I Learned English By Watching ‘Clueless’



On January 11, 1996 my mother, my sister and I landed on the icy runways of Buffalo Niagara International Airport. We had taken a plane there from the tropical island of Puerto Rico and in a matter of six hours, went from the humid heat of my beloved homeland to the arctic freeze of a Western New York winter.

I remember plunging my bare hand into a pile of snow and screaming in anguish at the freezing temperature.

Snow is really just ice, you guys. Did you know that? Well, movies don’t tell you that.

In the movies, people are always comfortable wearing light jackets in the snow. They walk around with bits of white foam in their hair, which never melts into a wet mess, and the streets never turn brown with slush.

To me, much like all other aspects of American life, snow was pristine and pure and very much not real.

That is, until I moved here.

I was eleven. The only exposure I’d had to American culture was the occasional trip to McDonald’s (which I loved) and the constant stream of movies and television shows captured by the gigantic satellite dish in my backyard.

I would sit for hours in front of the TV; watching, learning. I was fascinated by Americans. How interesting they were, how they spoke. It’s like they had a balloon in their mouths, all Os and Rs.

“Rahrohs, shirations wahssaracha,” that’s what I heard.

I remember actually writing down what I thought Catwoman was saying in Batman Returns and memorizing it, trying to sound just like her.

To this day I can recite the entirety of The Little Mermaid, Casper (the one with Christina Ricci), Romeo and Juliet (the one with Leo, of course) and pretty much every other 90s movie to ever be shown on HBO.

Little did I know that I was getting my mouth ready to learn actual English.

That all that practice really paid off when I had to speak for my mother at a restaurant, or on the phone to the electric company or, yes, even writing this very story.

The trouble was, I was assimilating to the reality of American movies and not to the reality of actual America.

Clueless became a sort of gospel for 11-year-old me.

I was a semi-fluent 10-year-old when I saw it, and could understand enough to use it to my advantage.

I would play that movie on a loop, trying to catch all the nuances in pronunciation; Alicia Silverstone’s speech pattern, how she would go down and trail off at the end of a sentence, and I thought, “this is how Americans really talk. I’m going to be so ready when I go to school there!”

This could have been the case if I ended up attending an upper-middle class public school in a television show, and this obviously was not the case.

No. After numerous language tests, I was enrolled in a regular, inner-city school where I was the only Latina. The ONLY Latina.

Apparently I passed said language tests with flying colors, and was fluent enough to join a regular all-English speaking school. Yeah. Right. I could not understand a word anyone was saying. Not a teacher, not the students, not even the Spanish teacher (who incidentally spoke NO Spanish).

You can imagine my shock and humiliation when I responded “As if!” to a comment someone made, and said things like “sporadically”, “crimson wave” and “I’m totally buggin’!”

Yeah, they instantly hated me.

The first couple of years were complete hell, but eventually I learned the true slang of my town. I copied their speech rhythms and how they pronounce the letter “A” in Buffalo (it sounds like a nasal “eh”).

I became an expert mimic and it saved my ass more times than I can count.

Do actors realize that people like me learn English from watching them? Did Alicia Silverstone know all the people who would mimic her in an attempt to fit into American culture?

I’m pretty sure she was just trying to make a good movie, but those are things I had always wondered.

Now, do I recommend learning English from 90s teen comedies? Absolutely.

Was I wrong to think they give accurate portrayals of kids in the U.S.? Definitely. But they were still interesting enough and close enough to the real thing to give me some indispensable tools.

In fact, I’m certain I would have had a much harder time learning English without the help of Cher, Dionne and Tai.

Watching these movies as a completely fluent adult is a vastly different experience. What surprises me the most are the large amount of sexual innuendos that permeates what seemed like kid-friendly movies back when we were, well, kids.

Cher: [an attractive male waiter walks past the girls, who check him out] Survey says?
Tai: Doable.
Dionne: Puny. I like ‘em big.
Cher: Ew I hate muscles!
Tai: You know I don’t really mind either way. Just as long as his you-know-what isn’t crooked. I really hate that.

Yeah, it was nice being clueless, but it’s fun to understand. THEEND

Ana Lugo
Ana Lugo is a writer and cook who lives and eats in Buffalo, NY. She actually does like long walks, also chili fries and laughing hysterically. You can catch her at her ill-updated blog, or her ill-updated twitter. She should really work on her Social Media skills... Hit her up, she'd love to hear from you!
Ana Lugo
Ana Lugo
Ana Lugo

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