When I was young, my mother believed that my brother and I should experience other cultures. So, my senior year, our family applied for, and was accepted as a host family for international exchange students through Youth For Understanding (YFU).
Juan Pablo Sanchez Santacoloma came to live with us for a year from Bogota, Columbia. Mom was right. It was a great experience - we had some interesting challenges - but in the end, he became a member of our family.
Juan spoke no English when he arrived in the states. That made things interesting. Lesson learned from this? If you truly want to learn to become fluent in a foreign tongue -- move. Go immerse yourself in the language. Immerse yourself in the culture. Listen to the language every day. Go to school with people who speak it. That's what Juan did. It worked.
The Christmas Party
Around the holidays, my mother and father always throw the annual Christmas dinner party for family and friends. The house was packed and my brother, Juan, and a living room full of people sat enjoying holiday cheer, tasty treats and each others' company.
By this time, Juan had been with us for about five months and had become savvy enough in the English language to carry on a conversation. Not bad at all, since he had literally started with nothing but hand signals and Spanish. He was a fast learner.
My mother, who future posts will describe in more detail, had adopted certain cultural phrases in her speech over the years. One of my favorite responses was something she would use when a conversation was surprising or even absurd:
"Oh, for God's sake" was the intended response.
In reality, when she would actually say it, the phrase sounded more like "Oh, for God sakes", switching the "s" from "God" to "sake". This type of modification commonly happens when people use a particular phrase over time. My brother and I must have heard her say it thousands of times growing up.
Anyway, while sitting at the party, mom, in conversation with a friend responds to a surprising statement with the usual, "Oh, for God sakes!"
Juan, hearing this and being confused, leans to my mom, and the crowd around her, and politely asks (in a heavy Columbian accent):
"Germaine, why for you always say, ah forget sex? Why do you forget sex?"
The brief second of silence was defining. Everyone looked up, and not knowing how to respond to an uncomfortable situation, laughter erupted. I explained to Juan what mom had actually intended to say, the meaning of the phrase, and what Juan had said. After that, he laughed along with the rest of us. Juan was a good sport.
What's the point?
Other than a fond memory and funny story, not much. But there is this: Juan wanted to change the way he was able to communicate by adding a second language to his vocabulary. That's both a brave and admirable change.
We still have a good laugh at our annual Christmas parties when someone tells the story -- and Juan still calls us every Christmas, and comes to visit our family about once a year.
Do you speak a second language? When you were learning, did something like this ever happened to you? I'd love to hear about it...