Foreign language experience I’m a functioning illiterate!I

I’m a functioning illiterate!

I have such a nice smile, or so I’ve been told many times. Therefore it’s only natural that I end up in the land of smiles. It seems that to be able to smile, be humble, have a good heart, as well as being able to politely point out objects and not people can get you by in most any land. Granted there will be times when you will be taken advantage of, but that’s just a cost, a price one must pay in being a functioning illiterate.

Having traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Senegal, France, Germany, Mexico, Singapore, as well as some small islands where English is not the primary language, I have a bit of experience in getting around. But it was during my six weeks in Japan (Tokyo), where I came to the realization that I’m truly a functioning illiterate. I don’t know the language. I can’t read any of the Japanese characters yet alone pronounce any of them, so by definition according to Japanese standards I’m illiterate. I did learn to say hello, good morning, good evening, and excuse me, and if I remember correctly I was able to count to ten. I have since forgotten how to count to ten in Japanese. (I highly recommend learning to count to ten in whatever language is required as one can always state a number regardless of the size by saying each one individually in lieu of writing it down or punching up on the calculator.) Further, by knowing a couple of words, it does show a little bit of an attempt to speak the language, which is all any native speaker really expects from a tourist/foreigner/farang just make an attempt.

Therein lays the problem, making the attempt. I have had the misfortune if you will, of being around many English speakers in my travels. The problem with this has been I have not made the valiant effort of learning the local language. Sure, if one is put in an area where there is only one language spoken, eventually out of necessity said person will have learned to speak as well as communicate in said language. Wow, if only that were true for me. I am astounded at how many people want to speak English to me or just ignore me all together thus eliminating any need for communication. Granted, I’m not the most vocal/interactive person and tend to just observe my surroundings. Nonetheless, those I interact with feel compelled to speak English to me and are very happy to say and attempt as much or as little English that they know. The benefit has been I can pretty much understand what a person is trying to say in broken English better than native speakers. I don’t think it helps me to communicate to them, but I can certainly understand them even if they don’t understand me.

One of the most frustrating things to observe is someone that doesn’t speak the local language getting frustrated at the person they are speaking to in English, because the local person doesn’t fully understand what they are saying (after all everyone should know English). Along with being frustrated with the local person for not understanding, they (the local person) are then thought of as being stupid or less intelligent because they don’t understand English. Now, seeing this in a market or out on the streets is one thing, but to see such arrogance in the classroom is quite another. It’s a bit appalling to listen to new want to be teachers saying how surprised they are that the students knew this or that, something so trivial they themselves would be thoroughly insulted if such a comment were directed at them. Not knowing a language doesn’t make you stupid, not being able to communicate or unwilling to communicate in any fashion… well that is up to you to decide. Understanding that if you are teaching English in a foreign country and if you are not fluent in the local language, who’s the illiterate one'

I mention this as a friendly reminder. You are teaching English, another means of communication. The fact a person doesn’t know English is by no means a measure of ones intelligence or ability. One’s ability to transfer this knowledge on to others is a gift. And the ability to do so in a fun and exciting manner is even more so a gift. The best way to enjoy a gift is to share that gift. As a TEFL teacher/instructor it is our responsibility to package that gift to make it as appealing to all we come in contact with as best we can. All we can do is put it out there as best we can. Taking this course opens the door for allowing you to share your gift with as many people as possible. And if we put it out there in such a manner that most will enjoy, hopefully at some point in the near future, there will be fewer and fewer functioning illiterates roaming this world.

Everyone is the same but different, never forget. People like to have fun, and if they just happen to learn something in the process, even better. So, even if you teach your students how to write that Pulitzer prize winning novel in English or teach them just how to say hello, all that really matters is that the student’s needs were met to his/her satisfaction. While one can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, remember, even half an orange is just as sweet.