December 3, 2015

Vexillology as a Second Language

by Kenneth Berglund '19

Kenneth is a first‐year who loves linguistics and languages and started working at the MET Family Literacy Program this year.

Vexillology. That was it. I don’t even know how the discussion started, but I do remember the exact moment Fabio mentioned vexillology.

It’s unusual to bring up the study of flags in any casual conversation, let alone on the first day of English as a Second Language.

It was my first day as a teacher at the MET Family Literacy Program. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of the people I was meant to be teaching. Would they be educated? Would they be intimidating? Would they, in some strange way, be intimidated by me? I hadn’t even met my co-teacher until that day, so I was pretty nervous about basically everything.

As the class started, my anxiety became more and more clear. My co-teacher, who had taught English before, seemed comfortable with what she was doing. I, on the other hand, stood awkwardly in the corner for what seemed like hours, overwhelmed by the responsibilities I had been given and the high expectations I had placed on myself.

But soon, the conversation topic drifted from English, as it often does in the advanced class. I’m not sure how it happened, but there we were, talking about the similarities between the Mexican and Italian flags.

Fabio, one of the Italian students, asked a question, eyebrows raised and arms extended. “You have a name for this sort of thing, right? Vexillology?”

Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised that he knew that word. It does, after all, have some Latinate roots, just like Fabio’s mother tongue.

“Yeah, exactly,” I said. “Vexillology.” This was a breakthrough for me.

Up until that point, I had been relatively uninvolved in any discussion. Now, we were talking about something I had been interested in since I was a kid.

But it was also a breakthrough in that I was able to see the learners for what they really were: people. I was able to see them not only as learners who needed my help, but as people with interests in areas as wide and as far-reaching as mine. If someone’s interested in flags, they’re going to be interested in flags, no matter their language. Of course they’re just regular people, carrying on in their daily lives.

The students in my class come from Italy, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. Almost every class, one of the students, bundled up for the cold, throws up her hands in confusion and groans, “English!” Despite the difficulty, the students keep coming to class. In a writing assignment, one of them said that he wants to learn English and be in America because here, he can try to improve his situation with hard work, which is an aspiration that everyone shares.

Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. At the training session for the MET, we went through a profile of the “typical learner.” One thing we noticed was that there wasn’t a typical level of education. Some of the only things they had in common were that they wanted to learn English and lived in the area.

It was important for me at that moment to be surprised. It’s nice to be shocked into the reality that there are many more commonalities we share with people than differences; that I’m not alone in my search for flag knowledge.

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