By Kristopher Fernandez
As any middle-school teacher will attest, teaching twelve-year olds is challenging. Commanding respect and attention is difficult under any circumstances, and it is even more difficult if they speak a different language. It is this situation in which I found myself when tutoring at the Wang YMCA. My task was seemingly very simple – I was tasked with tutoring recent immigrants in their middle-school classes by using some combination of Chinese and English. Immediately, I knew I was out of my depth. Up until that point, I had assumed that my Chinese vocabulary was somewhat adequate – I could speak about the names of college classes, different characteristics of my family members, certain political issues, and many other useful topics. But when a wide-eyed preteen asks me in Chinese what refraction is or how an algebraic equation translates onto the Cartesian plane, it was very apparent just how much I was missing.
This challenge became a blessing in a way that is very unique to a service-learning program: because my main priority was teaching as opposed to learning the language, it allowed for a separate, distinct method of learning from the classroom experience. In class, my focus is on learning vocabulary and grammar in order to do the homework and pass the tests. Fluency and pronunciation is secondary, to an extent. While volunteering, effective communication is all that matters. Perfect grammar and precise vocabulary go out the window; when describing refraction my explanation translated as “The light’s (hand motions for rays) go down and hit water and then go sideways.” Not a great teaching moment, maybe, but the important thing is that my student actually understood the material. I effectively taught a willing student a scientific concept in a language that I mercilessly butchered.
It was at this moment that I realized the value of going out into a community and actively practicing language. Precision in grammar and a wide vocabulary are, of course, the ideal, but in twice-a-week foreign language classes these are little more than pipe dreams. Passable communication, as a low a bar as this sounds, is a substantial goal that classroom foreign language classes do not sufficiently emphasize. When I move from the classroom to a conversation with a native speaker, a thousand different things can go wrong; they can have a different accent, they can speak too quickly, they can use slang from certain regions. Being able to function in this type of setting is just as important as learning grammar patterns, and this is not an experience I would have had if not for service-learning. Because in the end, language is not just about rules; it is a method of communication.