Found in translation

Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 6:06pm

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Illustration by Anjali Alangaden

In a fit of extreme agitation the night before our first class, I haphazardly threw together another three lesson plans. Anxiety meant that sleep was improbable and creating increasingly incoherent worksheets honestly seemed like the best option. The next day, I would meet my group of English as a Second language adult learners, the people I’d spend the next four months tutoring through a local non-profit called Washtenaw Literacy.

I had first learned about this organization from a guest lecturer the previous semester, and immediately considered it as an opportunity to expand my worldview and actually use some of my linguistics major. Finally getting a class should have been an exciting prospect, except that I knew precisely nothing about my students. What languages would they speak? What level would I teach? Could they respect me, or even like me?

It was that last question that haunted me most. Because, why should they respect me? Each had left behind familiarity in search of something better. They had come to an unfamiliar country with sparse English skills and no guarantee of success, buoyed a hope that somehow things would work out.

Meanwhile, I was a kind-of sheltered college kid who had never lived more than 25 miles from my childhood home in Dearborn. There was no question that I would be younger than every single one of my learners. Sure I had a few months of training and observation to fall back on, but realistically, what could I offer them?

In the 30 minutes before the start of the session, my table filled with people from seven different countries. So many students at the table, but somehow the silence was absolutely deafening. Doing my best to feign confidence, I took a deep breath and introduced myself. I mean, how bad could it be?

It took only about three minutes for me to realize that it could, in fact, be very bad. I had spent all night making plans, but somehow every single one was either too complex or patronizingly easy. Every attempt to spark conversation fell flat, and I had somehow lost the ability to speak in full sentences. After a painful 90 minutes, class ended and I retreated to my car to shed some frustrated tears.

As defeated as that first lesson left me, I had committed to four months of tutoring and so I dragged myself back to class just a couple days later. This lesson wasn’t much better. It was difficult to create engaging materials and facilitating conversations seemed nearly impossible.

However, as I got to know these learners — their interests, their life stories, their families — our sessions improved. People actually spoke to each other and I got a better gauge of their proficiency. Every time I managed to clarify some grammatical quirk or found the perfect explanation for a ridiculous idiom, I felt a tiny thrill of triumph. I hoarded every single one of those little moments of success until they slowly became the norm.

It’s impossible to pinpoint when exactly things changed, but somewhere in that first month, our ESL classes went from excruciatingly uncomfortable to the best part of my week. I found myself noting down reading topics of interest or getting excited over potential speaking activities. So when my initial four months were up, I quickly committed to more, knowing many of my original learners would return. Now, nearly two years later, my time as a tutor draws to a close and I find myself reflecting often on this remarkable group of people.

While I am ostensibly the teacher, I’ve never truly felt the role. Rather, each ESL session teaches me something entirely original or encourages me to reevaluate my own viewpoints. Maybe I’m a little delusional, but I really think there’s something kind of magical about these sessions. Though the membership of this group is somewhat fluid — new students join, veteran ones move — the breakdown almost doesn’t matter. No matter who shows up each week, the groups somehow manage to transform our corner of a borrowed classroom into a full-on international summit —  with each student contributing a unique viewpoint and background.

In our sessions, things like age, nationality and education maybe don’t disappear, but they do become remarkably insignificant. A seasoned Japanese software developer and a young German homemaker chat about American civics, commiserating over the absurdities of the English language. Facilitating these interactions isn’t always simple, but I’ve gained some key lessons along the way.

Silences can be awkward but almost never as bad as you think. Sure there are a few moments of panic when I ask a question and get only blank stares in response. But I’ve learned that blank stares rarely signal blank minds. There’s great value to moments of consideration, in navigating a restricted vocabulary when your thoughts are so much more complex.

It’s also given me an even greater appreciation for the resilience of each learner. Uprooting your life to move to another country is terrifying, to say the least. Doing it with limited language skills and without a guarantee of happiness seems almost unthinkable. Although hearing their stories of daily frustration and prejudice sometimes leaves me furious, I know each of these incidents just fuels to the determination to learn.

As important as English fluency is, some things transcend language altogether. In many ways, I only know my learners in the most superficial manner. Per policy, we have no contact outside of our sessions — no phone numbers or email addresses have been exchanged. Our relationship is built on just three hours of interaction each week.

Despite the language barrier, I sometimes feel that they know me as well as my closest friends. They wish me luck before every exam (and often give me advice on improving my study skills!), ask after my family and even bring remedies when I routinely turn up sick. In the same vein, two years has taught me countless things about each student. I know the foods they miss most from back home, which subjects their children struggle with and their goals for the future.

If this reads a little bit like a love letter to my ESL group, that’s because it is. Teaching ESL is simultaneously one of my most meaningful experiences and the one I find hardest to define. As graduation and my inevitable move out of Ann Arbor get ever closer, I can only thank this group for not immediately ditching me during that disastrous first month, for sending me off with new knowledge and perspectives, and for so many moments of appreciation and joy.