Friday, June 22, 2012

Learning English, Teaching English

So yesterday, later in the evening, but still before dark, I was wandering around the Guadalupe Andador. Two teenaged girls approached me and in Spanish asked if I spoke English. They were doing a project for school. They needed to video themselves interviewing English speakers. Except neither of them spoke English and I was to be their first victim. They had translated their Spanish questions into English with some dorky online translator. Well, dorky is a harsh word. It would be difficult to program a computer to know if a sentence should be translated from the formal 'you' in Spanish or with the pronoun him/her. So this was one of the questions they'd wanted to ask me: "What did he do in place before he come to San Cristobal?" Or my favorite "Size what give he family come with?"

The Guadalupe Andador, a walking street.
Here was a perfect teaching moment. I read their questions in Spanish, then translated into English and wrote it on the paper they were reading from. They still couldn't pronounce words like Why and Where and What, because the "wh" sound is a bit foreign, but not really. I told the girl who kept screwing up the pronunciation "You can say Iztaccihuatl, can't you?" She drew a blank. "The volcano, very famous, near Mexico City?" Then she snapped. I kept going: "Huatl, hua, that's the same sound as 'wh' in English." They both tried to say 'Why' but instead said 'Whee'. Another teaching moment:  "You can say pie  can't you?" (Pie is spelled 'pay' in Spanish but pronounced the same as pie in English, and means a pie too!) Why, yes they could manage that! "Now put the sounds together and you can say 'why'." One was filming, the other would try to say the word and then both would erupt into peals of nervous laughter. I gave up and laughed along with them and somehow we managed to make a few clips on a cell phone which I'm sure will be enormously entertaining to their teacher.

That little moment reminded me of my stepfather's teaching moment when he was in Mexico many years ago. A gentle polite boy who was bell-hopping at the hotel asked how he could get people to move out of his way, politely, and in English. So Jack told him, "First you always say 'excuse me', then you always say 'please' which is disculpame and por favor." So the kid practiced 'please' and 'excuse me' many times. Then my father said "Then you put that together and you say 'Excuse me. Please move your ass."