My first real test of Hebrew, my second language, was a matter of life or death. At the time I didn’t have the opportunity to point this out to my professor, who promise this would never be the case to a scared college sophomore struggling to put the sounds of the language in a pattern that would classify it is a language. If I failed this test, some ones grandmother would die. I was a volunteer in Israel’s Magan David Adom, the Israel affiliate of the Red Cross /Red Crescent society and my first call out was a stroke victim. She was clinically dead when I arrived and my team and I brought her back to life.
The whole time the driver, the leader of an ambulance team, was giving me instructions in Hebrew. I did not have time to look things up in a dictionary. Any error could lead to a family being without their matriarch. I had to recite numbers and give explanations of what I was seeing the paitent do and it had to be all correct. My professor was wrong , learning Hebrew really was a matter of life and death.
It seems a life time away from my life now. Save a few mementos and some funny stories and a language I am desperately trying to keep in a miond that has seen Korean, Thai and now Chinese come and go, it seems almost impossible that it happened. But it did and I remember it fully.
These days however, it isn’t me who is learning the language. It isn’t a matter of life or death either (although I never tell them that) and now I am the teacher and not the student. However the fear is still there. I enter the room every day and seventy two students over the course of two classes (or one hundred and thirty on Tuesdays when I see all my students) await me.
I greet them with a happy “Hello Class”
They greet me with a thunderous “Good morning Josh”
Technically what I am doing is boring, describing it can be akin to have a dentist leaving a drill in your mouth and going out for a three course meal while you are forced to sit and suffer wondering if he will ever come back. First we work on word and word chunks, the cement that will glue a lifetime of learning English together. Then I work on activities designed to move the wholly abstract idea of a language with all its cultural meaning, muscular and chemical responses and of course grammar from the prefrontal cortex part of the brain where its life span can be measured in hundreds seconds to the hippocampus where it will reside, in theory, for the rest of their life and be used from endeavors ranging from ordering a hamburger to giving an acceptance speech for winning the top science prizes the world has to offer.
What is happening in the class, when things go right, is far more fun. Not only are we playing games and practicing the pronunciation of words but somewhere in their head they are storing the words and cross referencing them with far more important things like the latest episode of shi yung yung （a hilariously funny Chinese cartoon about a family of sheep who are constantly outwitting a wolf who tries and always ultimately fails to bring back the sheep to his wife for dinner）and the really funny thing that happened the day before in that show that they really want to share with .me because it was really funny and they know I will share many minutes of unbelievable laughter with them if they can just find the right words to describe it.
I am also providing a tool for unlimited solutions. No longer bound by the constraints of a single language, I am giving the children another tool to find out the solution of this labyrinth we call “life”. By teaching them the construction of sounds into a recognizable patterns I am providing them with a tool to find the way to accomplish things later on that people who only speak their mother tongue…be it Chinese, English or Swahili, can never accomplish.
From the moment I hear the “h” in my name until the moment the final bell rings it is frenzied action. The only pauses seem to happen when I forget to put there score up for getting something they have done correctly. I think it is the only time they take a breath, and even that breath they are searching for the words to tell me I forgot the increasingly important marks on the board。
For the first time in ten years I have truly started to enjoy watching others learn a language. It has become more than watching the natural progression of individual sounds becoming words, words becoming word chunks and eventually sentences fragments and eventually full blown sentences and discourse. Coming to the class has become something fun and something I have learned, over the past seven weeks, to appreciate as a physical manifestation more similar to the Eiffel Tower , The Pyramids, The Great Wall or other symbols of great human accomplishment.
It is a beautiful symphony of expression. I see their English be transformed from this often mysterious and proverbial scary monster hiding under the l bed to a comforting teddy bear, an inducer of impossible to stop giggle fits. It is something, as I watch them play with their new found superhuman ability, I hope never changes.