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The Challenge of English

November 13, 2006

When I signed up to teach an all-women’s English classes with a student group here on campus, I felt very strongly that this was a turning point in my study abroad experience. I would teach! I would empower the refugee women! I would become better in Arabic! Puppies would be saved!

You get the idea, but instead of all that, I found myself hitting every single wall of my own limitations. My Arabic wasn’t strong enough to even understand the women’s questions, and new people kept shuffling in every two minutes. My teaching skills were non-existent and cribbed from overhearing many of my mom’s lessons with five and six years just learning to read. (“Sound the word out from the beginning. What sound does “c” make…”).

But this isn’t Reading Recovery. This is speaking and writing in English for women who only know an Arabic that is taught at maybe two schools in all the U.S. And being a native speaker doesn’t make you qualified to explain your own language. How for example would you explain the difference between “a”, “an” and “the” from a language that the idea of “vowels” as we understand them in English doesn’t exist? How do you explain the present tense conjugation of “to be”, when the idea is redundant in Arabic? How do you teach to a class with ages between 10 and 45? How do you make sure that they comprehend? It is every frustration I have ever experienced in learning Arabic, multiplied by my inability to provide useful instruction to women who take two and a half hours of their chaotic lives every Sunday to learn the language that by historical accident is a blessing to be born into. I was that lucky.

Two girls are from Iraq, one from Somalia, and the rest are from Sudan. What do private school university students talk about in English with women who have been forcibly removed from their homes? When we were putting all the women through assessments to place them in classes, I drew a house on the chalkboard – sun, path, flowers, the usual – and asked them to describe anything in the picture. One woman stared at the picture for several seconds before she said “A house…. Not in Africa.”

For all these obstacles, and my new found lack of confidence in teaching in my native language (conjugate to be in the present and stare at it for a few minutes – it starts to look as weird as Arabic calligraphy), the classes become better every week.

One of the most challenging parts of teaching English is trying to make sense of how words sound versus how they are spelt. As with all native languages, I understand its rules by ear, not by instruction. Much like I struggle with Arabic plural patterns (“bayte becomes booyute? What?) , the most challenging moment of tonight was the pronunciation of the word “early”. I can’t tell you why: “ear” sounds one way, and the first syllable of “early” sounds different, but they do.

This week we decided to tackle a few things. First, subject pronouns – which you all know as I, you, he, she… etc – conjugating the present tense of “to be” (am, is, are) and the idea of “-ing” verbs. Add in some vocabulary about places (theatre, pharmacy, bridge, etc) and by the end of the lesson, we hoped to get them writing sentences like “I am walking to the store”.

Fortunately, I teach the class with two other study abroad students, so we often break into groups to have conversations together. And by conversations, I mean me asking questions very slowly and coaxing answers out in English, and trying to limit the Arabic backchatter that I don’t understand. Each personality comes out pretty quickly. There is the quiet girl who speaks the best out of all of them, but is too shy do to so. There is the impatient one who taps on my arm to correct her written sentences after I have told her we are speaking together. There is the eager woman who tries so hard that she ends up stumbling on her words. They look to me to explain the intricacies of the English language, and to practice. Most of these women have years of real-world experience on me, with families and children of their own. I feel like a fraud, and yet quitting doesn’t seem productive either.

This week I’m looking for a song in English that is simple enough for them to understand. The study abroad students and I figured we can’t make them fluent in 5 weeks, so it’s not fruitful to bore them with all grammar points and conjugations. We’ll see how it goes.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2006 8:18 am

    Just remember any effort to help is more than many of them have received, and even stumbling progress is progress. You are doing a good thing, so hang in there.

  2. Mom permalink
    November 14, 2006 10:19 pm

    Tay, I am proud of your efforts to help these women. they sound like eager students. I glad to see your observations of my reading lessons may have come in handy! You understand one truth about teaching, that just because you know a subject or in this case the language it doesn’t mean it is easy to teach. Do not think you are a fraud even though these women may have life experience on you, you can learn from them and they can learn from you. I’m learing just reading your blog!
    Love Mom

  3. November 25, 2006 3:29 pm

    quitteth not! we laboured for ages to set those classes up and sign people up.


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