Surpise! I Can Understand You

Gdog, who has returned home to Canada, continues to give readers their Daily Kimchi fix with stories from Korea. He recently shared a video of his antics surprising some Chinese tourists in Korea by speaking Cantonese with them (transcript provided for non-Cantonese speakers). They were duly impressed and also shocked when his girlfriend chimed in with a greeting.

It reminded me of one of my favorite ways to amuse students: surprising them with what I know of their language. I don’t carry on conversations or anything like that – of course they are there to learn English – but there are a bunch of fun ways to do this.

On occasion I’ve heard students speaking in their own language – generally despite my pleas that they use only English – and I go ahead and mention the theme they seem to be discussing. Sometimes, though, they are in such denial that a foreigner could speak their language that they just think it’s a strange coincidence that I happen to bring up exactly what they were talking about. Chicago also has a fairly large ex-Yugoslav community, so if I have the opportunity to shock (and maybe even awe) some people back there by speaking their language, that will be great.

The one time I taught a kids class, I’d had a heads up on some swear words. Contrary to what you might expect – I didn’t use them myself with my students, but reacted appropriately on the rare occasions they did. This made them wonder if I’d been telling the truth when I’d said I had relatives from their country and understood their language, even though I would never speak it with them. I do believe someone asked me on the very last day and I finally came clean. (I don’t usually advocate deception of students, but when it’s a group of 12 pre-teen boys I pull out all the stops and go for it).

Sometimes it’s just amusing to slip a local world in. It is especially well received when the language is rare enough or hard enough that foreigners don’t usually speak it. Have you surprised anyone by speaking even a bit of their language?