Posted by: Sarah | July 28, 2006

Lost in Translation

“So tomorrow, we want you to go visit a colegio [junior high/high school] and talk to one of the English classes. Do you mind? It’s nothing formal, don´t worry about preparing anything, you can just talk about why you think it’s important to study foreign languages, study abroad, etc. The kids will probably want to ask you questions about American culture too, so you can just talk to them about whatever they are interested in. Someone from will pick you up around 11, ok?”
– one of the secretaries who works in the office of my language institute at the university

Sure, sounds good. This week has been “training”, i.e. haven’t had to do much of anything other than help out with oral placement tests, get my third tour of the university since everyone wants to make sure that I know where things are (the campus is about 1/10 the size of Madison, max) and attend a couple “meetings” for new teachers. Assuming that this would be similar to the kind of thing that I had done in Paris when I helped out with the English classes in a middle school, I was excited to go talk to the class. Even though I will be working at the university giving culture presentations in French, leading English conversation classes, and helping out as a teaching assistant, I figured it would be a good prep for my job.

When I was told that I was going to visit a class, I assumed I would be in a classroom, talking to about 20-30 kids. Lesson #1 of living abroad: never make assumptions.

I arrived to the school, checked in at the office, was met by a student who asked my name, where I was from, and what I had studied so that he could introduce me. I was then led into an auditorium, handed a microphone, and realized that I was not talking to a classroom, but rather the entire school. There were at least 200, possibly 250, students sitting in front of me waiting eagerly for me to tell them all about American culture.

My jaw dropped and I muttered to the teacher standing by me, “THIS is what I didn’t need to prepare anything to talk about for?”

“Oh yeah, they are so excited that you are here, and I am sure they will have plenty of questions for you.”

I was put on the spot as these kids asked me everything they could possibly think of from American pop culture, music, food, politics to what Americans thought about Colombia, what the role of the media vs. the government was in the general assumption of the country, why I had decided to come to Colombia, whether or not I had been scared to come, and what my first impressions of the city were. I compared Bogotá to New York and American football vs. Soccer. They laughed when I told them that the taxi drivers were the scariest thing I have encountered thusfar and cheered when I told them that “My Hips don’t Lie” was played on the radio back home as much as it is here and that all of my friends knew that I was going to be living in Shakira’s hometown. They made me think as they asked me why it was so hard to get an American visa, why the US was the most powerful country in the world, and whether or not I thought that English being the “most popular” language in the world reflected that power status. Damn, these kids were smart.

To top it off, if this wasn’t already enough of an experience for one day, my visit to the school was followed by a lunch with two people who worked at the school (some kind of administrators, but despite several attempts to figure out exactly what their jobs were, I was still confused) which would have under normal circumstances been considered a very professional, business-like lunch, at a rather nice restaurant. It’s much harder to remain “professional” though when the people you are having lunch with assume that you speak the language much better than you actually do (even when you have told them otherwise), and you need to ask them to repeat every other sentence and still lose the train of conversation on multiple occasions.

We talked about everything possible related to the US education system, the cost of university, how that compared to average salaries for different careers, and how that reflected costs of living in different locales across the country.

We discussed every single type of food you could possibly eat in Colombia, as they were curious to what I had and had not tried yet…which was hard, since I still don’t know the name of half of what I eat. I did learn that both turtle and iguana could easily appear on a nice restaurant menu…who knew?

They were kind enough to take me to a French restaurant, because I told them that I had studied in Paris, laughed with me as I stumbled over the language, and joked when our food was taking so long that the cooks had to go all the way to Tayrona to catch the shrimp for my crepe.

Ask any Colombian what Barranquilla is best known for and you will get the exact same response. At first glance, the city is nothing special, in the way that you might be instantely impressed by the skyscrapers of New York or the fancy architecture of Paris, or the monuments of Rome. It’s not the beaches, because you have to drive far outside the city to reach the good ones, the weather, or even Shakira that make the city famous across the country. It is the people. They laugh, love life, dance like it’s their job, and make you feel at home instantely. I love it.



  1. You’re so brave!! Aaah! I’m sure you made those kids’ day! Be sure to let me know what iguana is like when you try it! besitos!

  2. Did you speak in front of them in spanish?!? wow chica it looks like you are fitting right in becuase we all know dancing IS your job 😉

  3. oh no no. I definitely spoke to them in English. Give me a few more weeks and I might be able to do it in Spanish though 😉

  4. oh I am so happy for you! It sounds like you’re having an amazing experience!

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