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Immigrant families pay tribute to Alex Trebek for helping them learn English

"He was one of the first people I 'met' in this country," one fan said.
Image: ABC's \"Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time\"
"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek on Dec. 12.Eric McCandless / ABC via Getty Images

Fans of "Jeopardy!" all over the world mourned the death of longtime host Alex Trebek on Sunday, but one group shared a particularly special connection.

Immigrant families in the U.S. say watching Trebek, who was 80 and had hosted the quiz show for 37 years, each night helped them learn English.

Asmae Toumi arrived in the U.S. from Morocco when she was 9, not knowing a word of English, and she said watching American TV shows was a big part of learning the language. She credited "Clifford the Big Red Dog" for some of her progress, but she also spoke about the impact of game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"

IMAGE: Asmae Toumi
Asmae Toumi.Courtesy Asmae Toumi

"I remember just sitting there understanding absolutely nothing," she said. "But I think the exposure to new words, just how things were expressed, just went such a long way."

When she first got to the U.S., Toumi found making friends, expressing herself and asking questions to be nerve-wracking. TV shows like "Jeopardy!" helped her navigate pronunciation, expressions and nuance.

Trebek — an immigrant himself, who was born in Canada and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998 — was a staple in her family, and Toumi described his daily presence in her living room as "irreplaceable."

"He was one of the first people I 'met' in this country," she said. "I came here with my family. I went to a French school. He was sort of the first American man that I was exposed to. His kindness and his empathy and his sense of humor, those were all huge in my cultural understanding."

Just last week, during one of Trebek's last appearances on the program, "Jeopardy!" winner Burt Thakur, who is Indian, told the host about the impact he had on his own family growing up.

"I learned English because of you," Thakur said. "My grandfather who raised me ... I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day."

Sam Bautista, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, said she grew up watching her mom learn English from Trebek.

"Growing up, my mom was learning English as I was learning to speak as a human," Bautista said. "My mom always had this concern that she wasn't using the correct words or her English wasn't proper enough."

Beyond expanding her mom's vocabulary, she said, "Jeopardy!" taught her and her sister about fairness, competition and education. She got emotional as she reflected on her memories of Trebek.

"He was always the pinnacle of what success was," she said. "I don't know if that success directly correlates to education and intelligence, but my mom was very adamant that my sister and I took our education seriously. He was always fair. He was always right — obviously, he had the answers — but he was always fair. He never made you feel stupid for being incorrect, and I think that was huge for us."

Fans on Twitter also spoke about Trebek's impact on their families and their memories of watching the show with their loved ones.

"I think it's important to emphasize the impact that Alex Trebek had on immigrant families," one user tweeted. "I, too, watched @Jeopardy with my grandparents, who didn't speak English. Alex gave them something to look forward to every day in an otherwise unfamiliar world."

Others reflected on what Trebek meant to their parents who immigrated to the U.S. around the time he became the host of the show.

"For 30 years my immigrant mom has been watching #jeopardy and repeating the answers 2 seconds after Alex Trebek, in broken English, pretending she knew it all along, rolling her eyes at the contestants. She will be devastated. #riptrebek," another user wrote.

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