E.F. L.— English as a First Language

How lucky I am to have English as my first language. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to many countries and am continually grateful to find that most persons, even in the remote corners of the globe, understand enough English (mixed with universal sign-language) to meet my communications needs. The consistently most universal word: “OKAY!” Everyone says it and everyone knows what it means. It’s a great, great word.

I’ve taken many years of classroom Spanish and rote memory vocabulary words are etched in my brain. I don’t always get the verb conjugations correct, but I get by. Here in Costa Rica there have been very few incidents of miscommunication. When I ask questions in Spanish, the answers come in English. Today, however, was the first day that I actually received a response or two in Spanish and I’m not sure if the speaker noticed my ojos bug out of my head while I worked quickly to translate his response.

We were on a long and excruciatingly boring tour at the Manuel Antonio National Park. When our tour guide pointed out the first of far too many sleeping sloths parked atop the tree branches, I asked in Spanish, how many toes it had. On the night before we left on our trip, our eight-year old quizzed me on a take-home packet of Spanish words given to her by her Spanish teacher and I distinctly remember being surprised that the word for fingers and toes was the same . . . but made a mental note. Happily, it came in handy.

“¿Cuantos dedos tiene?” I asked, practically under my breath.

“Dos,” he said, spinning around and boring his Costa Rican brown eyes into me. That I understood. I can’t tell you what else he said, but I was certainly pleased that he answered the question I wanted to know en Español.

After the tour, we ate lunch and I had Sex on the Beach. I had no idea what I was ordering, but I simply had to say the name of this drink out loud while reading the menu, and the next thing I knew, a tall, tropical fru-fru drink (the kind with cherries and an umbrella) was set before me. I drank it, got drunk immediately and then went souvenir shopping. I wanted to buy something for the folks taking care of our children and our dog, as well as something for the children (and not the dog).

At a souvenir shop we’d been eyeing for a few days we found the perfect shirt for our 10-year-old, which means it was BLUE and not too girly. The added bonus is that it had something to do with soccer, her favorite sport. The only problem is that the large size looked too small and I didn’t want to give her a legitimate excuse not to wear it. Speaking what I thought was clear Spanish to the shop girl, she assured me that large was the biggest and only size they had in that particular shirt. We were about to leave when a slightly older, plumper woman stepped into the transaction and insisted that the large shirt would be big enough for our ten-year-old.

“This shirt is my size,” she said in perfect English.

“No way,” I said, glancing at her well-endowed chest. She was easily three times as thick as our daughter.

“Sure it is,” she said. “I’ll try it on and show you.”

I laughed, thinking she was nuts, and watched as she stuffed her bulbous arms through the sleeves. Within seconds her dyed red hair poked through the neck hole and she wiggled it onto her body. Spreading her arms in a “ta-da” motion, she broke into a smile and said, “See! I told you.”

Damn! She wasn’t kidding. The blue soccer shirt fit her perfectly. And it looked . . . great!

“She just stretched it out,” whispered my husband. “I think now it’ll be the right size. Let’s buy it.”

“Fine,” said the woman as she took off the shirt and placed it on the counter. “And what else can I get for ya?”

I laughed and tried for a moment to remember where we were. “You have a very American accent,” I said. “Where did you learn English?”

“Jersey,” she said. “I’m from Costa Rica originally, but I lived in New Jersey for years. So, you wanna pay in colones or dollars?”

Like English responses to my Spanish, I wondered if I paid her in Costa Rican colones if she’d give me change in American dollars. Compromising, I decided to charge it to my VISA. And when I presented the card, she smiled and said, “OKAY!”

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