Hands Inside the Language

I’m writing a new book these days. And I’m also teaching English as a second language to middle schoolers.  Maybe those two pursuits don’t seem of equal weight at first, but you’d be surprised.   I am every day.  Teaching ESL is like looking at the pond water sample under a microscope. Now I truly see what’s there.  There’s nothing like teaching the most basic parts of the English language: I am. You are. He is. She is.  We are. They are.  You begin to know why you know what you know. 
In the evenings I go home and apply everything I know that I know about language into crafting a story.  But I don’t forget the beauty and simplicity of mastering one’s “to be” verbs. You have to love the building blocks.   Perhaps an analogy might be a chef who both grows and cooks the food.  Who digs with a trowel the hole in the ground and places in a simple seed.  Gets his hands dirty.  Stoops a bit low.  Then waits and watches.  When the freshest, most delicious vegetables grow, his joy is doubled to cook them into a fine dish.  He knows his ingredients from beginning to end.   I like a job like teaching ESL to immigrants.  It keeps me humble. Teaching English as a second language gives me hands into the whole spectrum of language development and mastery.  Every day I am intrigued.
I’ve taught adult ESL. And now I teach ESL to 12 year old.  These kids are the lucky ones, not the adults.  Adults can only hope for the mental acuity to translate fast. That’s as good as it will get for adults.  The first language will always reign for adults who try to learn a foreign language.  But for kids who get immersed at a formative age, their brains will actually grow both languages simultaneously.
I have a funny, energetic 7th grade boy in my class this year named Alberto. He’s from Honduras.  He’d never stepped foot on American soil until last year, when he started sixth grade in Austin at 11 years old.  Last week we went outside to the soccer field when we had 20 minutes of class time to spare.  Alberto told me in nearly perfect grammatical English, “Ms., It’s so hard when you first get here and don’t speak English.  Last year I didn’t know any words in English.  It was so difficult.”
I point out the obvious victory inherent in this confession, “But here you are telling me in fantastic English how difficult it was to learn English.”  He smiled, an awe shuck sort of smile.  
Then he ran off to catch up to the soccer ball.  In ten years Alberto will  be 22 and there will be only a wisp, a faint hint of a Honduran accent when he speaks English. Most people won’ t even hear the accent by then.    And the memory of not knowing English for him will be a dim, distant thing.  Something floating away as a blurry memory of childhood.   He won’t be able to remember his Honduran self without the English mind.  He’ll tell himself in English what life was like before he knew English. 
This is the strange gift of immersion.  The gift of forgetting when you didn’t know what you know now.  And despite middle school being a generally awful time in life for most people, my ESL students are truly the lucky ones.  They refresh my sense of wonder at our capacity to give and receive language. 

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