Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How do you say "panic" in Japanese?

I think most of the things I’ve learned in my life have been absorbed gradually. I noticed, became familiar, picked up new information: a nice, steady process of learning. But every now and then, I’ve received a sudden burst of knowledge, a direct infusion to the brain, a BLAST of realization.

I speak two languages (Spanish also) and have, in previous Thirds, spoken two others: German and Hebrew. (I have trouble keeping more than two in my head; the extras just get pushed out.) I’ve lived in a Spanish-speaking country, traveled in countries that spoke other languages. I teach English to refugees and immigrants. I thought I was pretty aware of what goes into language acquisition.

But a couple weeks ago, in a class at the Alaska Literacy Program, Polly demonstrated how she’d begin teaching English to someone who didn’t know a speck of English. She had to start with pointing to herself when she said “I,” pointing to us when she said “you.” We got it. She held objects up, said it was a “bird,” a “dish.” We got that, too. And we got it when she wrote on the board “bird.”

And then Polly pointed to herself and said something in Japanese! She pointed to us and said something else. We had to repeat.

Repeat? I wasn’t even sure what I’d heard. How could I pronounce what I couldn’t even hear right?

And she didn’t stop. She kept saying things in Japanese. My heart rate went up. I think the bird was a “tori,” but there were other sounds around it. Did those mean “This is”? Or is there some suffix that goes with nouns? How could I figure out the grammar when I couldn’t even be sure what I was hearing?

She just kept on. Everything was Japanese.

Then she pulled out some charts:
That was the bird. That sound in front was the T sound for that “tori” sound.

Polly pulled out cups and dishes and horns and her hand and said a lot more Japanese. They jumbled up terribly in my head. If I learned one, I forgot another. So Polly put them all in sentences:
By then, I think I’d describe what I was experiencing as “panic.” But deep down, I also knew it would end. Eventually, Polly would stop talking in Japanese and she’d return to English. My world would return to English and I could breathe easily again.

But Yousef in my class can’t return to Sudan. Muna can’t return to Iraq. They left war-torn countries and had to leave their languages behind. They had to land in a world of English and ADAPT. Street signs, TV, magazines – wherever they look, it’s English. And the remarkable thing is, they’ve learned it.

I am in awe.

Researchers say that immigrants have a greater forward focus than other people, that they’ve opted to make a future for themselves, to tackle the major changes that future requires. They’re motivated. They’re brave.

And what do they want to do? They want to volunteer, to contribute, to do something helpful while they improve their English. They want to make friends who’ll have the patience to let them speak English and get better at it.

It’s been two weeks since my Japanese trial by fire, and I can’t remember a bit of it. I haven’t tried because … because it was uncomfortable. It was a New Thing I was glad to ditch … and I could.

But it was a major blast of awareness, a staggering recognition of how very, very hard it is for our new immigrants. That’s the New Thing I’m glad to re-learn over and over again.

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