14 August 2007

Speaking in Tongues

I had an interesting thing happen at the post office last week. I was there to prepare the mailing of a birthday gift to Canada. While I was standing there sorting out the forms and other information, an older woman approached me with a stack of mail. She gestured that she needed help with her mail. As it turned out, she was a native Spanish speaker (my hunch is she was from somewhere in Central America). She could sound out the words written in English on the envelopes, but didn't understand what they meant. When she discovered that I knew a bit of Spanish, she was quite happy to make me go through the entire stack of mail with her. Between my pigeon Spanish and her pigeon English, we managed rather well; however, I was clueless how to translate "air miles" and "credit card offer" into Spanish, much less the survey the postal service wanted her to complete. "Basura" (Trash), we decided for that one. Amongst her mail was her green card (I got lots of hugs from this stranger for that), some information on health insurance, and a transponder for her car window which would eliminate having to stop to pay a bridge toll. That particular piece of the conversation was a stretch to manage, mainly because I felt so naughty in the process. You see, although "coche" is "car" in Spanish, along the Tex-Mex border, it means something very different: it's a slang word for the, um, physical act of love. (Family blog, remember?) I kept expecting someone to come over and wash my mouth out with soap for telling this woman what to do with her sticker.

This experience brought a smile to my face, and also a reminder about the English Language Learners (ELL) I have had over the years. I have had only a couple of them while living in Washington. My time in the post office called to mind that particular stage in language acquisition where one may understand a great deal of the "new" language being spoken to them, but doesn't feel comfortable enough in their own facility with it to use it. This lady and I were both at that point. I understood her Spanish quite well---but I had a difficult time stringing together the right responses. My mind was a big foggy (that may have something to do with the mixing in my mind with French words). She understood my English, but didn't use many words of her own in that language.

I remember one particular ELL student I had when I taught in New Mexico. She was incredibly bright and was so frustrated with her inability to communicate. When we did labs, she followed the diagrams and pictures and was far better at problem solving issues than her partners. Ryan recently wrote about the War on the Gifted and one of the things his post called to my mind was the ineffective identification process we have in place. I tried to get this young woman tested for the gifted program to no avail: the placement tests weren't available in Spanish and no one wanted to find a way to make accommodations. I hated that this child was excluded from consideration of services merely because she hadn't become proficient in English yet.

There are some great edubloggers around who teach World Languages. (I know...we usually refer to them as "Foreign Languages," but during my early days in this district, one of the schools had a portable that had "Forign Languages" stenciled on it---and we referred to it as the "friggin' language portable." I'm trying to be more pc with the terminology.) I think that even a year or two of coursework is something which helps students expand their horizons and gives them some tools which allow them to seek to understand---not judge---other people and cultures. (Not to mention impromptu conversations at the post office.) Speaking in tongues should be an asset, not a hindrance, for our students and us.

1 comment:

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Fun story, great point.

Language study, world and mother tongue, is a great intellectual exercise. (Try thinking without words.)

I wish we put every student into an FL class...