English Lessons: We are what we say

Outside the Forbidden City

In case you may be thinking that now that recess supervision isn’t happening, I’ve run out of grist for the blog mill, it’s not so. I’m now busy visiting schools  to catch up on what’s going on.  My visits are often just as enlightening and entertaining as a full stint of recess.

I recently stopped at Blundell Elementary School, and got a chance to be toured around by principal Don Dixon and Marta Batory, who works with Continuing Education There’s a lot going on at Blundell, including several nearby classrooms of adult English classes.  These classes are offered under English Language Services for Adults (ELSA), and that’s where Marta comes in.  Marta and her team are supported by two SWIS workers, Clara Avandano and Ping Chu, who work directly with adult students to ease their settlement process.  ELSA provides more than English lessons to new immigrants. Students learn about Canadian laws, health care and many other things that ease the way for newcomers.

As I toured through these classes, I was greeted with everything from a round of shy smiles to a cheerful “No problem,” when I asked to take a picture.

This made me feel more than humble.  I’d  just gotten back from a business trip to China during spring break, and I had to work with the limitations of my Mandarin, which  consists of “hello” and “thank you”.  That wasn’t a problem at first, as we were looked after by tour guides and translators through a series of meetings, school tours and discussions.  This made it easy to appreciate what we were  learning on the trip without distractions such as not being able to speak the language.  We were so swaddled in services that it was also easy for me to forget I was a foreigner until I spent a day alone in Beijing while the rest of the tour went on to Harbin.  The English was out the door with the tour, and I came face-to-face with the limitations of my Mandarin vocabulary.

The discomfort of being alone in a foreign place is a good thing, as that uneasy feeling makes space for seeing things in new ways. At the same time, a simple request, such as convincing the hotel  I was fixing to leave my broken suitcase behind, became a linguistic obstacle course.  Despite my earnest attempts to mime throwing the suitcase in the garbage can, the front desk didn’t get on board with the project.  I went to Plan B, leaving it in the room with the broken part featured, but the suitcase, broken handle flapping and trailing masking tape, mysteriously followed me everywhere, and almost made it into the taxi as I left for the airport.  I only avoided this by putting on yet another mime show. This performance made me look too crazy to mess with, so thankfully the suitcase stayed behind.

Learning at Blundell Adult Learning Centre

This small adventure made me think of  the many parents in Richmond who struggle with English as they do much more complicated things, such as register their children for school or try to communicate with their child’s teacher.  It brought back memories of the  students I worked with and how lost they were without language. The stakes are much higher than they were for me and my suitcase, and the situation more permanent.

Not having language strips away personality and limits the ways we can connect with people.  All kinds of complicated ideas and emotions get locked behind a lack of words, and we can seem less than we really are.   I’m humbled by the cheerful persistence of the ELSA students, and have renewed empathy for our many immigrant parents and students  as they struggle to be understood.

To let go of what you know is one thing.  To lose the language that lets people know you is a risk many of us wouldn’t take voluntarily.  The courage to do that deserves more respect and recognition than it sometimes gets.

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