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Tongue-tied and twisted

LAST DECEMBER, we received a call from my wife's sister. Her 16-year-old daughter, Daniela, had indicated on her Christmas wish list that the only present she wanted was "to live in a bigger town than Detva".

LAST DECEMBER, we received a call from my wife's sister. Her 16-year-old daughter, Daniela, had indicated on her Christmas wish list that the only present she wanted was "to live in a bigger town than Detva".

To us, living in Detva, with its access to some of Slovakia's most pristine wilderness, would be the life, but to Daniela, this mid-sized Central Slovakian town held little of interest.

To make good on her wish, we decided to investigate summer English programs in Washington, DC. We wanted her to visit us in America, but we also wanted her to be involved in a structured activity with other young people.

After doing some research on the Internet, we settled on a school that was convenient for the metro and offered a four-week English program at an affordable price.

With great expectations, my wife and I picked Daniela up at Dulles International Airport in mid-June. Daniela, a student at Gymazium Detva, had taken English for seven years, so we expected her to hit the ground running. That did not happen.

She was so tongue-tied for the first few days that I found myself using my meager Slovak vocabulary to communicate with her rather than talking in English. After taking a three-phase placement test, Daniela was placed in a mid-level class. Her classmates consisted of three other students, one from Italy, another from France, and in a strange twist, a 15-year-old girl from Slovakia.

Two weeks into her studies, I began to notice a transformation in Daniela's English. While quiet by nature, Daniela occasionally opened up at the dinner table, telling us (in English) details about the school and her life.

She occasionally prompted my Slovak wife for a word, but otherwise, she managed quite well on her own. Verbs proved to be her greatest challenge, and my wife spent several evenings practicing grammar with her. However, her reading composition and speaking skills were decent, allowing her to receive mostly B grades, along with an occasional A, at school.

Daniela loved learning the language. In addition to the usual tests and drills common in language training, her teacher used games, videos, and role-playing as a means of getting people to open up in English. She also took them to various events after school such as the Smithsonian's Folk Life Festival. "I really enjoyed one English video they showed about brain scans," she once remarked.

Daniela's favorite activity outside the classroom was shopping at Washington's numerous stores, especially the H&M and Express clothing stores. She loved the freedom that the Metro gave her to quickly travel anywhere in the city with ease.

"The museums are boring, but I love hanging out at the Pentagon City Mall," she often told me. She also liked some of our local restaurants. Whenever I asked her what she wanted for dinner, "hamburgers or pizza" was her inevitable response. Furthermore, she could not understand why Americans "are so obsessed about eating vegetables". She prefers meat and starch.

At night, she enjoyed instant messaging with her friends and family. She often held three-way chats with a friend in Detva and another in China. Instant messaging also obviated her need to call home frequently, keeping our phone bills small.

Daniela left the United States with greatly improved English skills. Her teacher described her as an "an excellent student with a perfect attendance record". The Slovak girl, who had never before spent much time away from home, did not get very homesick.

What Daniela loved the most about Washington was "the smell of the metro." What she disliked about it was "how strange and noisy the people are".

"If everyone spoke Slovak and my friends and family were here," she remarked, "it would be great."

I hope she returns to visit soon.

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