5 Things You Learn When You Don’t Share a First Language With Your Students

I can lip-read both Spanish and Amharic profanity from thirty yards, and that’s without my glasses.

I teach at a school that is about 70 percent Hispanic, and the rest mostly Ethiopian or Bangladeshi. The kids are mostly bilingual; the parents are mostly not. And I don’t speak Spanish. I know, I know. I should learn Spanish. You’re right. I totally should. And if you’ll come over and babysit my four-year-old while I’m studying, and if you’ll pay for Rosetta Stone, I’ll get right on that.

It’s not all bad, though. It’s actually been a really educational experience for me. In fact, here are some things you learn as a monolingual teacher at a school for immigrants.

1. You can curse fluently in multiple languages.

I can lip-read both Spanish and Amharic profanity from thirty yards, and that’s without my glasses. And then when they call their mamas on my cell phone to explain exactly what they said and why, I can tell if they’re accurately reporting it. This was, obviously the first skill I picked up.

2. You gain a very specific vocabulary.

I know how to say, “He doesn’t do his homework,” “She needs to try harder,” and “No, I didn’t mean to hit him in the head with that dry erase marker. I was aiming for the kid next to him.” And that’s usually enough to get me through your basic parent-teacher conference.

3. You get really good at pantomime.

When my own son was born, he stayed in the school nursery with a student’s parent who, naturally, spoke no English, so we developed an elaborate system of charades. My favorite performances include “We Need More Diapers,” (performed by Mama Buena, as we call her), “He Crawls Backwards!” (also by Mama Buena), and “He Fell Off the Couch This Morning, Do You Think He Has a Concussion,” (performed by me). These communiques vary from simple pointing and smiling to an acrobatic performance that could serve as an audition piece for Cirque du Soleil. It was actually a great way to lose the baby weight!


4. You lose all sense of dignity in communication.

I used to be embarrassed to try to speak Spanish to parents, especially in front of the kids. I find that it really decreases their buy-in if, you know, they think their teacher is a moron. But sometimes, it can’t be avoided. In those cases, I’ve learned to embrace the ridiculousness.

Last year, I had to talk on the phone to a parent. We’d raised something like $600 for a kid whose mom was having surgery, and I had to get the money to her. The (Spanish-speaking) teacher who was supposed to facilitate the delivery was out of the room, and the mom called my cell phone.  I tried English first. No luck.  Then I tried what I call “Southern Spanish,” which just means speaking English louder and slower. Still no. So I tried to explain in Spanish. “We are bring money at you!” I think I said. “Much money at you house. We are give it. For the body. We are give money at you for the body now. Is good?” It sounded like I was trying to purchase a corpse on the black market, but we managed to give her the money.

5. You eat good.  Real good.

There’s an assumption that if you don’t speak the language, you’re totally unfamiliar with the culture. And that’s great, because then kids and their families really want to introduce you to the important parts of their heritage. Oh, some homemade injera with my lunch?  Sounds great!  Have I ever tasted posole before? Well, maybe a time or two, but I certainly wouldn’t turn it down. Occasionally a kid asks me if I’ve ever tasted a quesadilla, and I’m tempted to say no in the hopes they’ll bring me one.

So yes, I should really learn Spanish. Or, possibly, use my overdeveloped pantomiming skills to become a street theatre artist.  Either way, working at overcoming language barriers has been an extremely educational experience for me.  Would you like to see my performance of “Yes, He Did the Homework, But It’s Covered In Pictures of Penises?”  It’s one of my favorites.