It is frequent that anecdotes which provoke laughing fits occur in language classes. Normally these laughing fits don’t affect everyone in the class, but are inevitable for a few within. More often than not, the one who provokes the giggles does not laugh and tends to look around with a puzzled expression on his/her face which is regularly known as ‘poker face’.
As a Spanish teacher and a student of foreign languages I have experienced many of these anecdotes. The most recurrent that usually are recorded in our memories are those in which a spoken exchange provokes a ridiculous or strange sounding word in the language that is being learnt. In these cases, the only one that usually realises is the teacher and, sometimes, a fast learning student. Nevertheless, there are times when words which have a common use in a language have a different shocking meaning in another.
Last week in class we were talking about going to the cinema, and more precisely the different sessions. As we were commenting on the last session of the day, the night session (which in Spanish is the ‘sesión golfa’) one of the students who is a very avid dictionary user quickly resorted to its use; and before I had the chance to explain that ‘golfo’ is a synonym of ‘transnochador’ (night-bird) she had already found the translation into French and was looking at me wide-eyed and perplexed. She quickly cried out: ‘¡But, but… it means putain!’ – which in English would be known as the ‘F’ word.
But these situations don’t stop at words; other reasons to laugh in foreign language classes are signs. In theses cases, the key is in the cultural differences which can create confusion with the meaning of the signs depending on the country of origin. For example, ¿Who hasn’t used the gesture of making a circle with your thumb and index to say O.K.? Well beware if there are Brazilian students in class, because for them this sign is similar to extending your middle finger in Europe.
It is after these experiences that I have a tendency to restrict my sign language use in class… just in case.