A few weeks ago at the English Learning Center, one of the directors came in to tell my students about the end of term party and to ask them if they had talents they’d like to share- singing, dancing, crafting, writing, etc. When she mentioned poetry, the students looked quizzically at each other. The class I teach, Level 4, is big and has students from seven different countries on most nights, so simply translating the word wasn’t an option. The director and I fumbled around for words that could explain the medium, and after several minutes, the students did that collective head nod that says, “Oh, NOW I get it!”
On most nights at the ELC, I listen to my students read their own answers to incredibly complex questions (“How did you feel when you first arrived in your new country?” or “Do you think the youth of today are different than the youth of the past?”), and the fits and starts they speak in reveal the bigger answers that struggle underneath the language barrier. I always wonder what it would be like to understand them in their native languages, and it makes me feel sad in the same way that reading novels or poetry in translation does. I just know I’m missing something.
The people in our lives have these distinct voices- patterns of syntax, vernaculars, intonations. If you teach writing, you’ve probably had the experience of knowing exactly whose words are on the page without even looking at the name. It could just be that I’m a language-aholic, but I bet most people find those familiar voices comforting. I sometimes worry that my friendships with people who don’t speak English natively will always be limited, even though I have evidence to the contrary (see: Chinese friends Anna and Liz).
There is just so much tied up in language: it’s culture and emotion and memory and inner monologues and humor and firsthand experiences and a million-billion other facets of Who We Are. But since there is no way that I can learn Amharic or Nepalese any time soon, I’m stuck knowing my ELC students at this English-only level, and this is hard because, to paraphrase Neil Postman, you can’t talk about philosophy with smoke signals.
But teaching at the ELC has been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in education. I usually get home at 9 from that Monday night class, Matt usually gets an earful about what happened that night (“Did you know that it’s Iranian New Year?!” and “We spent 35 minutes talking about the calendar question because they were SO into it!” and “They thanked me…for GRAMMAR!”), and I usually have a hard time falling asleep because I’m so jazzed about teaching and the world and life in general. It’s not a bad way to start the week.
This most recent Monday was my last class, and I couldn’t have asked for a better send-off. It was downright Chinese. The students were so generous with their hugs and their thanks, wishing me the best in my marriage and a happy life in Argentina. The volunteer coordinator sent me home with two sage plants- one for me, one for Matt- because as teachers (this is my favorite part), we’re sages.