Bilingual Gong Show : Grammatical Gaffes Ring Bell at Los Amigos Toastmasters

Times Staff Writer

They were just arriving at the small gathering in Oxnard, yet a woman by the door shook their hands and wished them a hearty "good night." Inside, a man who had just been elected their leader introduced himself as their lover president. And one of the speakers who addressed the 16-member club mysteriously lapsed into Italian.

If public speaking makes you tongue-tied, say members of the Los Amigos chapter of Toastmasters International, you ought to try it in a foreign language.

If that doesn't sound sufficiently intimidating, add a slew of grammarians copiously chronicling your every gaffe, a bell that rings with every "um" or "ah," and a series of colored flash cards signaling you to wrap up.

"I wouldn't call it pressure," said Kim Thomas, one of the club's star members. "It's motivation."

But with all the motivation in an hour-and-a-half session, it's amazing that anyone survives the twice-monthly meetings of the nonprofit organization devoted to developing public-speaking skills.

Yet members of the Oxnard group--one of just five bilingual units among Toastmasters' 5,400 U.S. chapters--not only risk humiliation on a regular basis but appear to flourish under it.

Meeting after meeting, 10 native English speakers and six native Spanish speakers courageously rise to their feet and lay themselves open to wave after wave of linguistic hair-splitting as a means of improving their speaking skills in English and Spanish.

The idea is for members to speak as frequently as possible in the language that is foreign to them, although some shy away from lengthy talks in a foreign language. Still, they learn merely by listening, said Creda Nowlin, the club's founder.

And a lot of listening there is. Two seven-minute speeches form the evening's centerpiece, surrounded by introductions, brief remarks, evaluations, evaluations of the evaluations, and general throat-clearing.

Along the way, there is plenty of opportunity for "motivation." Take a recent Thursday in the conference room of the A Street office building where they regularly meet.

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Monica Sandoval, a 32-year-old Chihuahua native, barely uttered one greeting before someone was compelled to point out that in saying "good night" she was in effect saying goodby.

John Belbusti had to weather snickers when he introduced himself as the group's novio or boyfriend president instead of their nuevo or new president.

Same with Kurt Warner, a native English speaker, who accidentally applied an Italian-sounding article to gato, in a Spanish reference to a black cat during a seven-minute talk about superstition. The group went wild.

Thrust and parry was the name of the game. Joe Obregon, a 59-year-old engineer, noted that another member had said "impressional" when she really meant improvisational. Then Susan Martz, an English teacher, took this as her cue to correct Obregon. He had referred to something as being "the most busiest."

"After 10 years as an English teacher . . . " she began, and then dropped the sentence, grasping her forehead in exasperation.

"I've been to hundreds of different Toastmasters meetings," confided Nowlin's husband, Herb, himself a longtime Toastmaster, "and this has the longest grammar session."

But the criticism was good-natured. Barbs were sandwiched between compliments, and successful presentations were greeted with resounding applause. Members passed glowing remarks to each other on slips of paper.

Maintaining Her Spanish

Nowlin, 44, started Los Amigos five years ago as a means of sharpening the Spanish she had learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia during the late 1960s.

Then the social services coordinator for Head Start in Ventura County, she found herself struggling to give formal presentations in Spanish. But when she looked for a place to practice public speaking in Spanish, she couldn't find one. In Toastmasters, to which her husband had belonged since 1972, she found the perfect answer.

Still, the group often struggles to find members. Those in the Los Amigos chapter say this may have something to do with Toastmasters' image. Terry Ferguson, for instance, said she initially dismissed a colleague's suggestion to join the club because she thought it would be "fuddy-duddy."

"But from my first night, everyone was so warm and open that I just loved it," she said. "Now I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Talks sometimes deal in the insipidly inspirational. At another recent meeting, for instance, Nowlin devoted a lecture to gracefully giving and receiving plaques. (In the first case, she noted, it's best to remove any plastic wrapping. In the second, take the award with the left hand, and shake the hand of its giver with the right.)

Though the meetings can verge on the corny, they do some good. A month earlier, Maria Cisneros, a 26-year-old accountant from Mexico, had been so frightened to speak publicly that when she introduced herself she didn't look up from her hands. But on this day, she rose to her feet when Terry Ferguson, who had chosen gifts as the evening's extemporaneous topic, asked her what gift she would like to receive.

"A car," she quipped in Spanish. Then she proceeded to fill nearly two minutes with ruminations on gift-giving. Generous laughter and applause followed her comments, and she walked away with a blue ribbon for the best extemporaneous speech of the day.

"I feel like I'm talking to my family," she later explained.

Great Improvement

Despite his novio gaffe, Belbusti, 62, said he has improved enormously in the three years since he joined Los Amigos. Before that, the Camarillo engineer, who is studying Spanish with his wife, Jane, said he was "all stammerings."

"I would get up at a meeting and say, 'Hi, my name is John Belbusti. I'm Jane's wife,' " he remembers. But speaking Spanish in front of a group was "like being an actor: I felt like I was behind a character.

"I'm not too shy anymore," he said. "Now I'm getting to be a ham."

But the star of the recent meeting was Thomas, 33, a native English speaker who hones her skills by subscribing to Cosmopolitan magazine's Spanish version and watching television soap operas from Mexico.

She delivered a lecture on t'ai chi in impeccable Spanish, complete with a demonstration of the slow, circular movements of the Chinese exercise used for self-defense and meditation.

"One of the best ever," noted Belbusti in a written comment that he later slipped to Thomas. "You had the audience in your hands."

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