Language Bubbles

When we got back to the States, I wanted to try something new. After all those years of struggling in foreign languages, I figured I had some perspective on learning English as a second language. And so I settled on volunteering as an ESL (English as a Second Language) tutor/teacher.

Now, you may ask, why didn’t I just do that while we were overseas? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Well, for one thing I had a telecommuting job until we got to Warsaw. For another, I didn’t have either the academic qualifications or the patience to jump through the bureaucratic hoops required to work on the local economy in Poland.

But here in DC, there are no hoops! I do not need a TEFL certificate to volunteer (though I am not ruling out getting one eventually). And the majority of learners are Spanish speakers. The one language I became fluent in while overseas is Spanish. I don’t speak it perfectly, of course, but I’ve taken every opportunity to keep it up since we left Latin America and I can communicate without breaking a sweat. It is very helpful when I am working with beginners.

I have enjoyed the teaching so much. The students are very appreciative and I feel truly useful. It’s good for me, too: since I’ve ended up working from home again, teaching gets me out of the house and around people. I also like to think it is resistance, in a small way. Immigrants can use all the help they can get these days.

At first I was surprised that some of the students have been here a decade or more and yet still speak so little English. But then I thought, how is this any different from the expat “bubbles” that we live in overseas? I never got past courtesy-level in Czech, German or Polish despite lessons and relative immersion. It is actually amazing how much you can actually get done without speaking very much of the local language, especially when you are spend most of your time with people who speak your own.

The internet has created even more of a bubble, of course. When we lived in Latin America, I couldn’t order a pizza or a taxi online. I had to pick up the (land line) phone to do anything. With no smart phone, I had no Google Translate in my pocket. From the grocery store to my daughter’s preschool, I just had to figure it out. My housekeeper spoke only Spanish. I listened to Spanish-language radio in the car, and watched Spanish-language cartoons with the kids at home. My English bubble was a very small one, indeed.

In Poland, on the other hand, I could do everything on my smart phone, from ordering taxis to buying movie tickets. I streamed American and British TV, and listened to English-language podcasts all day. I could even order groceries online—in English! While English was by no means universally spoken in Warsaw, My life mostly took place in an big English-language bubble—and I was OK with that.

Last night, I talked to some students about how they get by. They live in Hispanic neighborhoods. They use their smart phones for everything, of course. They watch Telemundo and Univision at home, and stream Spanish language radio. And you know, though I do encourage them to watch English-language TV, I don’t really blame them for creating their own small bubbles.

English is not the easiest language to learn! Though we thankfully don’t have to do the mental math that Slavic-language speakers perform with each sentence, pronunciation is difficult, our spelling is bizarre, and we have more expressions than you can shake a stick at (see what I did there?) We as English speakers are pretty forgiving of mistakes, but I feel for anyone who has to learn to wrap their minds around “two, to, and too” or “clothes, close, and close.”

As any expatriate can tell you, learning and trying to function in a second language is mentally exhausting, even when you are a “lady who lunches” with time and resources to dedicate to the job. The students that I help are nearly all shift workers, rising before the sun comes up to clean office buildings, make breakfast at restaurants, and work at construction sites.  They keep the DC area running.

That so many can choose not to collapse in front of Telemundo and show up to improve their English at an evening class instead impresses the heck out of me. 


One comment

  1. As an English learner myself, I can totally relate to your point! I admire how you managed everything in a country where people speak a language that’s new to you. While reading your post, I can feel you are a wonderful teacher! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.