Tuesday, February 18, 2014

General Assembly

In the last month I have acquired a United Nations of adult learners.  I have students from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, as well as students from Vietnam, Japan and India. I have two Chinese students and, in the last week, I have gained a Tibetan couple. From Africa, I have students representing Somalia, Ethiopia, Algeria and Morocco.  And from Europe, there is a single delegate from Turkey, a young teacher who came to America only five months ago. 

More than a quarter of Cambridge residents were born overseas, hailing from more than eighty countries.  In kitchens, studies, and living rooms across the city, families converse in sixty tongues.  But, while at home a family might chat in Creole, Cantonese or Khmer, on the streets of Cambridge they must get by in English.

Since January I have been piloting an online English class for students, sponsored by the city and a local non-profit.  Whereas the majority of immigrants seeking to improve their English can choose from a buffet of in-person classes, family-care obligations or jobs with long hours prevent many from enrolling. They have had to make do on their own – often sweeping up only a dusting of phrases.

We are designing our online program for such students – a mother with a third son still in a stroller and a young man who works long shifts as a dishwasher in a home for the elderly.  They are determined women and men who scrape together hours from around the edges of long workdays, meal preparation and diaper changes to sit in front of a computer and study the future tense.

America has long run on the determination of such immigrants.  Already I have acquired over twenty such students. 

I meet my students only once.  After they enroll, classes exist only in a virtual universe.  I watch their progress from afar, edit their writing as they submit it online and send along emails of encouragement.

My students are of all ages and their stories are as diverse.  A woman younger than me, newly married in her home country, arrived only last month; an older woman has lived in Boston for over a decade, working in cancer research and sending her daughter to Boston University.

I have many mothers in my class.  The youngest bring their children to our initial meeting – a young boy with a Thomas the Tank Engine hat, an infant with big black eyes swaddled in puffy down.  Some speak of jobs they had back in their home countries – they were kindergarten teachers and religion teachers and computer engineers. 

I am vividly reminded of when I first landed in Thailand over three years ago.  I knew only the number of words and phrases that could be crammed into an hour crash-course.  Life in that first month was distilled to the basics: how to successfully order soup with pork balls, how to tell a bus driver an address, how to haggle for a mango in the market. 

Foreigners do not often make an effort to learn Thai, which became an unanticipated boon for my own stumbling progress in the language.  Everywhere drivers and vendors encouraged my limited Thai with smiles, listening as I mangled their tones and distorted their words.  They were patient and coaxing and on more than one occasion put down a spatula to provide an impromptu Thai lesson right there on the side of the road.

I would suspect that my students have not had a similar experience on the streets of America.   We are perhaps, as a nation, not always so patient with new immigrants, not as forgiving, not as disposed to set aside time to listen to and encourage a stranger’s halting English. Rather than be excited that an immigrant can speak some English, many people take those skills for granted.

 A woman arrived at our meeting last week pushing a stroller. A round-faced boy with ruddy checks and a firm grip peered out at us.   I begin these meetings with simple questions: “Where do you live?” “When did you come to the US?” “What country did you come from?”  A student’s English level is quickly apparent and I correspondingly steer the conversation into different streams of nuance or simplicity.   Even the most basic questions were beyond this woman’s ability.  After five false starts, she handed me a cell phone and I dialed her husband, whose English was impeccable. And yet, despite lacking even rudimentary English, she had found her way to the center: she had navigated the streets and the buses. She wanted to learn.  A week later I was following her slow but steady progress online as she practiced each successive lesson.

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