or: Nurturing Cultural Intercourse and the Integrity of English in Central America
Written by guest author, el Profesor de Inglés, Hal:
The school is a single room concrete block building up in the hills behind Santa Ana in Costa Rica. It’s poorly lit and cheaply furnished in the Costa Rican style. I spend four hours a week there teaching a few of the locals how to speak English. My students range in age from 14 to 64. A small core of about half a dozen are my most dedicated, another half a dozen drift in and out, attending classes sporadically.
Some evenings, especially now in the rainy season, there are only two or three students in class. They get a lot more practice in the smaller classes and improvement is often noticeable in a single lesson. Progress is gratifying for them and for me.
I’ve been teaching there for over six months now. We’ve become comfortable with one another. The classes are relaxed and fun. My ability as an expert speaker of English and determined, if often unintentionally amusing, speaker of Spanish seem to be appreciated.
We were nearing the end of a class in which there were only two students, both attractive, married Costa Rican women in their twenties. Both have been in my class since I began teaching. I sometimes give one of them a ride to the nearest bus stop after class, but tonight she didn’t need it. She explained, “Dees night I going sleep wid my moother.”
I explained that it would probably sound better to say, “I am going to stay with my mother” because of the other meaning of “sleep with” in English. She understood immediately and both women were delighted to have picked up this titillating scrap of English. Apparently I’d touched on a topic here that both ladies had been harboring some curiosity about.
They wanted to know if they could ask me something without embarrassing me. I told them it was hard to embarrass me in Spanish, because I’m too busy translating in my head for embarrassment and the entire language sounds like it came out of a medical textbook.
At least that’s what I think I told them.
Whatever I told them, they immediately wanted to know how to say things in English that most definitely could embarrass me in my native language. We worked through a few Spanish expressions I’d never heard before. The translations weren’t too bad until we reached “chupa el pene.” They wanted to know what that was in English. They had to say it a couple times, because I’d never heard the Spanish verb “chupar” before. They finally snapped on the lights in the thick gringo’s skull with delicate Spanish descriptions of fellatio, like besos intimos, intimate kisses.
They had no problem being embarrassed in Spanish. But their curiosity and eagerness to know some real hot English allowed them to persevere.
They were visibly disappointed when I told them it’s almost the same as the Spanish, felación. They knew there was more than that. One of them said to me in Spanish, “My doctor would call it that. What do the regular people (gente corriente) call it?”
My students know that English is thick with the kind of snappy expressions they hear in pop music all the time. The hard-hitting Anglo-Saxon words, unavailable in their Latinate native tongue, give English a unique punch and power.
The prospect of telling these women that we refer to fellatio as a “blow job,” however, was more revealing of the raw, vulgar side of English than I wanted to be. And the other Anglo-Saxon possibilities for verb and object were equally crude. Sure, they were punchy. And the girls would have been happy to know them. But there is such a thing as too punchy, too raw, too commercial somehow for a first exposure to the erotic side of English. Or maybe I’m just too much of a romantic, crusty old fart to teach street English to Costa Rican housewives.
Whatever the reason, I felt like I’d be doing grave harm to Latin American relations and insulting the rich legacy of such English language luminaries as Shakespeare, Frost, Coleridge, and Dickenson if I taught these two charming women the term “blow job.” And besides, I didn’t know the Spanish word for “blow” which I knew I was going to have to translate.
But neither did I want to disappoint them. I have my reputation as an expert profesor de inglés to maintain. Thinking back to their blushing descriptions of the besos intimos, I decided on “kiss the pickle,” cheerful, friendly, almost cute. They looked puzzled at first, probably baffled by “pickle.” I translated helpfully, ‘besar el pepino.’ What a hit. It was the funniest thing they’d heard since the last time I tried to say espectacularísimamente. They were thrilled.
We spent the best five minutes of my English teaching career trying to work the Spanish accent out of “kees da peekehl.” Working through common expressions using “kiss the pickle” was the kind of language learning exercise you just don’t get with Berlitz courses. It was way more fun than my previous favorites “pretty tasty” and “skewered shrimp” had ever been. I came away gratified at my success in both advancing intercultural understanding and preserving a measure of genial dignity for the English language.
At least that's what I think I did.