Good teachers don’t mind watching students struggle. Some even purposely cause their students to struggle. When it is time for the student to progress, the teacher pushes the student ruthlessly until the student gets to the next level. The student may not believe in himself or herself, but the teacher does, and so opposes the stubborn self-doubt of the student. As my brilliant 7th grade math teacher, Ms. Leona Penner, said, “Patience is for the birds.” This award-winning teacher believed that coddling students prevented them from reaching their potential. Learning requires struggling through discomfort, and the only comfort comes from inevitable progress that results from struggle.
Will you be my teacher?
I am so happy that I unexpectedly met more Somalis at work this week! Now that it’s winter time it’s difficult to recognize people from behind. As I was entering the building from the parking lot, I mistakenly thought that I knew these two people so I openly greeted them in Somali. Fortunately, they actually were Somali and were pleasantly surprised to hear me greet them in their language. When I ran into one of them later in the week, he greeted me and spoke to me in Somali: Bannanka waxaa qaboow! “It’s cold outside!” Adressing me in Somali surely made me even happier than they were when I did so with them.
Being addressed in a foreign language elicits feelings of victory in me. The Ethiopian ladies at the airport, for example, make me happy when they ask me questions in Amharic, even though I don’t understand them. When people address me like this they convey to me—whether they mean to or not—the assumption that I can “handle it.” In other words, they feel that my language level is good enough to process what they’re trying to say. I like it when people assume that, even when they are (often) incorrect.
The rare person who continues addressing me when they realize my language level cannot handle their speech wins my heart completely. Most people feel uncomfortable speaking to me in a language I barely understand. Naturally, they cannot express anything easily or efficiently and they see the contortions in my face as I try to parse their words—discomfort on both sides. Anyone who has learned a language—or anything difficult—grasps those frustrating contortions as essential for the learning process. The person who perseveres to speak their language to me through those difficult times, even months and months, assumes that I can “handle it,” that is, the difficulty, the frustration, and the humiliation.
Those who assume my language level on the first time respect my intelligence; those who assume my ability to work through the difficulties respect my character.
Many times I have engaged so-called language teachers who don’t respect my character. I believe they actually do so out of kindness, however. They don’t want me to feel bad, so they help me along. Such teachers jump in quickly to finish my sentences for me if they sense a struggle. When I can’t understand them on the first or second time, they translate into English to save me the discomfort. This approach does not teach me, unfortunately. If a violin teacher grabbed away the bow from a student when bad notes came out in order to play them “right,” he or she might prevent the student from feeling bad about making bad music, but the student would never learn how to play. Learning assumes pain and struggle.
I am not fragile. I do not like to be handled with care. Some people have taken advantage of my language level to make me the butt of jokes, but I only resent that they were mean to me. I still learned from them. Those who wanted to teach me, but treated me as if I was fragile, make me sad. They are wasted opportunities.
Postscript: Today in the grocery store parking lot, I said hello to a Somali gentleman working there and he stopped. I made him stand there until I could formulate my sentence, “It’s not cold today.” I had him correct me. He made me realize I said, “Is it cold today?” Those darn mood particles! Fortunately, he seemed to enjoy the interaction overall—not too much force required on my part.
They say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” Watch out for me, O Unsuspecting Somali in a Parking Lot—you may only realize at the last moment that you’re my teacher.
Who have been your great teachers? When were you the best teacher? How did you students do? What did you do when they failed?
Who else is living the dream?
My 14 year-old daughter made the mistake at one time of hinting that she may want to learn French one day. This week I had her sign up for Duolingo and download the app for her phone. I tried it out, too, just to see how the platform works.
I like the focus on vocabulary, simple sentence structure, and grammar. The kids are all playing “Trivia Crack” on their phones, and I see that my daughter is learning a lot from it. I think that she could learn a lot of basic words in French from the Duolingo app. I’m fluent in French, so I think if she gets some basic vocabulary, I can help her with sentences.
Hopefully, the gamification in the app will encourage her progress. The big advantage of “Trivia Crack” is that the kids can play against another human. The competition and connecting with others raise the interest level. I would love to see some on-line language app offer that option.