Learning another language is hard. Teaching another language – that is a different beast. Through a class last semester, I attempted to teach English to two very different kinds of students. One, Camilo Rodriguez, is a Columbian anthropologist, educated and financially stable. He and I took turns teaching and learning each other’s languages. Second, I taught a Somali Bantu family which had come to the United States only a month before.
I met with both Camilo and with the Somali family (the Hassans) weekly over the semester, and our meetings quickly became highlights in my busy schedule. Each week I turned in a journal for the class, some excerpts of which I have posted here…
Week One: Intoductions
Understandably, I was nervous to meet Camilo Rodriguez. What if my Spanish isn’t good enough? He’s been trying to learn English for four years; what do I have to offer? Crap, I didn’t bring my Spanish-English dictionary with me. What if he doesn’t have one?
It didn’t take long for Camilo–affable, funny, and engaging–to help me get past those anxieties. We met at Starbucks on Harding, and stayed for two hours, filling up four pages in my notebook with spellings, maps, and pronunciations. He told me about his family, and I told him about Vanderbilt. He told me about how he got to the United States and the informal research he is doing on the Hispanic community in Nashville.
I was nervous, but now am looking forward to next week. When can I meet Camilo’s family? Are there other anthropologists at Vanderbilt that know Spanish with whom Camilo could have a conversation about what he knows best in the only language he knows well? What are we going to work on next? Crap, I forgot my Spanish-English dictionary again. Good thing Camilo’s got one.
Hassan, Mumina, Muktar, Ali, Abdukadir…
We have read in class that Latino families are much more communal than American families. I didn’t, however, read anything about Somali families. Apparently, they’ve been taking some lessons from each other. This Wednesday, World Relief caseworker Nathan Kinser took me to an apartment complex in Murfreesboro to meet my new Somali friends. They have been here only since September 16th, and consist of: a father, Hassan; a mother, Mumina; and and three boys, Muktar, Ali, and Abdikadir. The boys are 19, 17, and 15. When Nathan knocked on their door, none of them answered. I was disappointed, but Nathan walked a few apartments down and asked for Mumina. We walked some more, and finally came to an apartment where she and about 20 other Somali Bantus were learning English from another family’s English tutor. It didn’t take long to figure out the process: one English tutor comes, and one of the older boys rounds up all the Bantu families he can find.
That is exactly what happened Friday, when I went by myself for the first time. Mumina was in the kitchen, and Muktar immediately left to recruit students. We spent an hour and a half working on basic phrases and playing with pretend money. I would set up an easy “purchase” and allow the older ladies practice repeating my words while the younger children figured out the math. The best moments were listening to the May-Maay which filled the room when I wrote out a new problem.
Camilo and I met at Starbucks again Monday Ð his turn to buy coffee. We spent the better part of two hours sharing more of our histories and going over pronunciation. I introduced him to the concept of fraternities and sororities when he asked why all the shirts in the coffeeshop had Greek letters, and he told me about his role as environmental adviser to Columbian legislators. I taught him more about pronunciation, and he shared with me his family dynamics. I began to introduce him to some English slang, and he let me borrow his Life magazine on the three religions of Jerusalem for my anthropology presentation.
This week was more a continuation of and building upon the foundations of last week than I had anticipated. Conversation is slow–which I expected, but which keeps me from learning as much from Camilo as I would like to. With Camilo’s PhD in Anthropology, level of expertise with environmental law, four years of Catholic seminary and experiences as a refugee from one of the most politically instable countries in the world, this International Relations/Religious Studies double-major could spend years studying under him. It’s a little bit intimidating, and would likely be more so if I didn’t, simply by chance, have anything to offer him in return. I hope that what I do have–a few hours a week and twenty years of English language practice–can be put to better use than just learning to pronounce different Starbucks additives.
Like most college students, I look forward to Fridays as a chance to hang out with friends. Unlike most college students, I understand less than four words of my friends’ native tongue.
This Friday, like last Friday, was the highlight of my week. I brought my play American money, dry erase board, markers and pictures of my family and plowed into two solid hours worth of English tutoring. We started with a review of last week’s introductory phrases denominations of money. It took longer than I was expecting, and so I asked nineteen-year-old Muktar if the adults understood what we were talking about. So-so, he replied. I didn’t understand where the roadblock was, until… “Hey, Muktar–do they know English numbers?” He shook his head, and we laughed together for a second before he passed on the message to our students, who got to laugh with us.
So we learned numbers, pausing to attempt pronouncing six (“sick-us”) a few times before giving up on every tenth integer for the day. Finally, “twenty-five cents” meant something. “Adi Fahanty?” I asked, “Do you understand?” They grinned and nodded enthusiastically. “You’re welcome, no, thank you!” shouted Mumina. We all roared again.
Family relationships were next, and would have been torturous without Muktar and his brother Ali’s help. But we plowed through, learning some pronouns, spelling, and sentence structure along the way. I got to learn a little bit more about how some of my students were related, too. I’m excited already about next Friday.