Thursday, 18 August 2011

No Hablo Espanol

My lovely home in Oaxaca
When I began my teaching practicum, somebody told us that there are two kinds of teachers: those who loved school and those who hated school.  I am in the former group.  I always enjoyed learning and mastering new skills.  As a typical "eldest child," I also enjoyed the praise and affirmation of achieving success in school.  I had a fairly positive experience as a student, so a challenging semester in Mexico was incredibly valuable to me as a teacher.  I had the opportunity to learn what it is like to be in a country with limited language skills. It is difficult to fully explain the feeling of incompetence that I possessed most of the time, but I truly believe that every teacher (every Canadian, really) should experience life in a country in which they do not understand the language.

Walking into town.  This is the "tourist area."
I arrived in Mexico with a semester of introductory Spanish, a two-week church trip to Costa Rica, and this as my only experience with the Spanish language.  I was teaching ESL, so I wasn't worried about the language barrier in the classroom because we were teaching in English.  For some reason, however, I assumed that eating Mexican food would be my greatest challenge and didn't consider the language barrier as much as I should have.  The food was outstanding; my Spanish was not.

My PDP classmates and I were placed with separate homestay families in the same area of town.  We spent eight weeks living in the city of Oaxaca and, while the town square was heavily populated with English-speaking employees and tourists, we lived further north in a "real" neighbourhood. After my first meal with my Mexican homestay family, I knew that I was in over my head!  I also realized that I needed to become comfortable with incompetence, and accept that I would not master the language in eight weeks, something which was not easy for me.

When I got into the shower one morning,
this little guy was peering down at me.
I encountered several "cucarachas" and won.
I quickly learned that I preferred to spend my time with my English-speaking classmates.  We would see our fellow teachers and Faculty Associate at our practicum placements and in seminars during the day.  After dinner with our homestay families, we would often get together for coffee in the evenings.  I looked forward to that time, as well as any excuse to spend time with them on the weekend.  My homestay family was very nice, but I couldn't have deep conversations with them.  I might be able to describe my day or compliment the meal they had prepared, but that was about it.  I realized how much I crave deep, meaningful interaction with others.  I also discovered escape and avoidance were generally preferable to perseverance.  Logically, I knew that I would benefit from hard work and "sticking it out" but I really needed to escape on a regular basis.

At cena, a larger meal held around 3:00pm, I spoke Spanish with my homestay family and listened to their conversations.  An hour of that completely exhausted me, even if I understood the conversation.  It is difficult to explain how struggling to communicate can be physically exhausting, but it really is!  I always excused myself for a "siesta" after that.  In lieu of a nap, I usually listened to English music, read, wrote in my journal, or watched Law and Order on my bedroom television.  I desperately needed to hear English.  A break allowed me to recharge and continue conversations in the house or in the community.  While I always enjoyed "study breaks" as a student, this was the first time that I really felt that I depended on them.  I do not like allowing students to wander the halls but I really do understand why some need a quick break when learning a difficult concept.  Sometimes it is avoidance; sometimes they simply need to recharge.  Both reactions are natural and, when I notice a student seeking escape from the room or a task, it allows me to check in with him or her in order to break the task down or further explain a concept.

I don't have one of these, but Trader Joe's
carries some fantastic handmade corn tortillas!
Throughout my time in Mexico, there were many times when I was completely uncomfortable and out of my element.  That was a wonderful thing.  I learned to become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and was able to have a tiny glimpse of life as an exchange student.  It allowed me to have more meaningful discussions with my students when, a short time later, I accepted my first temporary contract as a high school ESL teacher.  When I think of the challenges I faced at the age of twenty-two, I can't even imagine how young students feel when they come to Canada on exchange.  I also don't know how new immigrants deal with the fact that they have made a permanent move.  By the end of my time in Mexico, I was able to engage in basic conversations with strangers and my homestay family, but I was certainly glad to return to Canada in time for Christmas.  I honestly don't know what it would be like to move to a new country permanently, but a tiny glimpse into this experience significantly impacted me as a teacher and as a Canadian when I encounter those who have made a life-changing move.

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