually make him.

Knowing his personality, I had no trouble abandoning him when he needed me most.

There was the day I waited in line with him at the bank to exchange money, only to promptly duck out when his turn came. He played it cool afterward, though his journal described nervousness and exhilaration that by just saying “dollars, colones” and putting the cash down on the counter was enough for the teller to understand him.

There was also the day we had a volunteer in town who was looking for a place to eat lunch.  Without hesitation, I sent him on this solo mission with her to a local restaurant a few blocks down the street.

He said everything went fine, but his journal depicted the major breakthrough being when, at a total loss for words, he asked for the “menu” using the English word, only to find out that they use the same word in Spanish.

You might look at these as small accomplishments, but this reminded me so much of what I went through during my first extended cultural immersion experience. A string of many nervous moments where dumb luck bailed me out.

My Costa Rican friends told me that to avoid having to rely on sheer luck, it would be best to find a Costa Rican girlfriend. I used that strategy, and it was no accident that I ended up staying in Costa Rica because of it.

So I’d be lying if I said my wife and I didn’t have someone lined up for him. Our family friend has a daughter his age wanting to learn English, and knowing my cousin wants to improve his Spanish, we couldn’t let this opportunity pass.

I previously said my cousin has no fear of anything, but it turns out his kryptonite is putting him in a room with a beautiful girl who doesn’t speak English.

I have to say this silent version of my cousin was something I’d rarely seen. He would always find a way to fill silence, but he was at a loss for words with this girl. As much as I wanted to help him, I knew that I would only impede and take away from their opportunity to practice speaking with each other.

After they went out the first time, I didn’t even have to wait for the journal entry. He was like a balloon about to burst with all the things he wanted to share. What words he learned, what words he taught, where they went and even the bracelet and cologne she gave to him.

Culturally, the gift caught him off guard, but he saved face by paying for dinner. A week later she invited him over for lunch, and he made it a point to bring her flowers.

My cousin has now returned to the United States, and as much as he missed his friends and family, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded staying another month if he could.

I don’t doubt he will be back, and he might come back so much that he’ll get so sick of leaving and find a way to stay. Whether he’s back for the language, culture, families, or even the girls, it will only add to his experience.

Next time, I’ll teach him how to order a double cheeseburger, or maybe a well-done steak. The possibilities are endless.

boy with angel wings
No fear to spread his wings

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

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!

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

IMG_2516
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

IMG_2456
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

IMG_2536
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.