The young people at the language program are giving me a peek into another culture. The program is through a university; these students are studying in college to be doctors and lawyers, nurses, psychologists, and dentists. They are young: 19 or 20, which means the age difference creates a cultural gap in itself. They have been required to take English in the public schools since about 3rd grade, and now they are required to take more in college. However, most of their instructors are native Ecuadorians. They have rarely had the chance to converse with a native English speaker. Their accents are developed by imitating their teachers, who speak accented English themselves. During our small-group chats, they discover that filling in answers on a test or worksheet is a far cry from actually speaking a language.
This week I visited them on Ground Hog day. I told them it was a holiday in the US. I asked them if they knew what a ground hog was…they shook their heads. I was prepared, though: I showed them a photo of a ground hog I’d saved to my phone! One of them tilted his head: “Is that a cuy [guinea pig]?” He asked.
I laughed. “It would be a really BIG cuy!” I showed him with my hand how tall a ground hog is. They looked at me askance, almost like they didn’t believe me. Then I explained that ground hogs live in holes in the ground (“earth,” I clarified… “dirt,” just in case they didn’t know the word), and that they hibernate during the winter. I looked at their blank faces and I realized that these bright young people weren’t entirely clear on the whole winter concept. They had heard of something known as “winter,” of course. They know that in other parts of the world it gets cold and something called snow falls from the sky; they know intellectually that it can get cold enough for ice to form by itself outdoors. But all but one or two of them have lived their entire lives in Ecuador; all but a few of them have lived their whole lives in the Sierra, where it never gets too hot (75F/24C degrees at most) and never gets too cold (50F/10C). Even down at the beach, highs average 80F/27C year-round.
So, I remind them that it gets really cold in the northern US in winter; it even snows “Nieve. Snow? The white stuff that falls from the sky?” They nod their heads yes, but the look in their eyes says they have only the vaguest idea what I mean.
The groundhog, I explain, sleeps all winter and only comes out in the spring. Then I explain that in the US, people gather around the burrows of specific ground hogs and wait for them to come out of their burrows (holes) on February 2nd every year. “It’s a holiday, a feriado,” I explain. But then I think about holidays here in Ecuador. “Only, no fireworks. Only a little music. Lots of TV cameras.” That confused look again.
…Moving on! “So, if the ground hog sees his shadow.” Blank looks. “Sombras.” Ah, yes. “Then, the legend is that there will be six more weeks of Winter. If not, there will be an early Spring.” Blank looks. “The weather will get warm.” Slow nods from a few. Frank confusion on others’ faces.
“Any questions for me?”
“Do you like to watch movies?” One asks.
“I love movies. I watch mostly on Netflix. Do you get Netflix here?” They perk up, nod their heads. Netflix is everywhere!
“What series do you watch?” One of the girls asks.
I name a few: Game of Thrones, Glee, and my latest one, Elementary. It turns out that a few of them have actually heard of Sherlock Holmes. Good old Arthur Conan Doyle!
Then one of the young men asks me a question that sounds like, “Do you work indeed?”
“I don’t work any more,” I answer hesitantly, since the question is out of context in the conversation.
“No. Do you working, deed?” He tries again.
“I don’t understand.”
He makes a motion with two fingers on the desktop. “Working.”
Light bulb! “Oh! Walking. You mean walking!” I make him repeat it a few times until it’s understandable.
“Walking. Do you watch Walking Dead?”
A moment’s despair. My culture, the culture of America, is spread across the entire globe! And of all the glorious television we have created, what do the youngsters, the best and the brightest of South America’s developing future, know about us?