Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 11, 2011

An 'English' village in Spain

Native speakers 'break the ice' with lively idioms and constant conversation

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. That was the mission for three Pleasanton women who participated last fall in an eight-day English immersion course to help executives in Spain become fluent in the language.

"It was intense," agreed Vernie Laube, Cathy Lipman and Diana Mendenhall.

"You talk from 9 in the morning until 11 at night, with a 1-1/2 hour break," Lipman said. "I was thinking it was a free vacation. Well, it wasn't."

The program, called Pueblo Ingles or English village, was held at a resort near the Portuguese border. Room and board were provided although teachers had to pay their way to Madrid.

Before teachers and students boarded the bus in Madrid, they were told the rules.

"We could not talk about politics or religion -- or Franco," noted Mendenhall.

If they didn't like the assigned subject, they could converse on another topic if everyone agreed. They recalled a good discussion with the Spaniards on California's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana.

"The big thing was idioms, like 'break the ice' and 'blow it off.' There was an Idiom of the Hour," said Mendenhall, adding that she was fighting a cold at the time. "I had a 'frog in my throat' so I was the poster child for that."

They also gave talks on subjects of interest to them, and Mendenhall was asked to speak on her work with Habitat for Humanity. Although she wasn't feeling well, she said she agreed, in case she wants to return. But she was a bit chagrined when an attractive young woman named Angela, from Georgia, went before her and did a dynamic presentation.

"She gets her guitar and gets to singing the cutest Spanish love songs -- and then she teaches us to yodel," Mendenhall recalled with a laugh.

The Pleasanton women, who are in their late 60s, said that as the everyday subjects were exhausted they often ended up in the role of mother confessor. Some of these "confessions" still caused the friends to laugh as they remembered a handsome dad treading lightly among flirtatious moms when picking up his child at school, and the woman executive who was moved to share her piercings and the fact that her older boyfriend was possessive.

"You can talk to a stranger about personal things," Laube observed. "And after two days, you'd gone through the standard questions."

They also acted out fairytales and skits, choosing costumes from a big box of props.

"It was very well organized," Lipman said. "One day they brought in a big metal thing for us to talk about. It turned out to be a still. It was just to instigate conversation."

One assignment was for everyone to go to their chalets and talk to each other on the telephone.

"It was a whole different feeling on the phone," Laube said.

Another day they walked to the nearby 14th century village of La Alberca, which is so well preserved that it's a National Historical Monument.

"We walked to the village and did some wine tasting," remembered Lipman. "We passed the bota bag."

They also partook of the local specialty -- cured ham carved paper-thin -- which gave them another topic of conversation.

All the executives, about half of them women, had at least studied English in elementary school. At Pueblo Ingles they heard accents from New Zealand, Australia, Wales and England in addition to the United States.

"They pay 2,200 Euros, almost $3,000. Sometimes their company pays it in full or half," Lipman noted. "They all needed conversational English to move up in their careers."

Several of them worked for Telefonica, and there were three pilots. The students had to do homework, including presentations, one on their company and the other on something personal, often biographical.

"It was hard for them," Lipman said.

Many of the teachers were returnees to the program. One was on his 15th session. Mendenhall discovered the program on the Internet a few years ago and her daughter soon participated.

The application process required them to describe themselves, said Mendenhall, and she cited her background as a flight attendant and helping out after Hurricane Katrina. Laube and her husband owned the restaurant in the Pleasanton Hotel for 25 years, and she has done event planning. Lipman was a teacher and hiked Half Dome in Yosemite last year. They all included their work with Habitat for Humanity.

When they didn't hear back, Mendenhall wrote again, pointing out that she was the mother of a former Pueblo Ingles teacher and saying, "If you liked my daughter, you will love us."

They were accepted.

By the end of the week, the Spaniards' English had improved tremendously.

"They said they started thinking in English," Lipman said.

"We were told to correct them but after awhile they corrected themselves," Mendenhall added.

The pace never let up, they also noted.

"Even the last day was exhausting," Mendenhall said. "We were in groups again, singing and dancing."

On the bus trip back to Madrid, everyone slept, they recalled. The Pleasanton friends headed for the train station to begin a tour of Spain that included Granada, Seville, Cordova, Toledo and Barcelona. They'd taken advantage of their eight days of conversations to gather travel tips.

Intense as it was, Pueblo Ingles was a good experience, the Pleasanton women agreed. Mendenhall summed it up: "This was like an adult summer camp with a waterfall of Sangria."

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