a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Sunday, October 16, 2011

a language barrier isn't always a barrier

This past week I had my first parent-teacher conferences with Khmer families. In preparation I spent the weeks before sorting and assessing all the written work I've given to my preschoolers during the first term. I also gathered my observation notes for each child so I could share individual stories with their parents. All this took many extra hours outside the classroom and I would end each day exhausted. But by Wednesday when I had my first early conference, I felt like the extra effort was all worth it. The range of English proficiency among my parents is from basically no English to fluency. But words are not the only way to communicate and so I tried to show more than tell. I have alphabet words up on the wall above the whiteboard, and then on a different wall individual papers of the students using those alphabet words. On a third wall, I have a large alphabet with both capital letters and small letters printed on different colored cardstock and laminated. Some of the vocabulary we have been practicing is up on this "word wall". The individual students' names are on their cubbies, the tables, the floor circle and the wall. Poems we read together and songs we sing together are on the walls also written in bright colors on large sheets of heavy drawing paper. When the parents first came in, I walked them around the room explaining briefly what we do during the day. I only had about 10 minutes for each conference so it was not nearly enough time to share all that I wanted. But several of the parents thanked me for my time and for explaining so much of what we do and how their child was doing in particular.

I was quite excited to talk with these parents because I am so impressed with all of my little preschoolers. Amazingly these three and four year olds come to a strange setting (it is often their first experience at school) and spend their mornings with strangers (teacher and teaching assistants) and one very foreign stranger at that. But they are not afraid, they are happy and comfortable and learning many new things including a foreign language!

I have a set of twins in my class and at the beginning of the term, for quite awhile really, they were quite unsure of me. They would stick close together, holding hands always. Whenever I would ask them to put their books away or sit on the carpet they would frown at me and move away. Day after day I just kept smiling and asking them to follow directions and slowly they stopped frowning and actually started smiling so that now they are actually giggling when we get ready to sing songs or when they are playing at play centers.

So that felt like a success for sure but still, telling the twins apart was a challenge. They wear the same clothes and fix their hair the same way. But on top of that, they don't help. I can call one of their names and both girls will make a move. One of my assistants discovered that one of the girls had a freckle on her cheek so we started using that to tell them apart. I thought we were finally doing well. I started calling them consistently by the same name. Then at conferences their mom had a funny story to tell us. She said that Teresa (not her real name) had started carrying Pamela's (also not her real name) folder and vice versa. The mom said, "You are Teresa not Pamela." And Teresa responded, "But Teacher calls me Pamela." So it turns out I can tell them apart but I was using the wrong name for each girl! Their mom brought them into the classroom and showed us who was who. And also that Teresa is the oldest and the leader, not the other way around.

This mom also said that she was very happy to know that her girls were so comfortable at school now. She said that last year she tried to put them in school but every day she would get a call that they were crying so much she had to come get them.

Starting school is often a scary thing for children of course. I remember when I started kindergarten that one of the other girls in my class was crying really hard. But in this case the teacher spoke her language. I can't speak these children's language but luckily we can communicate without words. Tone of voice, body language, facial expression can convey maybe even more powerful messages. Yesterday one of my little boys had grabbed away some blocks from another little girl causing her to cry. I took him aside and on his own he plopped in my lap and start explaining to me, in Khmer of course, his side of the story. I spoke back to him in English except using one Khmer word "sowm toe" which means "sorry". This little boy often tells me many things. I just don't know what they are because he speaks in Khmer. But he only wants to tell me. If I ask the assistants to translate for me, he won't repeat what he said to them. He struggles so much to know how to play with other children. His mom told me at conferences that he only has older brothers, 12 and 14 years old. So he doesn't have younger siblings to teach him how to get along.  One day he came running to me. One of my assistants translated that he was saying that Teresa had hit him. So we walked over to where Teresa and the other assistant were. My other assistant saw what happened. Teresa didn't hit him. She had just told him she didn't want to play with him, and because he was disappointed he said she had hit him.

Another one of my boys knows that I can't understand his words, so he used another way to get his message across. We had just all walked to the assembly area to wait for the parents, when Victor (not his real name) purposefully took my hand and started leading me back toward the classroom. I sensed that it was something important so I just let him lead me. We walked back to the classroom, carefully avoiding a puddle on the way. Victor led us wide around the puddle so we didn't step in it. :) Finally in the classroom he took his bag out of his cubby and put it on. Victor is only three years old but he was being responsible for his own bag. He also maybe knew that he needed me to go with him because another adult might stop him. He wasn't supposed to be in the classroom at that time.

On Friday night Stephen and I attended a performance of Khmer modern dance in the Chenla Theatre. Two men made some announcements before the the start of the performance. One man spoke in French and the other man translated into Khmer. Stephen whispered to me, "Glad there's translation." No English at all. Though there were small sections of dialogue and a couple of songs, most of the show was pure dance. We enjoyed this performance by a small dance company that mixed modern dance with traditional Khmer elements.

Language is useful in communicating, obviously. But living in this foreign country, where we can't use language as much to understand and communicate, gives us unique opportunities to experience more ways of communicating and connecting with people. And I like that.

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