Ecuador – Language as a Box and a Bridge – English Class – by Abigail Blonigen. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
To state the obvious, learning a second language is extremely difficult. Though, after a few weeks in a Spanish speaking country, I am fortunate that English was my first language. My host parents as well as others have asked me questions about weird little words or irregulars in English, and even as an English major, I couldn’t really answer them. Not only is it a difficult language to learn, but being a native English speaker is a tremendous privilege. Anywhere I go, I will more likely than not be able to find someone who I can communicate with. I’ll be catered to with subtitles, signs, labels, and bars whose entire menus are in English. Fair or not, there is an air of power about it.
Today we went to an English class at a university. Because it was at a university, we expected it to be a class of students about our age. We were wrong. It was a class of professors learning English. I was intimidated. How is it my place to teach someone so much more intelligent than me? The professors all excitedly said “hello” and “nice to meet you” when we arrived. We spent the first half of class speaking in English, and the second half in Spanish. They were only a few weeks into their course, so my partner’s level was pretty low, and I could tell he was very nervous. I was surprised that an accomplished 54 year old retired policeman who is now a professor of mathematics and statistics was nervous to talk to me.
It was a humbling experience. We had very basic conversations about our families, pets, travel, the weather, and what we like and dislike. He paused a lot to think, asked me to repeat myself, and sometimes had that look where I knew he didn’t know exactly what I was saying. Sometimes I had to ask him to repeat himself or peek at his English book because his accent made it difficult for me to understand. Occasionally he asked me for clarification in Spanish. I could tell he felt embarrassed about it, but he didn’t need to be, as I am going through the exact same thing every day. It’s extremely frustrating being limited by a language you cannot entirely speak. I’m a relatively intelligent person, but I do not yet have the capacity to fully express my thoughts and feelings in this new language. This man was very intelligent, but all we could talk about was what our family members do for a living. It’s tough. It’s as if you can physically feel the language barrier in your mind.
Once we ran out of things to talk about, he started looking at his watch to see when we could switch to Spanish. Once we switched, he told me all of the things he understood. He got the gist of everything I said, and had a tremendous memory too. He started to show me pictures and talk about his travels, and I could relate to the sense of relief with reverting back to your own tongue. It turns out he has a daughter named Abigail who is 20 years old and has blue eyes, exactly like me. I asked him why he’s learning English, and he said it’s a personal challenge. He also wants to travel to Europe and the U.S., and thinks English is a useful tool to have in general.
Language is like a box. We have our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but we can only share with others the words we have in our box. It’s difficult being a thoughtful person with a box so small. I felt all of my partner’s embarrassment, frustration, and nervousness. Though we couldn’t say everything we wanted to say, sharing this vulnerable experience created a sense of togetherness you don’t need words to understand.
Abigail Blonigen serves as an assistant editor for The North Star Reports
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Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Ellie Swanson and Marin Ekstrom, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.
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