Okay, so last spring I did half of my student teaching at a high school where we were fortunate enough to host 15 foreign exchange students for two weeks. As soon as possible, my cooperating teacher and I began coaching the French I students (beginners) on how to ask questions and have polite conversations with them.
With over a week to practice, each student came up with a list of "10 good questions" they wanted to ask the foreign exchange students. These questions could range from "How old are you?" to "What do you think of the primary election results?" depending on their ability level. For the French I students, the questions were predominantly as follows:
1. Est-ce que tu aimes nager? (Do you like to swim?)
2. Est-ce que tu aimes danser? (Do you like to dance?)
3. Est-ce que tu aimes manger? (Do you like to eat?)
4. Est-ce que tu--Okay, you get the picture. I digress.
We practiced these questions every day until the "Frenchies" arrived. When the group came in, wearing scarves and hats and gloves (it was mid-Spring, and perhaps 70 degrees Farenheit), our students immediately panicked. They made introductions nervously, though everyone was speaking English, and stammered through the niceties and greetings. Tomorrow they would take their questions out.
Now it is common knowledge that foreign language students love to do direct translation. Specifically, they will sit in front of a dictionary and look up a sentence, word for word, until they have what they think is a beautiful translation of the original. This is the easiest way to butcher the language, and to make an ass of yourself, but it can't be helped. No matter how often I caution against it they always try, some with more success than others. We knew a few invented questions would creep into the mix, and that was okay. It comes with the territory.
The day was going smoothly; the American students and French students were getting along fairly well, and then Michael Harris came in, with the rest of my 7th hour French I class. Now Michael was the sort of kid who would have planted marijuana in the science lab if he could figure out how to make something grow. I liked Michael, a lot. But I never guessed he'd be the class inventor.
He came in with a ratty sheet of notebook paper, all crumbled up from his pocket. And when the French kids came, he sat back in his desk with a smirk that should have told me something was up. Conversation begins. You hear awkward French from American accents, over-pronounced diphthongs and stuttering inqueries. "Qu-qu-qu'est-ce que tu aimes faire après le--la--l'école?" I smile and weave between groups, I pat my students on the back reassuringly and give silent thanks to the French kids, trying so hard to help.
This goes on for a few minutes before I hear little French gasps. A giggle. Silence. Stares. Oh, dear. Michael has just asked them his one invented question; "Qu'est-ce que tu as fumes?"
What he means to say is "Do you smoke cigarettes, and if so, what brands?" But his question comes out like a butchered "What have you been smoking?" The French girls think he's insulting their shopping habits, since the previous question was about the mall. Michael thinks they think it's an insult to smoke cigarettes, so he's getting defensive since he's such a fan of tobacco. The American students sitting with Michael want to know what the hell "fumes" means and whether or not it's a bad word. If so, they want him to repeat and spell it.
We got everything sorted out in a matter of minutes, mostly with me gesturing quickly and blushing and backtracking, all in the name of international relations! The whole thing ended in giggles and a penpal exchange, but I will forever laugh when I see that question. I guess you had to be there.