Monday, August 8, 2016

From the Other Side

Paul T. Tucci, ESOL Teacher, Florence Brasser Elementary School, Gates Chili Central School District

You know, I used to think that my students back home were the most courageous people I knew. I thought this because they come to school every day to face unimaginable challenges while navigating in a world that doesn't speak their home language. I believed this to be true; now, I KNOW it's so.

I am blessed. I really am. Every day I welcome the world into my classroom. Well, not the entire world, but each of my students brings a piece (sometimes small, sometimes great) of his or her culture with them to school. Language is an integral part of culture and I am fortunate that my students share their cultures with me.

But, this summer I was the one who was bringing another culture (and language) into a classroom; and, it was me who would be bringing some of the culture (and language) of Siberia back to school in September. As a teacher of English as a New Language (ENL/ESL/ESOL), I have been intrigued by languages and studied a number of them, both formally and informally, over the years. As a teacher for almost 20 years (much of it in the primary grades), I've learned a lot of things about language and literacy. Certainly some of this is theory, but much of my experience comes from my work with children learning to read and write in a new language. As much as I try to do the right things based on all that I know, I've never walked in my students' shoes (i.e., learned a new language with a new alphabet in an intense classroom setting); that is, until now. After four weeks of daily Russian classes, I can safely say that I know without a doubt that my students are amazingly brave!

Each day in class, I was overwhelmed with the amount of material we would cover and be expected to learn. And, as with all great teachers, our own instructor had high expectations for each of us. She expected us to learn the material, designed lessons to aid us in learning, and believed that we would come to the next class prepared. Sometimes I felt lost in the midst of lessons or thought that there was no way I could learn the material.

However, I had one great advantage over my own students. I was able to freely communicate with my classmates (and, my instructor, as well) in English – my native language. My students back home can seldom do that. They are left to navigate the world of school on their own. And, as all of us experienced, acting things out only gets you so far. Try buying postage stamps when you can barely say the numbers. Forget about politely requesting a particular ice cream novelty from the vendor on the street. And, don't even think about trying to understand the cashier at the local supermarket who seems to be reciting an epic poem when all you're hoping to hear is a set of numbers that might represent the total of your order.

I often felt like a child who could barely communicate my wants and needs. What were shop assistants thinking? Did I cause them frustration as I struggled to find "simple" Russian words as my anxiety level went through the roof? Did I engender a sense of disgust of foreigners (who weren't able to speak Russian)? Did they become impatient with me as I couldn't even articulate the smallest of needs as the line behind me grew ever longer? In come cases, I'm sure the answer to all those questions was a resounding YES.

But, did this stop me from going out? The answer is a (somewhat) resounding NO. As uncomfortable as it was for me, I kept thinking of my students back home. They have no choice. They can't stay away from school - in the comfort of their own home and communicate in a language that they've heard from birth. They had to leave the security of their home language and face a world with sounds often quite different from their own. And, amazingly, they do it every day...and usually with a smile on their face and determination in their hearts.

So, it was with my brave students in mind that I tried to use my mediocre Russian and asked our dorm matron if she had a family. Well, it was more like stumbling through a series of brief phrases on my part that were met with sympathetic looks and simple answers. (Was it strange for her that this American guy was asking personal questions about her family? Did I use the incorrect grammatical structure and thus insult her? Who knows? I certainly don't.)

On most days, some of my colleagues and I would walk the few blocks to the university building in which our classes were held. We are inundated with Russian words ("environmental print") on the billboards, store fronts, kiosks, cars, trains, trucks, signs, posters, etc. Despite 4 weeks of this exposure and all the studying I did, I would still often pronounce the Russian letter "р" as the English "p" [it's actually "r"] or the Russian "в" as "b" [it's actually "v"]. It was very frustrating.

My most courageous feat to date was travelling to a barbershop – on my own – for a haircut. It was with a bit of trepidation that I stepped into the shop. The owner and the two barbers each spoke a bit of English – far more than my minimal Russian. They were gracious and made me feel completely at ease. My barber, Nazar, seemed almost excited to have me as a customer and he had me teach him some vocabulary relating to his trade. I found out the next day that he had posted a photo of the two of us on the barbershop's Instagram account.

So, what has my brief, yet jam-packed, Siberian experience taught me about language learning? First, I know that no matter how many times I teach my students new material (letters, words, grammar, pronunciation, phonology, etc.), one more time would be great! Secondly, no matter how much we practice even the most simple of phrases, it's scary as hell to go out in the real world and use them. Finally, I think people genuinely wish to make a personal connection with others and this often happens through language. So, when we speak to a new acquaintance in their own tongue, we begin to make a bond that will perhaps lead to a friendship – or, at least, a bit more understanding of those who are different than us. That can only make the world a better place, right?

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