I had the good fortune today of volunteering to do crafts projects with the children of refugee families. Anyone who knows me, knows I am very outgoing and will chat it up with anyone. (Can you already smell the faux pas on the horizon?).
Amongst those of us who were volunteering was a class of adult English language learners. I have always dreamed of being a TESOL teacher because 1) my parents are non native English speakers 2) I have flubbed *mightily* in other languages and 3) I really like to encourage people.
So I took under my wing, so to speak, the gal who could barely speak more than 10 English words. All the other volunteers – some native speakers, a few that were not – spread out amongst the various tables. As we waited for the kids to arrive and for our crafts projects to begin, I really wanted to make a connection with the gal who was so clearly terrified.
Geez, where was all that French I had had in HS? I couldn’t fall back on ASL or gesturing. German didn’t work. “La vasche qui rit” was right out. So somewhere along the line, I wanted to let her know that I’m a first generation American, and I understand going between cultures and languages etc. “Mon mere et mon pere…English…gesture the number 2…language”. Deer in the headlight. Probably thinking, “Why are you flashing a peace sign at me and why is your mom of the masculine persuasion?”, which didn’t dawn on me till later.
Fast forward to the group gathered at our table – terrified French volunteer gal; young boy whom I asked if he preferred to talk or liked quiet, since I was babbling away, stated that he liked quiet; a local native speaker volunteer who was trying all his slaughtered French phrases and trying to discuss theatre and playwrights with terrified French gal; chatty and sweet boy of local origins and THEN – a young boy, of African or Caribbean descent – who joined us. Whom I was told did not speak English. Whom I was told was visiting for the summer and didn’t live in the community like the rest of these kids.
I gestured to him and assisted him with his project. And then it dawned on me – wait – maybe he is from a location where they speak French. I already connected the volunteer at my table with the group leader of this whole shindig who just happened to be from Switzerland. They had a nice chat in French and I was quit happy to not understand a thing – or very little. So I said, “Français?” to the volunteer and the boy who spoke no English to see if they could connect. No good. It just didn’t work. Figured he was just shy.
BUT THEN, after about 10 minutes of trying to make connections amongst my fellow crafters – the little guy responded to some input. He had said things earlier but so quietly I didn’t catch it. WAIT – what? You speak English while I’m gesturing and getting French gal to chat it up with you? Consider me punked 🙂 His English was just fine.
Today’s volunteer gig was SO much fun, even if it did stretch all my resourcefulness on trying to communicate amongst various people of such diverse backgrounds. Once a terp mindset, always a terp mindset. And I don’t mind being silly or creative – and failing miserably in the process – in building bridges. In the end, creating a project together and wanting to spend time together requires no language other than a heart connection. And THAT we did. Viva La Fun!