So here’s the thing: It’s hard. What this illustration points out is incredibly true. When I moved to Lithuania, I had no idea how to speak the language. Eventually, a few years after I arrived, I had the opportunity to take a basic, entry-level class.
It was hell.
Being a teacher myself, I would talk with my teacher who told me, after that fact, that when she saw she had an American coming in to her class, she was a little nervous. “I hate teaching Americans – any native English speakers, really.”
Now, mind you, the class itself was taught in English as that was the common lingua franca amongst the students, so the idea of speaking English wasn’t the problem.
There’s an old joke that goes “If you speak 2 languages, you’re bi-lingual. If you speak 3 or more languages, you’re multi-lingual. If you speak 1 language, you’re American.” Regardless of the language requirements for high school or college graduation, Americans are rarely taught to respect another language. In fact, we’re often not taught to respect our own. I had a professor at UNLV who delighted in telling students about the time he was at a party and the conversation got around to professions.
“I’m an English professor,”this professor had told his conversational companion.
“I was never very good at English,” came the reply.
“I could tell.”
Th point of the short interchange, as was explained to us students, was that this wasn’t an unusual dialogue. This professor was astounded at the pride Americans often took in not knowing their own language. The particular exchange he told us about was the culmination of years of him not knowing how to respond when that pride of ignorance reared its head and how he finally decided on an answer.
So when this teacher of Lithuanian said she didn’t like teaching Americans, I had this in the back of my mind. But that wasn’t the primary reason. No, the primary reason she didn’t like teaching to native English speakers was the same thing which made me feel like the girl in that picture up above and almost caused me to quit the class midstream – gendered words. We don’t have them in English (not entirely true, there’s two, but they really don’t matter) and they’re hard to grasp conceptually. Not having them makes English, at a basic level, one of the easiest languages to learn and communicate in.
Which brings us right back around to that picture up top. Trying to speak Lithuanian, I felt like an idiot. Then I thought of my students who are forced to speak to me in a language not their own. Sure, they start learning in second grade and they have to pass an English test with a level of B1 (in the European system where A1 is basic and C2 is native-level speaker) in order to get into university, but still, they’re unsure, especially around a native speaker.
I do my best to put them at ease, but every semester I have students fail the class, not because they aren’t smart or because they don’t know the material, but because they are too uncomfortable with their English proficiency to ask questions, do the homework, or even come to class. I explain, in every first lecture, every semester, that I won’t grade them on grammar, but on content, in hopes of alleviating the problem. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t.
And it sucks. Becuase I know these kids have original thoughts and good ideas. I know they want to contribute in class and do their best in the homework, but they’ve been taught, somewhere along the line, that they must be perfect or they shouldn’t speak at all. And that’s wrong.
When I see them struggling with a concept or word in English, I have them say it in Lithuanian, in hopes someone else in the class will be able to help. As a last resort, I have them just explain their whole idea in their language, becuase the class isn’t for me, it’s for them. And when they are allowed to revert to Lithuanian, you can see the cognition in their faces, that they get what they’re saying and they’re able to impart it to their classmates.
And that feels good.
As for me, I finished the class and have an A1 certificate in Lithuanian, I can order my coffee. Sometimes. Becuase more often than not, to a native Lithuanian speaker, I sound like an idiot.