June 6, 2016

When Things Don't Make Sense

by Brenna Keogh '16

Brenna has taught English with the MET Family Literacy Program for the past
four years and plans to continue teaching and learning languages after
graduation.

"I freeze. Suddenly I feel like my lesson is failing. The learners didn’t understand my questions."

“When were you born?”

That’s the question at the start of our whiteboard timeline. I say that I was born in 1994, and add the year to the board. Margarita volunteers the year she was born. We add her year, then we add more questions.

“Are you married? When did you get married?”

Oneida is married. She got married in 2010. We add her information to the timeline. As I walk around, I notice that Brian has written, “I was born in 2016”, and Maria wrote, “I got married in 1912.”

I freeze. Suddenly I feel like my lesson is failing. The learners didn’t understand my questions. Part of me wants to translate everything, dispel the confusion as quickly as possible. But then I think back to yesterday, when my professor asked a question in my Chinese class, and completely misunderstood the meaning. Although the question was about the weather in Providence, my mind jumped all over: did she ask about public transportation in Providence, or whether I like Providence? I was spinning in my lack of understanding, grasping for clues as best as I could.

But the real reason I remember this moment is because my mind did settle. I was able to use the language that I had been learning to crack the code, and confidently listen as she repeated the question. Although I still don’t feel comfortable in moments where my communication fails to transfer, I’ve learned to respect these moments. I’m trying not to take shared language for granted, to remember the power of communicating through multiple avenues, so as to earn common ground after passing through uncertainty.

As I take an introductory language class, I am reminded of what it feels like to not comprehend and how sounds I would have once never understood become clear.

When I go to the MET high school to work with adult immigrants who are studying English, I am moving, but from a different angle, towards clearer communication - with steps of dissonance and confusion.

Because only moments after Maria shares her sentence, Margarita points out her mistake. She helps Maria to clarify her message. We look at both sentences, and everyone laughs, because it is funny to imagine Maria getting married in 1912. Some of the laughter, including my own, is out of relief, of having created and understood new language.

Moments where the message cannot be passed challenge us to feel each other’s intentions and trust that communication is possible - to be patient and also persistent.  I hope that working with learners to target high frequency language and maximize communication through English will be helpful to them as members of the Providence community. Through the community literacy program at the MET, I am always learning how to better communicate, how not to panic when things don’t make sense, and how to trust that I can be understood and understand others. I am constantly humbled and grateful.

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