Saturday, 2 February 2008

The Complete Beginner

The young woman waiting for me in the hallway looked up fearfully as I approached. The clipboard I was carrying with the interview sheet on it obviously made her nervous: she could not take her eyes off it. Sitting down across from her, I smiled, and she tried to smile back, but it was a vain effort. She was far too nervous. A good-looking man approached us and said something to the woman in rapid Italian. She looked up at him and nodded, her lips compressed, her hands clenched in her lap -- but she made no answer. The man gave her an exasperated look, turned on his well-shod heel, and went to wait in the adjoining lobby.

"Let's see, you're Alessia, is that right?"

She stared at me in horrified confusion. I tried again.

"I'm probably saying it wrong," I ventured, pronouncing her name again as best I could. She suddenly realized what I was saying and nodded vigorously.

"Alessia," she breathed, turning her name into poetry.

"That's a pretty name," I told her. Again, she looked up at me in complete ignorance.

"Have you been in Japan long?" I asked her, as gently and slowly as I could. I knew that I must sound patronizing, but I had to speak slowly: Alessia's English obviously wasn't up to much.

"Japan," she whispered, nodding.

"How long have you been here?" I asked.

Alessia stared at me helplessly, dismay written all over her face. I could see her nose and eyes beginning to redden ever so slightly. She shook her head and bit her bottom lip.

"Where are you from?" I asked slowly.

"Italy," she managed to say. I decided not to attempt to find out where in Italy; Alessia could probably speak some English, but she was in such a state of nerves that there was no way she would be able to manage this until she relaxed.

The good-looking man had been watching our interview from the lobby with growing impatience. I quickly wrote Complete beginner on Alessia's file -- she had already failed the most basic preliminary written test -- and the man got up to join us.

"How did she do?" he asked me in fluent English, frowning at Alessia, who would not meet his eyes.

"She'll need to start in our complete beginners' class," I told him.

Letting out a strangled sound, the man made an exasperated gesture, his face incredulous. He turned in fury toward Alessia, but he didn't need to say anything: she was already crying. Staring resolutely down at her lap, she sat huddled and wretched, the tears dropping heavily onto her still-clenched hands.

I steered the man away from her. "Everyone has to start somewhere," I said.

"But this is ridiculous! Complete beginner -- pah!" The man threw his hands up in irritation.

"She was nervous. It's hard to speak a foreign language when you're nervous," I pointed out, wishing I could add And the fact that you're an asshole isn't helping a bit.

The man rolled his eyes and gave me a dark look. "Nervous!" he spat out. "She has had English classes before! She should not be a complete beginner!"

I pitied Alessia from the bottom of my heart. Newly married to this awful man, she had been in Japan for almost two weeks and did not know a soul.

"When is the complete beginners' class?" the man snarled, glancing at his wife in exasperation.

"I'm teaching one this afternoon," I said, "and there are others if that one isn't convenient."

I watched as Alessia and her husband went to sign her up for the complete beginners' class. My class had already met once and they seemed like a nice bunch, but I had real misgivings about Alessia joining them. Italian students often did not blend in with our largely Japanese student body. In one class, I'd had a lively, sophisticated 40-something bank employee from Rome with five timid high school students and two deadly boring businessmen, and in another I'd had a jokey, quirky gay lad from Brindisi with a handful of over-worked engineering students. The Italian students had never really felt comfortable, and I failed to establish a relaxed atmosphere condusive to learning in either class. Although a few teachers with Italian-Japanese mixes reported good experiences, this had not been the norm. And poor Alessia was already doubly an outsider: she couldn't speak English or Japanese. I could picture Alessia as a permanent onlooker in my complete beginners class, watching wistfully as the mainly middle-aged ladies bonded, trading amusing asides in Japanese to cover their embarrassment and insecurity -- and completely ignoring her.

Sure enough, Alessia ended up in my class that very afternoon. As I took roll, I watched the ladies sizing her up. They took in her rather gauche clothes, her stiffened posture and red, swollen face. I saw two women trading surreptitious looks, their eyes flickering in her direction.

Then something amazing happened.

Every woman in that room took to Alessia. It was as if an injured baby animal had landed in their midst, and they, as mother hens, made an unspoken pact to protect and nurture her. They took turns sitting at her table, gently and adroitly drew her out of her shell, and clearly delighted in being able to understand the few things she finally managed to say. In no time this tearful, miserable young woman had been transformed into a happy, giggling girl.

Mrs Fujita found out that Alessia was from a small town in Northern Italy. Keiko Tanaka reported that Alessia had gotten married in a church that was five hundred years old and had promised to bring her wedding pictures to the class to show them. Tiny Mrs Sakamoto invited her to lunch with them before the next class met, in a week's time.

When she left the classroom, Alessia was speaking in English. Short little sentences, but English, nevertheless.

"Buy this in Roma!" I heard her telling Mrs Fujita, holding up her leather handbag.

"Ooh, shopping in Roma! Lucky, lucky!" chirped Mrs Fujita. "Very nice, pretty bag! Expensive?"

"Not much money!" Alessia confided laughingly.

Her husband, waiting for her, looked at her in amazement.

"She was just nervous," I told him. "Her English will pick up in no time."

And wonderfully enough, it did.


debra said...

What a gift for all who were there, Mary. I have always told my children that sometimes the quietest people have the most to say. You just have to take the time to listen.

Charlie said...

Another great human interest story, Mary.

Kim Ayres said...

I do love your writing, Mary :)

Gorilla Bananas said...

A nice story which reflects well on Japanese women. Perhaps mothers are truly alike in all parts of the world.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- Once she got going, Alessia had plenty to say. Somewhere I still have a photo of her class taken on the last day in the semester. Alessia, sandwiched between two of her beaming classmates, has a big, wide grin on her face. Looking at that picture always cheers me up.

Charlie -- Thank you, Charlie. I've got a pile of laundry up past my knees and a pounding headache, but these comments are making me feel better.

Kim -- Aw, shucks, Kim, thank you. No wonder I started a blog. Did I mention being a glutton for praise?

GB -- I like to think that becoming mothers makes us kinder and more generous, but sadly this is not always the case. Still, the women in Alessia's class were a lovely bunch.

Sarah said...

I empathize, with both of you!

It was so painful to move to a country where NO one speaks English and I couldn't speak the language. A native, with only a 3rd grade education helped me and I was speaking within 5 months.

The belief that someone can learn a language--from the locals, other expats, teachers etc. makes all the difference in the world. It is much harder to learn a language when the locals believe you can't.

I'm glad you had a great class, that you made a difference and that you were able to make students comfortable.

Katie Alender said...

What a sweet story!

Carolie said...

You've done it again, Mary...brought tears to my eyes! Thank you for a lovely and shining story.

Ello said...

AWesome story! I would have loved to have been there.

And sorry to hear about the rough times, Mary, but I'm glad to give you a smile. And don't worry about the cranes!

Mary Witzl said...

Sarah -- I know exactly what you mean. Every non-Asian student of Japanese (and a few Asian ones too) experiences the phenomenon of speaking to Japanese people in their own language only to have them reply that they cannot understand English. My accent is good -- I am routinely mistaken for a Korean on the telephone (Koreans tend to learn Japanese quite well)-- but my face always throws people. While this is funny at first, it gets tiresome pretty quick. I can imagine that you must have gone through the same thing learning Icelandic, which I have heard can be hard, given the attitude of the natives.

And pretty soon you'll start learning Chinese! Just think of the great stories you will be able to tell...

Katie -- Thank you! Plenty more where that came from, I'm afraid.

Carolie -- Thank you for that nice compliment! The truth is, I got so choked up seeing those ladies warm up to Alessia that my own eyes used to tear up whenever I took roll. I felt like an idiot, but it really touched me. Once, I heard two of them discussing her husband in the hallway. They knew he was a jerk and clearly sympathized with her.

Ello -- Those little illustrations you did of yourself absolutely cracked me up! So did what you wrote on Chris' post: I love it that you seem to be impossible to gross out. As a kid, I used to have a hard time with other girls: all of them were so easy to disgust, squealing and pinching their noses at the sight of a squashed bug or a bit of dog poo. I was the only girl who was able to eat lunch directly after dissecting a frog. Unfortunately, I could barely see my sandwich for my tears.

The Quoibler said...

Perhaps you should have taught her the words "divorce" and "a&^hole"? That husband makes me cringe.

Thank goodness she had you and the other ladies to turn to!

Phil said...

Enjoyed the read - as I always do. I only wish I'd been more interested in languages when I was at school. I hated it then, but they fascinate me now. Still practising a little Greek. I find it hard but fun. Also polishing my school boy French. Not so hard, but I'm still at a very low level.


ChristineEldin said...

This made me cry. I love your vignettes very much.
I picture this woman's husband just strangling the life out of her. I already feel sorry for the children (if there are any.)

Carole said...

I loved this story. You have people watching skills down to a fine science.

Mary Witzl said...

Quoibler -- Alessia's husband really was pretty awful. She was so young, too, and so out of her depth that I felt for her all the more.

I got through an entire semester without making any disparaging comments to or about her husband -- at least not in the class -- and what an exercise in restraint!

Phil -- Lately we've rented French and German tapes and tried to learn from them, and I really enjoy this. I can't speak any German, and my French is not too much past the Ou-est- le-bibliotheque? level in spite of years of study, but I still like trying. Like you, I needed to get out of school to start enjoying languages, though.

Christine -- Thank you for the nice compliment. Part of me wants to imagine that Alessia went on to have a lot of fine, strapping kids who loved her and defended her against her obnoxious, unsupportive husband. But then part of me is too damned optimistic for my own good...

I still think of you as Church Lady. But I'm doing my best to get my head around 'Christine.' Gee, I sound so seventies, don't I?

Carole -- Thank you for liking my story; it means a lot to me.

Being a teacher gave me almost unlimited opportunities for people watching. But being a minister's wife must offer some good chances for this too, I am betting!

The Anti-Wife said...

I love this story and the way you wrote it. You have a wonderful gift with words.

Kara said...

so the moral here is...

husbands are bad.


Susan Sandmore said...

What a lovely story. I hope you taught her a lot of good names to call hubby. Heh.

Language study and accents fascinate me (maybe because my Dad ran the university's language lab when I was a kid?). As a young adult, I went to Ireland for a summer to live/work. I taught myself some Irish from tapes. The friends I made there found it so amusing that I could say useful things like "The man on the sidelines is the best hurler."

Carolie said...

Mary...check out my cousin's new blog! (She's the sweet young thing married to my husband's cousin, actually...)

I had no idea any of my friends and family listened when I said "go visit Mary's blog" but she did...and she's blogged about her reaction to your prejudice story. Just thought you might like to visit her at

Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife -- Thank you for those kind words!

Kara -- Not all husbands are bad, and most of the time they greatly resemble their unmarried selves. You can get a pretty good idea of what sort of husband a man will become by looking at his father, but this is only a very rough guide. Alessia chose her husband when she was very young, and this is hardly wise. I couldn't even pick out decent trousers when I was her age, from the photographs I've seen. Your Kansas sounds like reasonable husband material. See how well he fares in Hungary and Romania.

Susan -- I never taught Alessia bad words to call her husband, but I used subtle means to discredit him whenever possible. He spoke very good English, but once in a while he gave her advice about grammar that wasn't 100%. I'm afraid I wasn't above smiling sweetly and telling her that he was wrong. She loved it.

"The man on the sidelines is the best hurler" sounds like a useful thing to know in Irish, and the sort of phrase I'd want to have command of!

Carolie -- You've got relatives who actually listen to you? My envy of you is complete!

Thank you for publicizing my blog. I visited Susie's blog and commented. She reviewed a book I have been meaning to read for months now -- Greg Mortenson's 'Three Cups of Tea' -- and now that I've read her review I will absolutely have to buy it and read it.

Beloved said...

This was beautiful and so timely for me. I have a brand new middle school student who has very low English language proficiency. Unfortunately, my Spanish proficiency is even lower! Lot of good those high school French classes are doing me now. :(

Anyway, I love working with this boy. It makes my day the way his face lights up when I come to rescue him from his mainstream class for an English lesson. I imagine he's thinking, "Yes! Now I get an hour of someone who understands me," because even though he has little English language, (as you well know) there are so many other ways to communicate.

Eryl Shields said...

Great story Mary. Did Alessia learn to speak Japanese too? I really hope so.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mary,
I see Carolie put in a plug for my terrifying that you've read it, haha. I'm excited I found someone great to read, so thanks and keep up the good work and touching stories. Enjoy the book and let me know what you think.
Have a great day :) Susie

Sam, Problemchildbride said...

You have the most wonderfully inspiring stories to tell, Mary. It is truly a pleasure to get to read them. That was beautiful.

My God, I wanted to stab that horrible man in the ear with a fork.

Mary Witzl said...

Beloved -- I can imagine how satisfying it is to teach your beginner, and as I am no longer teaching, I envy you a little. Almost every other ESL/EFL teacher I've ever worked with has agreed: teaching beginners is hard, but it is the most rewarding. Beginners have such joy at being able to say anything. They haven't slogged through the hard work yet, haven't plateaued and developed the cynicism that long-term language students get. Their enthusiasm and pleasure in learning are genuinely moving and inspiring. Then they become intermediate -- sigh. It's a little like raising kids.

Eryl -- I don't think Alessia did learn Japanese, as she had all she could do with English -- and her awful husband, who struck me as the type who would demand dinner at a certain hour and find fault with everything she did.

Susie -- I went to Ottakar's (our local bookstore) yesterday and asked for this book. They didn't have it and told me that the title 'did not ring a bell.' When I told them a little about it, the clerk nodded and said, 'Oh -- it's American.' Hmmm. I wanted so badly to point out that there were quite a few Danielle Steeles on the shelves, and she's American. I probably spelled her name wrong. Hope I did.

Sam -- It is so encouraging to me that people liked this story or are prepared to say they did! I have dozens of these from teaching, and this one in particular always cheers me up just to remember. What is especially nice about relating this story is that I finally have the chance to give Alessia's husband the roasting he so thoroughy deserved at the time. Back then, the only people I could tell this to were a handful of other teachers and my own budding Neandrathal soon-to-be husband, who is actually quite a feminist, despite the hair pulling thing.

-eve- said...

Oh, this is a good story! Very encouraging.... :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Eve. Seeing people treating each other kindly has always encouraged me too.