Thursday, 16 October 2008

Around The World With English

Years ago when I was in graduate school, I did my practice teaching in a school where the student body was largely Hispanic and Indochinese. I taught beginning English to fifty-three adults, and one of the skills included in almost every lesson was how to extend short, informal invitations. One morning when I'd told the class to work in pairs, inviting each other to a block party, I listened in on two men, one from Vietnam, the other from Nicaragua, who were working together. I heard the following conversation:

"So you can come, yes-no?"

"I can come yes, thank you so much. Wife okay come too?"

"Of course wife okay and childrens too! All family is welcome!"

"What foods we bring?"

"Not bring anything! Bring yourself only!"

At first, I thought these men had merely improvised a script, but then I realized that their communication was the real deal. Ngoc Bao was inviting Jorge Perez to a family party. It might sound odd, but this gave me a huge thrill: a man from Vietnam and another from Nicaragua had become friends in my class and were using English -- their new lingua franca -- to communicate. What a great job I had.

Not long after this, I found myself learning Japanese in a small town. At first, I was nervous about speaking Japanese with Japanese people. I worried that they were monitoring my language for infelicities -- that they would look at my face and concentrate on the fact that I was different, not what I was saying. I gravitated towards other foreigners who were also learning Japanese: Brazillians, Chinese and Koreans, in particular. They didn't speak English and I didn't speak their languages, so there was no choice but to speak Japanese to communicate with each other. Our conversations were never at a high level and sometimes we reinforced each other's awful mistakes, but we never worried about the embarrassing faux pas we might be making. In fact, whenever we did make these, we shared them around and had a good laugh. We were all in the same boat.

Teaching English in Japan, I missed the multi-cultural multi-linguistic make-up of the classes. Almost all my classes were 100% Japanese, but the odd foreigner could really liven things up: a homogenous group of Japanese students in an English class will quickly lapse back into Japanese when the going gets tough and the teacher's back is turned; put in someone from Indonesia or France, and it is almost miraculous how quickly the brighter students will start speaking in English even after the teacher has left the classroom. Suddenly the students see the purpose to what they are doing. They see that studying English isn't just a painful exercise in futility, yet another tiresome chore to cram into an already too-busy schedule. Suddenly they can talk to people they might never have been able to communicate with if they did not share a language, however tenuously. They aren't just parroting nonsense; English is clearly the means to an end -- and an interesting end, too.

Before we got here, I had the idea that our students would be all Turkish-speaking. I pictured a group of the kind of Turks I have tucked away in my horrible bag of stereotypes: the men, swarthy and well-fleshed, smoking, six paces ahead of their modest, head-scarf-wearing womenfolk. In fact, many of our students are Turkish speakers, but they are hardly anything like the shadowy characters I pictured. And there are plenty of people from so many other countries here: Iran, Nigeria, Vietnam, Kuwait, Kazahkstan -- and many more. Every day, I hear conversations in the corridors that make me want to smile, cry, laugh out loud. Every day I hear honest-to-God communication between the most fascinating -- and unlikely -- groups of people. I could write about this country, these people, and the interesting combinations they fit into until hell froze over and I could not possibly do them justice.

But I'll give it my best shot anyway.

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21 comments:

Kim Ayres said...

Sounds like you've hit a goldmine for stories with your new location. Hope life's treating you and the family well :)

Christy said...

This reminds me of two friends - Seta and Qin. My husband works in a medical school lab and so often works with people from all around the world. Seta is Bulgarian and Qin is American. They hit it off the first time they met. The only problem is that both women have very heavily accented English. So they'd spell everything to each other, in English.

"You like nachos? N-A-C-H-O-S?"
"Yes! With peppers! P-E-P-P-E-R-S!"
"OK! We share order!"

It was both touching and hilarious.

Christy said...

Oh sorry! It's a little early. Qin is American now, but she's Chinese by birth.

Tigermama said...

I was at a function yesterday attended by a room full of women from various countries. It was exactly as you described! I found my self "translating" between my Japanese friend and a woman from Korea using the simplist of English. It was fun and so very entertaining.

Have you settled in to your new life?

Charles Gramlich said...

A wonderful post. You must feel like you're really accomplishing something here, helping people who were isolated make connections through language. Very cool.

Robin said...

What a cool post. You really bring the experience alive. I'm fantasizing about foreign countries now, only in my fantasy I'm not teaching English, I'm eating a lot of food. (I even ate the cake in your trunk.)

AnneB said...

[Sorry, everyone, but until Mary gets her internet groove back, we'll all just have to communicate with her this way.]

Mary, replying to your reply on the previous post, I am not letting myself start a blog until I finish the WIP, and while I'm past the half-way mark, I'm still far, far from where I should be.

But I have a killer name that was not yet in use the last time I checked, I've narrowed the choice of blogging services down to two, figured out about Sitemeter if I go with Blogger instead of TypePad so....maybe by the end of the year.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Can't wait to read more about your experiences, it sounds fascinating and makes me yearn to travel.

Angela said...

Wow--when I think of all the cultures you've experienced, it blows my mind!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Life is pretty complicated right now for a lot of reasons, but we are all hanging in there. And you are right: this really is a goldmine for stories. I've gone around with an amazed and delighted look on my face for most of the time I've been here (when I'm not trying to teach or get someone to deliver our water).

Christy -- Seta and Qin sound great and I wish I could overhear some of their conversations. I used to have some pretty hilarious conversations in Japanese with the Thai women who lived nearby in our neighborhood in Japan, or the Brazilians I went to Japanese language school with. Japanese people who overheard us used to give us the weirdest looks, but we generally understood one another.

Tigermama -- We're settling in pretty well, thank you, though there are a lot of headaches, as I'm sure you can imagine all too well!

Encourage your friends to learn English so they won't need you as an interpreter! But if they have to live in Beirut for a long time, I'm guessing they won't need much encouragement to learn English.

Charles -- When the students I'm teaching manage to really connect with one another, it's great. Sometimes, though, the teaching is much like teaching everywhere: a long, hard slog. Still, I wouldn't trade my job for any other -- especially when I get to overhear such incredible conversations.

Robin -- You'd have a tough time here! There's such great food in this country, and I must write about that one of these days. One of the things I really love is the baclava, dripping with butter and honey, crunchy with pistachios or walnuts -- there are so many varieties of it everywhere I go, and all so enticing. I try to ignore it, but it calls out to me so...

Anne -- Good for you -- at least you've made a stab at starting a blog! I can't say that I'm tempted to drive here; there are other ways of getting around -- mainly the little vans that will take you almost anywhere, shared taxis -- and good old Shank's mare. My WIPs have all been put on the shelf, but I'm hoping I can get started rewriting them next month. By which time I'm assured I won't feel so miserable sitting with a warm laptop on my lap...

Anonymous -- Thank you for commenting, and I'm glad my experiences sound interesting. Now I'm intrigued as to who you are...

Angela -- Compared to the experiences of some of my colleagues who really have lived in incredibly interesting, sometimes out-and-out dangerous, places, my own experiences seem tame. But I'm still glad you like them!

Eryl Shields said...

Can't wait to hear more.

Carolie said...

I'm so glad you are posting again. You inspire me, and usually bring a tear to my eye or a lump to my throat (those are compliments, honest!)

What a lovely story! I'm so grateful here that the folks in my reading club are so thoughtful...though I'm the ONLY American and the ONLY one who does not speak Japanese, they almost never lapse into Japanese in my presence. If someone does, he or she is usually subtly signalled to switch back to English, for my sake. Sometimes, in class, one will ask permission in a very apologetic way, to turn to Japanese, if something I've explained has gotten through to all but one student -- but they immediately switch back, and always apologize for having spoken in Japanese.

I did get your e-mail, and aim to reply shortly. Still recovering from Mom's visit!

Linda D. (sbk) said...

What a fun story! I've been away far too long. I'm so glad to be back and reading about all your adventures. :D

ChrisEldin said...

This is one of my favorite posts! I can picture this--people from different places coming together, trying to talk in fractured English. This truly sounds rewarding!!!

LOL at your stereotypical Turkish man. Sounds a bit Lawrence of Arabia...
;-)

Tabitha said...

Glad you are posting again. I've missed them. :)

Whenever my in-laws come to visit, their english improves tenfold simply because they have to speak it to the people here. And when I go to India, my understanding of Tamil (their native language) drastically improves because that's all I hear.

I totally agree that learning other lanuguages is a fantastic thing. :) I've started both my kids on Spanish, and my husband speaks to them in Tamil, too.

Kappa no He said...

Me, too. I can't wait to hear more stories. What an absolutly fascinating life you lead!

Katie Alender said...

Ha ha, that's how I felt about Esperanto a few years ago. I love the use of languages to bridge a third-party gap... it zings me right in a little joy center in my brain.

I was very surprised in Turkey to see that not only were the headscarved women rare, but that tank tops and shorts prevailed in many areas of the city. Oftentimes, we, the tourists, were more conservatively dressed than the locals.

debra said...

me, three. More stories, Mom......
p-l-e-a-s-e

Merry Monteleone said...

Mary,

I can't wait until your connection is more regular and my blogging time is more plentiful... I miss you.

Are you sure you don't want to write a memoir - I'd definitely buy it, you're stories are so amazing.

This reminds me of one of my best friend's parents. They are the cutest couple ever invented. They both came to America right after WWII. Her mother from Germany. Her father is Slovak. Neither spoke the others' language, or English... it's amazing to me that they even found ways to communicate, let alone fall in love... but they did. They learned English together and taught each other snippets of each others' language. They have stories about hiding next to trees and behind bushes to hear regular Americans talk and try to learn pronunciation...

Married more than fifty years with three kids and three grandkids and they still dance at parties and hold hands watching tv... maybe there's something to that experience, because it sure seems to build a fast and ever lasting bond.

Ello said...

Mary, wonderful post! I love the message here and what a wonderful reason to teach. To bring a medium for everyone to communicate with one another!

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Thank you -- I can't wait to write more, but I've been having internet problems like you can't imagine...

Carolie -- People here launch into Turkish around me all the time and I long to be able to understand! I keep feeling so wistful when I remember living in Japan; all that work to learn the language and now I have to start all over again. Still, it's an adventure! Or so I keep reminding myself.

Linda -- I've been away for ages too! I'm having a real struggle finding the free time to post. Hope it gets better for both of us!

Chris -- Glad you like that stereotype; I have oodles of them, I'm sorry to say. I toyed with the idea of not admitting this, then thought, what the hell, out with all of it. But yes, this is a rewarding job. Just wish I had the time to write about it too.

Tabitha -- Good for you, working to keep up your kids' use of Tamil! I've got several Tamil-speaking students now, and I'm hoping that being around Turkish speakers I will eventually pick up some Turkish. But this is a long, hard slog and I think I'd better start taking lessons when I can. Ah, for the days when I had more time than I needed.

Kappa -- Come on, your own life is easily this interesting or more so! How is the stone sculpting going? I really do intend to get around to reading everyone's blogs!

Katie -- Compared to over 80% of my students, I too look pretty drab. Of course, I'm a heck of a lot older, so that's only natural, but even when I was their age, I'd have dressed more conservatively. I do have a couple of head-scarfed students; I really pity them on hot days.

Debra -- More stories are on their way as soon as I can find the time to get them written!

Merry -- I love stories like that. When we were in Scotland, we met a French/English couple who'd had much the same background. They got married when they were both 19 and had been together over 53 years. Neither one could speak the other's language when they got married, but both of them were perfectly bilingual by the time their children were in school. I suspect that not all multicultural combinations have such happy endings, but it's wonderful when they do. I wish I had students like that; they wouldn't have to hide behind trees to hear natural conversation in my classes!

Ello -- I feel this way too. Even after a week of solid classes full of boisterous yobos, I can still feel like this when I hear different non-native English speakers engaged in friendly conversation. And it's pretty interesting to hear them quarrel, too...