October 10, 2012

The boys are wearing suits. Is there anything more adorable than a 7 year-old boy in a suit? The girls at this school are wearing black jumper dresses with white lace trim and any kind of pants/jeans/leggings underneath. Their long black hair is done up in braids or buns or ponytails, and adorned with white poufy bows or flowers.

Class begins with all the students standing. The teacher says “Good morning, students.” They respond, in unison, “Good morning, Teacher.” It continues, “How are you?” “I’m fine, teacher, how are you?” “Fine. Thank you. Please sit down.” The students sit down, and, for some of them, that will be the only English they speak today.

Today was my second day visiting classrooms. Since I am a teacher trainer, I do not have my own students. Instead, every other week I will sit-in on the classrooms at three different schools and interact with the students and team teach with the official teacher. The English the students are taught here is very formal with a heavy focus on grammar. I have seen the older students’ notebooks and their writing is accurate and they use complete sentences. But, when you speak to them, or when they ask a question, it is clear that they are struggling.

I am all too familiar with this, from the students’ perspective. I studied Spanish for 4 years in high school and Italian for 2 years in college; I studied a few other languages on my own for a few months here and there.

But, I only speak English.

And that’s why I’m here, literally on the other side of the world, because I know how difficult it is to learn a language when your only exposure is a few hours a week between class time and homework assignments. Without the opportunity to speak with a native speaker, a language doesn’t move from the page; it doesn’t become natural. Of course, the difference is that I studied Spanish in San Diego where there was ample opportunity to speak to native speakers yet I was so embarrassed about being wrong that I wouldn’t dare, whereas here in Mongolia, I may be the only native English speaker, and the only American, these students have ever seen.

In each of the four classrooms today, I introduced myself by answering questions the students thought up. For the most part, the questions were pretty straightforward: “What is your name?” “How old are you?” “Where are you from?” “Can you ride a horse?” Somewhere in there, I realized that I am a good fit for this position because I have no guard to let down.

The second class asked me to sing a song in English. In a classroom with 45 students, at ten-something in the morning, I sang a verse from the first song that popped into my head, Corner of the Sky from Pippin, a musical I did in high school.

Several of the classes asked “what are your hobbies?” but one asked a follow-up question, “What does yoga look like?” How could I not show them? I flowed into a Warrior I, Warrior II, Reverse Warrior, Triangle, explaining each position as I settled into it. I looked up to see camera phones pointed my way.

I will give them what they want, if they are asking in English. There’s no telling the foolishness I will endure, smiling all the way.

And what do I get from it? One class sang the Mongolian version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” And I was happy.