Language in Bloom

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Guest Post: Laugh Tracks

by Colleen Foster

 I have never been so elated to hear someone yell the F-word as I was Saturday night.

… Now before you do a double-take, double-check the URL, and marvel, “Ay, I had no idea Language in Bloom was that kind of site,” hear me out. This is of the utmost relevance to language-learning. And no, it’s not a nostalgic recount of the first time we popped in the DVD of Y Tu Mamá También (2001) back in high school and had a lifelong crush triggered on Gael García Bernal.

My escapade was the XVII Festival Internacional de Teatro Hispano at Teatro de la Luna in Arlington, Virginia. Every weekend, the black box theater is illuminated with a piece from the countries in the series line-up: Uruguay, Ecuador, España, Honduras, Argentina, la República Dominicana, los Estados Unidos, los Estados Unidos, and la República Dominicana. (Apparently we in the U.S. and D.R. like to double-dip, or just don’t know when to call it quits, or something. Guess the Northern Hemisphere will do that to you.)

Last night was Ecuador, all things being equal (ha… I mean, ja… you know, the Equator?). A friend/former classmate/editor of mine has the wondrously convenient hookup of free tickets to her obras of choice at Teatro de la Luna ever since she translated some scripts. A few days ago she extended the invite for me to be her plus-one.

Juana Estrella, an actress of stage and screen from Cuenca, Ecuador, was performing her one-woman show “Loca la Juana.” Extrapolating on what “locura” truly is, she tapped into the stories of three of her historical tocayas, that brilliant Spanish word referring to people who share a given name: Joan of Arc, Joan the Crazy of Castille, and Pope Joan.

In a combination of Seinfeld-esque stand-up and demonstrative facial expressions reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, she emphasized how madness is all relative. One man–or woman’s–craziness is another’s daily routine, one person’s valiant leap of faith for the motherland is another’s DSM-V psychiatric diagnosis. Juana’s eyes bugged out and limbs bent into kooky angles as she impersonated everyone from her flippant friends on the gym treadmill to the King of France–those, in and of themselves, could be “symptoms.” Or just the human condition.

This thesis was by no means a new one, but a whimsical reminder that bestows upon us some much-needed perspective.

Oh, but circling back around to the excitement of four-letter words: the outburst was part of a monologue segment illustrating the craziness of language, how even within the same supposed tongue you can step on landmines from dialect to dialect. Juana was explaining why you shouldn’t yell “¡Cógeme!” on a bus in Mexico. The translation of the infinitive “coger” meaning “to board” does not apply in our querido Mexico. No one will think you’re instructing them to take the train.

As one of the few in the audience for whom Spanish was a second language, understanding the joke made me laugh louder and harder than it would’ve in English. Humor is, as my mother accurately states, one of the most intimate forms of communication, by far, to begin with. Then when you layer on the nuances of comprehending it in your second language–well, each joke feels like a victory. It’s another level of understanding that can’t be taught in class or absorbed through a textbook. Programs like Rosetta Stone are highly useful, but can’t enlighten you as to the wink, wink, nudge, nudges of a culture.

That takes live flesh-and-blood conversation and a personal risk: blatant exposure of yourself as the resident language toddler. Whenever you’re learning a language, using it out and about, you run the risk of becoming the butt of the joke yourself.

But that’s the only way to do it. And to miss out on the rewards to be reaped from those vulnerable exchanges, simply because you don’t want your noob status to “coger” you over?

That, that would truly be craziness.


Colleen Foster is a freelance writer/editor living in Arlington, Virginia, working at a local teahouse and tutoring in English and Spanish. Previously she was a student of Tammy Bjelland’s at Shenandoah University, where they tackled Spanish idioms with panache.

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