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The Village Idiot

On English as Second Language

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(2/2011) I was recently meandering through a "used book" store, hoping some title would garb me, when I overheard a woman (one of them foreigners) asking a clerk for books on public speaking, and dictionaries. She was told she was in the correct aisle, but the clerk evidently misunderstood her requests. I stopped my skimming to watch her pull book after book from the stacks, flip the pages and replace the books. Finally, I asked what she was looking for. (Iím curious as to why people choose a particular book among the thousands that might surround them.)

When I first encounter something as big and ugly as myself, Iím at least startled by it. She just smiled and offered me the book on public speaking she had been frowning over. In her accented, slow and careful English, she began to explain her need for books that provide her the meanings of words and used them in sentences. She also wanted to learn to speak more clearly in public and to learn to write in English.

Certain we were in the wrong section, I went to the clerk and told him what the woman was actually searching for. He understood then and took us to the home schooling collection. As he pulled books from the stacks and handed them to me I flipped through them trying to explain to the immigrant how they worked. The ones that obviously puzzled her I dropped immediately. When she quickly grasped a workbook, we set it aside for later consideration and moved on to the next.

Once the clerk was sure we had enough books to keep us busy he went back to his scheduled tasks and we set to examining and discussing the various grammar and spelling workbooks piled around us. She also had several childrenís dictionaries to peruse.

I spent 45 minutes with her as she asked about the formats of various books and I explained the pronunciation keys of the dictionaries. The more we talked the more I realized the woman had a better education than I do. I donít know why that surprised me; most everyone is better educated than I am. I finally asked where she was from and caught something that sounded like Myanmar? I told her Iíd never heard of it. She told me it bordered China, that she actually spoke some Chinese and had been exposed to English by meeting people from India. She asked if India English was different from American English. I told her I had trouble understanding my relatives who live in the southern states of my own country so I was sure India English was different on some level. I also told her that I do not speak English very well and I understand the mechanics of it not at all. She had a polite laugh. I heard it a lot.

When she began asking questions like, what does "a being" mean; I knew I was in over my head. I had already suggested, several times, that she go to the public library and ask for help finding an English as a Second Language (ESL) class. When I told her I didnít understand English well enough to answer many of her questions she seemed a bit puzzled. So I explained in spite of being born, raised and educated (sort of) in this country, I still donít speak or understand English well. She thought for a bit then said she understood that. Her questions turned to more basic things I could answer.

She really stumped me though when she turned to a section of one book dealing with poetry. I suspect I had that "deer in the headlights" stare affixed my mug because she laughed at me again. I knew she was going to ask me what poetry is. She did. I didnít know what to tell her. I donít know what poetry is!

I desperately rooted through 12 years of not paying attention in school trying to come up with some sort of explanation of poetry. I finally asked if she had poetry in her culture. She studied the poem between us then slowly shook her head "no". Uhg. Did she know about Japanese haiku? "No." again. With a sigh I started explaining that poetry often used words twisted slightly out of their usual meanings to create new ways of thinking about whatever the poems were about. She wasnít the only one frowning over that, but what the hell do I know about poetry? I told her once more that she really should seek out an ESL class so someone with an education could help her.

I got the distinct impression she has no plans to set foot in a public library until sheís ready to consume the thing on her own. She isnít the first immigrant Iíve met who is learning English without help from public institutions. At any rate, Iíd done as much for the woman as I could. I urged her yet again to consider an ESL class. She smiled politely. I told her I hoped Iíd been of some help and had to get along with my own business. As I turned away she held up a hand, asking me to wait.

Pointing to the book she had recently puzzled the words "generousí and "generosity" out of she very seriously said, "Thank you for your generous, or is it generosity?"

At that moment, I recalled Mary Hoke standing before my 10th grade geometry class as she explained that teaching wasnít about the pay, teachers certainly werenít paid well in those days. "No, part of my reward is seeing the look of understanding suddenly spring to life on a struggling studentís face. That is a reward most of you will never know."

Ah Mrs. Hoke, I know, and I agree with you. I wouldnít sit down with a student for money, but Iíd spend hours working with one eager to learn and appreciative of the help offered them.

Sadly, Iím not interested in teaching through any formal system. I was once certified to tutor adult literacy through Laubach Literacy Action, now the Literacy Council of Frederick County, but I let that expire more than a decade ago. Since then Iíve encountered several immigrants seeking help in their efforts to master English. Even though I refer them to the public library, figuring the librarians know who best can help them, Iím aware that some of them do not want any formal help. They have insisted they would rather I help them outside of public institutions. Considering my aversions to formal organizations, I donít question the immigrantís reluctance.

For those not adverse to formal help, is the Literacy Councilís website. The organization can also be reached by phone - 301-600-2066, or snail mail:

Literacy Council of Frederick County
110 E. Patrick St.
Frederick, MD 21701

One of the cool things about meeting people such as the Burmese (I went home and Google "mapped" Asia to find that Myanmar was called Burma when I was in school) is learning something new myself. The woman gave me hope for all of humanity. If she is willing to land here and learn the language, perhaps weíre not as lost as I often think we are.

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.