Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Something In Common

Angelina was from Rwanda. Her last name was long, with many syllables: when I first saw it in my advanced English class roll book, I did not read it carefully; my assumption was that she must be the European wife of a Japanese man. I got quite a surprise on the first day of class when I opened the door and saw instead a middle-aged African woman sitting among a group of Japanese students.

One of the first assignments I give my intermediate and advanced students is to tell me how they have studied English over the years, and why they want to continue. I have them do this verbally, in groups of three or four, then later in writing. This gives me not only an understanding of their learning processes and language learning history, but also a good idea of their English proficiency and motivation. It also helps students see how much they have in common: I've seen taxi drivers bond with junior diplomats over the shared experience of how little they managed to learn in their first English classes.

Most Japanese people begin learning English in middle school and carry on through high school. English isn't a popular subject: rote learning with an emphasis on grammar is the norm, and people who enjoy English are sadly a minority. Those who learn enough to hold even a simple conversation are an even greater minority.

Angelina was my first African student in Japan, and I wondered how her language learning experiences would compare with the others'. I divided the class into four groups, making sure to put Angelina in the more proficient group which included an elderly retired professor of engineering, a housewife who had lived overseas for decades, a graduate student, and a freelance photographer. As I moved from group to group, I heard virtually the same story: I started learning when I was twelve. Our classes were not interesting and our teachers were strict, but they could not speak English themselves. It was boring.

When I got to Angelina's group, though, a lively discussion was in progress. In any class, there is almost always a brief period where the students get to know each other and establish whose linguistic skill is superior. In this group it was obvious that Angelina had won hands-down; you could tell by the way the others were beginning to defer to her. Kinue, for all her fluency acquired from years overseas, was obviously second fiddle.

"My junior high class was one of the biggest in Tokyo," said Minoru, the photographer. "Over forty kids -- too big for an English class."

Angelina frowned. "There were over fifty in my class."

Everyone turned to look at Angelina. She had certainly done well for herself, considering.

"Twenty years ago, Japanese English textbooks were poor," observed Kinue, the housewife. "My children's English textbooks make me envious: so colorful -- so many photographs and pictures!"

"We had just one textbook. It was adequate, but it was very old," Angelina responded.

I leaned closer. Angelina's English was accented, but grammatically near-perfect; surely she had made a mistake...

"Don't you mean they were?" murmured Minoru, reading my mind.

She looked mildly annoyed. "No. I mean it. We had one book."

"You mean you used one book throughout the course?" I prodded. "But everyone had a copy, right?"

Angelina narrowed her eyes. "No. I mean that the class had one book in total."

Kinue's chin dropped. "But you said there were over fifty students!"


"And you had one book?" queried Akio, the retired professor.

"Yes. We each got a turn copying it. That book was very important to us."

"During the War, we had very few things too," Akio mused. "Books were very important..." Angelina looked at him with interest.

This conversation fascinated me, but I was aware that time was slipping away and I wanted the shyer, less articulate students to get a chance to speak. "What about you, Mayumi?" I asked the graduate student.

She ducked her head. "My family and I lived in Mexico. I studied English there, but I also studied Spanish."

"How wonderful! So you speak three languages?"

She smiled and nodded.

"How many languages do you speak?" Akio asked Angelina.

She pursed her lips, thinking. "Kinyarwanda and French."

"And English," murmured Akio in awestruck tones.

"Yes," agreed Angelina in an offhand manner.

Minoru looked delighted. "Parlez-vous francais?" he quipped. Angelina's smile was frosted with noblesse oblige.

"I wish I could have spent more time on English," said Kinue a little defensively, "but after my children were born, I was so busy!"

Angelina turned to her. "How many children do you have?"

"Three," said Kinue proudly. "Do you have children?"

Angelina nodded.

"How many?" came the inevitable response.


There was a brief silence while we all absorbed this.

"Are they with you here in Tokyo?" I asked.

She shook her head. "Oh no, they are back in Rwanda."

"In school?"

"Yes, the younger ones are."

"And they are okay without their mother?" Kinue wanted to know.

Angelina looked surprised. "Of course they are. They are at school."

"African peoples expect to learn English," observed Akio thoughtfully. "Japanese use their own language, so they do not expect to learn English."

Angelina considered this. "In my country, we use our own language too -- everyone knows Kinyarwanda. But French is our official language now, not English. We know that we cannot speak Kinyarwanda to others all over the world. But in many countries, they do not speak French, they speak English. So we must learn English too."

By now, the rest of the groups had finished and everyone was listening to Angelina. "What were your classes like?" a woman at the next table asked.

"Well, they were large, as I have said. And we did not have a proper classroom. We had to share one book and we also had only five pencils."

"Each?" asked a man. Five pencils didn't seem so bad.

Angelina shook her head. "No, our class had five pencils. We all shared them."

"Five pencils for fifty students?" asked another student in hushed tones.


"What about your teachers? Were they strict?"

"Oh my, yes. They used to beat us when we did not learn." Angelina smiled as though recalling precious memories.

By now, I felt a little nervous. It was true that the entire class was fascinated by Angelina: given her background -- so much more deprived than anyone else's -- her superior English fluency was staggering; you could see this reflected in every face. But she was so completely out of their realm that I feared they would never bond with her. She was far and away the most fluent English speaker in the class, she spoke two other languages, and she had raised eight children who were obviously self sufficient. Superwoman might be interesting, but who wants to be her buddy? For the rest of the class period, I worried about this, watching as the others treated Angelina with cool deference.

A few days later, I walked into the class and interrupted a conversation between Akio and Angelina. "...never enough food to eat," Akio was saying. "We were always so hungry! And if anything broke, we had to fix it. And my grandchildren, if they break something, always buying new one!"

"Children today do not understand," Angelina commiserated, "even in my country."

Thank God they had found something in common.


adrienne said...

Wow, what a fascinating background. How funny that throughout the world, and probably history, grown-ups can relate to how much easier kids have it today!

Charles Gramlich said...

When learning is hard, it can become a hunger that must be fed.

Kim Ayres said...

Wonderful, Mary :)

Jacqui said...

I am left with the question: how did Angelina learn such fluent English? And did the sparse resources in her class somehow make learning seem more valuable?

marshymallow said...

Whiny children, bringing the world together one aggravated adult at a time...

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- When all else fails, this is at least one thing that a lot of adults have in common. Angelina and Akio had both known deprivation growing up, so they could certainly bond on this.

Charles -- I sometimes think that learning would be appreciated more if it were treated like the privilege it is instead of a given. The kids I teach think having to learn is a headache.

Kim -- Thank you.

Jacqui -- Whatever the case, Angelina learned English like nobody's business. It was almost funny -- how good her English was even given such difficult conditions. At the time, I assumed this was because she was a diplomat's wife and obviously the cream of the cream, intellectually. But at the school I'm working at, there are plenty of West African students, and all of them have a generally higher level of English than the other students. It does make me wonder.

MM -- You are right, and how wonderful that at least they have some uses. Though I suspect Angelina was just being nice to Akio; I'm betting her kids really towed the line.

kathie shoop said...

Yay, it's good to be back here with your wonderful stories!! Like a warm quilt on a winter day...I love coming here.

debra said...

wonderful story, mary :-)

Kara said...

i pride myself on being an ungrateful child. glad to know my selfishness promotes world peace and understanding.

(please let me have my delusion)

Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- Aw, thank you! Comments like that make it all worthwhile.

I like coming here myself because my blogging pals are so kind and I can -- temporarily! -- get away from some of my students. After whining, I find that I can go back to them a lot more sane.

Debra -- Thank you. After rereading it, I'm struck afresh by how long-winded I am, and yet people like you still come here and are nice to me. I am blessed.

Kara -- I'll bet you've furnished your parents with plenty of communication fodder; my kids have certainly done this for me and I know I've done this for mine. So step right up and join the club -- we're all in this together.

Eryl Shields said...

I have a friend from Zimbabwe who probably speaks better English than me. She tells a similar story to Angelina. I do think Charles is right, when resources are few they become precious. Also, when life is that tough you grow up determined to do something about it, when everything comes easily why bother?

A Paperback Writer said...

The man who used to teach French at the school where I teach would have loved a conversation with Angelina. He could speak 5 languages (French, English, and 3 others whose names I can no longer recall -- but they were common in the Ivory Coast). He spoke of 70 harshly disciplined boys in his class at school. He had great difficulty with the fact that the kids where we taught were not strictly disciplined at home so as to behave well in school.
I have two African students in my ESL class this year -- one from the Sudan and one from Tanzania. The Spanish-speaking students are always amazed to learn that English is the 3rd language for these kids, even though they are refugees and have had little schooling. (To be fair, I've sometimes had Mayan students from Mexico where English was their 3rd language.)
Honestly, it can make me feel ashamed for only speaking two. One of these days, I'm going to learn German. REally. I am. (in all my spare time)
I have a good ESL photo on my blog today. Drop over and have a laugh.

Robin said...

Wow! What an amazingly cool story! I can't believe how many amazing people and things you've seen. I hope your kids are kissing major butt.

Akio and Angelina were so sweet to each other. I would have been intimidated if I had been Akio, and I don't know if I would have tried so hard to find common ground. They both make me feel very humble.

The West African people must be pretty amazing. I'm tempted to move there and let the idiots over here fend for themselves.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I have only one West African student and he is a model of good discipline and politeness. During the more boisterous classes, I can see how angry the others make him; he cannot understand how they dare to ignore me or talk while I am trying to teach. I feel so sorry for him as he really makes an effort and many of the others don't. (His test score was the highest in the class and he was upset that it wasn't 100%.) I also worry that he wonders why I don't just beat the kids who are causing the disturbances. One of my colleagues, also West African, assures me that he was beaten many times during his school days and this was very much the norm. I don't want to beat my students, but it certainly seems to work.

A good ESL photo, you say? I'll be there!

Robin -- Thank you! My kids do ask me to tell certain stories they like hearing -- that's as close as they get to butt kissing, sad to say.

Angelina never thoroughly bonded with this class, but Akio retained an obvious respect and admiration for her: she was the only one who understood some of his stories of wartime deprivation. He once told me that she reminded him of what Japanese women were like before the war: resourceful, uncomplaining, and capable of holding up the sky, if necessary. Angelina made me feel like a pipsqueak.

The Quoibler said...

I couldn't help but smile at the last lines, Mary. Yes, we all have at least one thing in common--the coming generation of ne'er-do-wells, slackers and pantywaists! ha ha ha!

(Remember when WE were that generation that would do nothing? Somehow, we've survived... hee hee!)


Anne Spollen said...

I heard somewhere that English is one of the hardest languages in the world to master. Yet it seems to be growing around the world.

I tutor Spanish for American kids, and sometimes it's like pushing a chain uphill. I wonder if learning foreign languages in other countries is encouraged more than it is here in English-speaking America?

Carole said...

Absolute great story. You have a knack for hitting my heart.

Perhaps you should apply for the cushy job in Australia that is all the rage right now. Send them about three posts and you'd be relaxing on sandy beaches, making money hand over fist as we speak.

Chris Eldin said...

One of my former critique group partners taught in Kenya for a year. He has similar stories....
It is so hard to imagine this kind of life, with so much that we have.

Mary Witzl said...

Angelique -- Boy, isn't that the truth! I used to slack with the best of them myself; my mother honestly despaired. I really miss slacking now, but I've entirely lost the knack.

Anne -- Pushing a chain uphill is exactly what it feels like!

We've got hundreds of African students on our campus and all of them -- even the ones who speak French -- speak good English. Most of them never end up in the pre-academic English course, either, as their level is too high. For them, English is a tool. It's something they use on a daily basis. In America, we mainly play around with foreign languages. Few people learn them with any intent of using them to survive. We're linguistically spoiled and coddled. But then so are my young Turks.

Carole -- Thanks for that tip! I had fun applying. I figured, why not? It felt a lot like stuffing a note into a bottle and chucking it out into the ocean. Gee...I hope they don't mind that I'm American. Have you applied?

Chris -- Teaching my over-indulged young Turks has made me remember Angelina and the nonchalant way she described how she learned English. My kids have the benefit of an excellent, air-conditioned classroom and decent teachers; they are well nourished and have access to all the paper, books and writing implements they need. But they still can't learn. Angelina had close to zip-all and she emerged fully fluent. Sometimes the contrast really gets to me. I wonder what Angelina could have done given their advantages.

Gaining Back My Life said...

Another reminder of how you cannot tell a book by its' cover.

Beautiful story, as always.

Mary Witzl said...

GBML -- Thank you.

Angelina was nothing like I expected, and I know for a fact that she helped educate the rest of the class too.

Hannah said...

I would have hated to be those poor Japanese students! Man, in my French class people would be rattling off to themselves while I struggled with "Je... suis... un... Um..."
Yes, I fail at other languages.

Anyway, wonderful story! :)