Margin Notes: Speak

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On Mondays, I help teach English to Italian fourth graders. It’s not so much teaching as giving short vocabulary presentations then helping them write sentences — which turns into a Q&A. “Do you eat corn dogs in America?” one boy asks me. “Does Trump live in Massachusetts?” another asks. The 9 year olds all giggle nervously, noting a knowledge of American politics that surprises me, before the teacher shushes them and turns to me apologetically. I laugh and point to Washington, D.C. on the map.

rachael allenThe next round of questions revolves around fast food: “Is McDonald’s good in America?” “Do you have Burger King?” “Burger King,” the teacher repeats, her accent making the words sound strange. She shrugs and looks at me. She has told me she doesn’t know much English, but the little she knows obligates her to try to teach the kids. Later, in high school and college, English education will be more formalized, but for now, it consists of American students coming to talk about their country, translate words and, mostly importantly, speak.

“Eggs,” the teacher asks me to repeat, so the students can hear my accent and get used to the sound of English. I stand next to her and repeat. I feel like I’m on show, praised for the seemingly mindless act of saying breakfast foods aloud. The feeling is unsettling. At the same time, the feeling is gratifying, after weeks of being the one to ask people to repeat words (ironically, the Italian word for eggs is one of the most difficult for me). The kids repeat the word, and then I circle around the classroom, helping them translate words to write sentences. They’re patient with me, in Italian explaining words like “seafood” or “chia seeds” until I understand or pull out my phone’s translator app. Among them, I don’t feel silly. In teaching English, I have something to offer them. In being 9 and accepting, they’re generous with their enthusiasm.

This balance shifts once I leave the classroom, the power dynamic of language coming into play. How difficult the simple act of speaking becomes. I’ve often been inarticulate, but I’ve always had the words with me, waiting to be dredged up like coins from the bottom of a purse. Here, however, the bottom of my purse is empty or filled with only pennies when I need a nickel. My ability to pull out Italian words and conjugations feels incredibly small, especially compared to my Mary Poppins-sized bag of English.

Last week, for example, my Italian roommate graduated and was kind enough to invite me to her party, a dinner buffet with her friends and family. I sat at the end of the table with some of her friends I knew, trying to follow their conversation. A few times, I spoke with the girl next to me or asked a question, but most of the time self-consciousness quieted me. I felt embarrassed to slow down the conversation with my broken Italian, but moreover frustrated with myself that I wasn’t taking advantage of this opportunity to practice.

So much of my mood here depends on my boldness in practicing the language. I felt disappointed after the party, but then the next day pleased that I went to a café by myself and had a morning espresso elbow-to-elbow with Italians at the stand-up bar. These tiny, successful moments — signing up for a library card, giving a tissue to someone in class, making a reservation on the phone — build up, bringing a confidence for the bigger moments (i.e. party of 30 plus Italian friends). They make me want to listen more to my shoulder angel who has perspective from her perch, who knows it’s not a big deal if I flub up pronunciation or take double the time to construct a sentence. Who knows that perhaps the lesson is about not only getting out of your comfort zone, but also learning to stop defining it.

Back home, I still probably would have felt uncomfortable going to a dinner buffet where I didn’t know anyone well. Yet being able to communicate only the basics in Italian makes me want to take better advantage of all I could say in English. How have I ever felt lost for words? How have I so willingly let the unsaid slip into conversations and ended up not saying what I really mean? Of course I know how — it’s natural, it’s habit. It will continue to be unavoidable, at times. Yet I haven’t thought about the act of speaking English before because I haven’t had something with which to compare it. Now that I do, I want to tuck these feelings of frustration and satisfaction with the Italian language into my suitcase like souvenirs, reminders to speak, to use the words I have.

Rachael Allen is a junior at Bowdoin College and a lifelong Canton resident. The recipient of several writing awards, she currently serves as the managing editor for Bowdoin’s student newspaper, the Orient.

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