A Lesson in Language and Empathy

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annie-rim-empathy4By Annie Rim | Twitter: @Annie_Rim

“How long have you lived here? Why don’t you speak French yet?”

Shame filled my chest and I quickly swallowed the cheap-but-smooth wine we relied on during those student days in Paris.

When I decided to attend college in France as an art history major, I assumed I would quickly pick up the language. Being immersed in a culture would make it easy, right? I was wrong.

I didn’t know whether or not to tell this cocktail-party stranger about the time when my French teacher yelled at me to go back to the United States, just weeks after arriving in Paris. Or how I felt when busy Parisians immediately switched to English at stores to keep the line behind me moving. Or of my deep homesickness that I felt nearly every day when I lived abroad.

Or of my longing for life to be easier and for others to understand me.

It isn’t the first time someone bluntly asked why I just didn’t try harder to learn French, insinuating I was lazy for seeking English-speaking friends. But when the cocktail-party stranger asked me that question, I blinked back unexpected tears, made some sort of self-deprecating joke, and quickly found a reason to leave the party, feeling once again like a failure.

***

Talk about education in the US, and the conversation often turns to the ability to choose a different, better school. Since the public schools in our area in Colorado are often “slowed down” by children who are struggling to learn English as a second or third language, parents start seeking schools that offer a rigorous and competitive curriculum.

I get it. When I was in fourth grade, the bilingual class I was a part of ended up weeks behind the English-only classes as my teacher translated and rephrased to help everyone understand. My class was separated into just two languages: Spanish and English. I wondered what my Vietnamese and Hmong classmates thought as two foreign languages swirled around them.

As parents, my husband and I haven’t had to put our ideals into practice yet. Our oldest is in preschool and we haven’t experienced our diverse neighborhood school firsthand. Rumor has it there are many immigrants who attend. Maybe those diverse schools won’t be a good fit for our family and we’ll choose to send our daughters elsewhere—we have that luxury.

Sending my kids to the neighborhood school, just a block away, isn’t a simple decision. Because of the way our education system is run, we are able to apply to any school–public, charter, or private—and hope our children are accepted to the one that best meets their needs. We are able to research the highest-performing schools in our district, as well as the surrounding ones. We are able to take the time to drive our children anywhere without worrying about gas money or making it to a job on time. We are able to ignore our neighbors in order to give our children the best education.

But I still remember my own struggles as a language learner. I remember my tongue would get tied and I would stress about not being fast enough. I would worry about grammar and pronunciation and being the dumbest student in class or the last to understand. I longed for a teacher or fellow student to say, “I get it. This is tough. Let me help you.”

I’m interested to see how my bright, eager-to-learn daughter adjusts to kindergarten next year. She has a thirst for learning that is contagious, and I hope it is nurtured, especially during these early years. But beyond being challenged in school, I hope her classroom is filled with kids who might not speak English at home. Who need to take a little extra time as they translate their thoughts. Who are every bit as bright and eager as my daughter, but have the added hurdle of navigating a new language.

Thinking about embracing our neighborhood school is a reminder that empathy can’t be taught through books. It can be absorbed and understood by sitting next to classmates who struggle. It can be put to practice by helping a mom who is new to the area better understand extra-curricular opportunities. It can become the norm when meals are shared with people from other backgrounds and perspectives.

As we prepare for this new school and meet new families and form friendships that will last for years, I hope to remember my time of struggle and learning. As I chat with moms, I need to remember to wait—to not jump in with suggestions for words or to finish thoughts, but to be patient, to listen, and to remember the power and strength it takes to do life in a foreign language.

I hope that in remembering my own experience as an “other,” I can model empathy to our daughters and help remove at least one barrier between me and my neighbor.

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About Annie:

Annie RimAnnie Rim lives in Colorado, where she plays with her inquisitive and independent daughters, hikes with her husband, teaches at an art museum, and grapples about life, faith, and community on her blog. You can connect with her on twitter or via her blog: annierim.wordpress.com.

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