Monday, July 27, 2009

My first full esl class was at Iowa, in graduate school, when I was given small diverse classes of international students, and told to teach grammar, or listening-speaking, or maybe something else; I can't remember exactly. I was taken with what seemed like an infinite opportunity- both to know interesting and diverse people, and to explore the art or skill of language learning in all its complexity. How was one to do it, best? How could I help people sort out the complexities of my own native language?

In high school I had always been attracted to the language classroom; although in junior high I had one poor teacher who couldn't control her class, in high school I had Mrs. Leal, a Cuban Spanish teacher, unflappable, steady in her efforts; the best thing about her was the lilt to her voice. In fact, as I was to find out, you can't learn enough Spanish in two or three years of high school to really get you far in a place like Mexico, but at that time, all I knew was, it was my favorite class. In college I don't remember studying languages in Boston, but when I first got to Iowa I took German for a couple of semesters, and then a little Chinese; finally, I took two years of Russian, and even a semester of French. In graduate school I finally had an elective, and should have taken History of English, as I recall, but took Sanskrit instead, based on advice I'd received, and the feeling that a true education would include some knowledge of Sanskrit and that whole field of study. Studying a language was getting a window into the soul of a culture, and I soaked it up, in every case, except that of German; German seemed cold to me, and when I had a somewhat strict teacher, I got a bad association, or more accurately, chills up my spine, though they could have been triggered by old war movies that associated the accent with everything bad. The best of the teachers that I experienced was actually the French teacher, who was animated and lively, and always used our time well. I carefully studied their methods and remembered how deadly dull a language classroom can be when things don't go well.

Back to Iowa, and a classroom in which I was given rein, here I was facing a diverse crowd: an old Iraqi woman, who pestered me endlessly because I couldn't explain grammar well; two Thai students, one a young man and the other a young woman; both were exceedingly friendly, but one got an A and the other an F, and never broke their stride, or changed a bit from their intense and generous friendliness. Finally, there was an Iranian woman, perhaps the only Iranian I've ever taught, who put her vowels either way above her line, or way below it, when she wrote, and couldn't explain this habit except to say that they did it that way in Farsi. They may in fact do that in Farsi, I'm sure they do, yet I've never seen handwriting like that in all my years since, and I've wondered about that, also, and whether that was unique to her, or a problem more frequently encountered anywhere.

I also noticed at Iowa the phenomenon of two students from countries at war, being close friends, or at least not letting their countries' political problems interfere with their learning. I can't remember if it was an Israeli and Palestinian, Greek and Turk, or who, but I have seen that many times since, and have been grateful. The classroom is a unique opportunity, as I've said, to study how adults, with time, ability and desire, who apply themselves regularly with all they have, try to learn a language and become fluent in it. They usually succeed, and it's often harder than they'd anticipated; it's often a frustrating tangent on their road. They often arrive in the class not happy to be there, not happy to be taking any more time learning the language than they already have taken. Yet, it can often be demonstrated to them that they haven't gotten their fluency yet- and they can't dispute that. They are wondering- how does one do it? What is the secret?

A teacher, a dispenser of secrets, might be able to tell them more, but I could only draw upon my own experiences, and in spite of having seen and heard a nice wide variety, I hadn't become really, truly fluent in anything. My Spanish was limited to traveling Spanish, though I did pretty well by the time I'd left Mexico. I'd pulled together what I'd learned in high school and what I'd picked up on the road, and had a reasonable functionality in it. But I couldn't write a paper, or talk about a classroom situation; there were many areas in which I couldn't even describe the things that filled my room. Russian was the same way. Even after two years- four semesters- I was still quite limited, as I found out when I was talking to a real Russian guy, who came over to the US for some reason, but who became my friend, sometime in my senior year at Cornell, when I was about to graduate as a Russian major.

So I noticed the first law of the language classroom: there is always way more to do than a single person can do in a single hour; to play, or to pretend that one has accomplished the appropriate degree of fluency in a given time, is almost impossible. Students have way more work to do than they can reasonably expect to achieve; it's a miracle they ever make it at all. To get to the step beyond us is harder still, given the intolerance of ambiguity or opaqueness in the academic world, coupled with the rigid rejection of all plagiarism. What are they to do? I'm not sure, but I've planted myself in that in-between threshold, between halting language and fluency, for over twenty years now, and it hasn't really become boring, even now. I have not kept in touch with any of those students from the Iowa days; and, in fact, have lost touch with most of the thousands I've had over the years. But there's no question I've had influence, just as Mrs. Leal did. You hear a language, you get drawn into that world; you want to use it for everything it can be used for, in that exotic and different culture. And it pushes you to the edge of human experience, in its own kind of way, over and over again.

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