One of the first Special Ed. courses I took as an undergrad was “Communication Disorders.” It’s very easy to conjure up memories of Dr. Keating referring to us in comforting childish nicknames, offering us crackers, and emphasizing the importance of a communication board.
I had no idea just how important that class would be not just as a Special Ed. teacher, but as an English teacher.
You see, teaching English as a Foreign Language is essentially finding your way through a communication disorder. The parties on either side have difficulty comprehending what the other is saying and so the teacher must revert to alternate methods to accomplish some semblance of understanding. Although I don’t make use of communication boards (because they’d be in English, come on guys), I do often resort to charades, using a multitude of synonyms, and pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.
Of course, Italian children have speech patterns and syntax that vary from our typical rhythm. For example, instead of saying, “What’s that?” my Italian friends use the phrasing, “Morgan, what is this _____?” Roll the “r” in “Morgan” and fill in the blank with anything from “horse” to “color” and you’ve got yourself a bridge across communication.
One of my favorite translations from Italian to English recently occurred with my preschool friends. One of my buddies was being more affectionate than usual, speaking to me in rapid fire Italian and pointing at his belly with a concerned look on his face. Thank goodness there’s another student in the class who lived in NY for three years (he’s five) and could serve as a translator for me. My translation followed: “Ah, Morgan. He is telling you there is a virus that lives inside his belly.”
The simultaneous great and unfortunate element to teaching English is that your students aren’t the only ones with a communication disorder, you’ve got one yourself. There’s nothing worse for a teacher than giving an explanation of something and looking out at your cherubs and seeing….nothing. Blank expressions, glassy eyes, and not one clear
indication of new information being obtained. Round 2: different words, some pictures and still…nothing. Round 3 and we’ve picked up a few key words and by round 4, an overall sense of understanding has occurred with some modeling bringing us to home plate.
And now here’s where we get a little dorky/corny. You were waiting for it, weren’t you? Maybe even secretly hoping for it. I know, everyone needs a little dorky-ness and corny-ness in their lives. And if you don’t think you do, then you’re just lying to yourself.
You see, one of the things I’ve discovered about teaching English is that so much of how we communicate has absolutely nothing to do with spoken language. My preschoolers and I can converse with a solid four words including, “hello, blue, triangle and yellow.” We’ve been together for about ten weeks now and while I know a few things about them, I certainly don’t know as many as I would have if we were on the same language plane. But that doesn’t stop them from wrapping their tiny arms around my waist. Or lifting their delightful faces up for a kiss at the end of a lesson. Or wanting to sit next to me on a child- sized bench while we sing our “hello” song.
The moral of the blog post? Smiling at people and offering help both go further than you could ever possibly imagine, in whatever culture you’re a part of. While I’ve always held a philosophy of responsive teaching, being in a foreign country and teaching my native language as a foreign language were apparently two things I needed to confirm that smiling will always be more effective than screaming. Unless a child is wandering into traffic, then scream away, my friends. But until that wandering occurs, break out the smile and the charades and enjoy the hugs that come after.