The Illiterate Teacher: First Hand Tips for Navigating a Culture That Doesn’t Speak English

The Illiterate Teacher
First Hand Tips for Navigating a Culture That Doesn’t Speak English

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 4,015 views

Have you ever been illiterate?

That’s a crazy question, you might think. How on earth would I be reading a blog if I couldn’t read? It’s easier than you think. After completing my masters and spending several years in the classroom, I was suddenly illiterate. No, I didn’t have an unfortunate accident, a major cranial injury. I travelled overseas. To China, specifically. And though I didn’t know much of the Chinese language before I left, call me naive, it never occurred to me that I would be completely illiterate once the plane landed.

I will never forget that first day taking a taxi to the bank to exchange my American dollars for Yuen, looking at the signs above businesses and the billboards around the city, and realizing for the first time that I didn’t understand a word. I couldn’t read one character. My familiar ABCs were gone, and a cacophony of strokes and characters had taken their place. And while not every foreign language uses characters or a different alphabet from the one you see on the screen right now, it is possible to have extensive education and still be illiterate.

So what does a person do when they travel thirty-six grueling hours and find out they can’t have a conversation with a person on the street? You do what you have to.

Memorize useful phrases – I know. You’re an ESL teacher and memorizing phrases isn’t how you want your students to learn, so why should you do it? Isn’t it a bad example? Not really. Perhaps part of why you are teaching overseas is because you want to become fluent in the language they speak there, whether it’s Spanish or Chinese. But you have to remember that fluency takes time. In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey explains the difference between tasks that are important and tasks that are immediate. While important tasks sit at the top of your priority list, they can be usurped by more urgent tasks – things that need to be done right now. He gives the example of a phone call. Though it may not be an important call, the phone is ringing right now and answering it, whether or not it is important, can keep you from accomplishing other goals with higher priority.

Think of navigating a non-English speaking country as something that is urgent. Though becoming fluent in another language may ultimately be more important to you, today you have to take a taxi to the grocery store. So you compromise. Do what you need to accomplish the more urgent tasks while still working your way toward the more important task. In other words, the less than ideal means justify the more important but less urgent end. And that’s how memorizing phrases can come in handy. They help you accomplish what needs to be done right now. Getting from point A to point B. Later you can learn the grammar behind those phrases and why you use them when you do, but for now memorization serves a purpose.

In a similar vein is using cheat sheets, small slips of paper with useful phrases written on them. For example, when I arrived in China at the school I’d be teaching in, other staff members there gave me photocopies of cheat sheets that I could use to get around the city. The name of our school was on one, in characters and in English, some popular restaurants on others, the address of the international church, our apartment building, etc. I didn’t use all of them, and eventually I learned to say the names and addresses of those places, but when I first arrived I cannot tell you how invaluable those little slips of paper were. If I needed to take a taxi someplace, all I had to do was whip out the appropriate slip and show it to the cab driver and off we went.

No matter how well prepared you are to travel overseas, you are going to experience culture shock. One of those unexpected experiences came to me when I went to the market for the first time. I had to BARGAIN! I didn’t expect to be so uncomfortable bargaining over the price of peaches, but I was. I didn’t know how to do it. I felt like I was being rude. And memorized phrases and little slips of paper didn’t help me in that situation. What did help were five fingers. Body language. Where I was teaching (and shopping), the people used hand symbols to represent the numbers one through ten. Learning these gestures, this body language if you will, enabled me to communicate with the vendors in the market without having to speak numbers, one of the easiest aspects of a foreign language to understand and the hardest to put into practice. Odds are that wherever you are, specific body language is common and appropriate to use, and learning that body language can make communication a lot easier for you. Those gestures for numbers became so much a part of how I thought that when I had a layover in Hawaii on the way home, I couldn’t understand why everyone kept signaling the number six. (Kowabunga, dude!)

We Americans are independent people. We tend to feel that asking for help makes us appear weak. And even when our brains tell us that isn’t so, our hearts can still be hesitant to ask for help. It’s important to understand that aspect of our own culture because understanding it frees us to ask for help, and that’s another way to navigate your way through a foreign land. Ask for help. You are not alone even if, like me, you moved to the other side of the world without knowing a soul who would be there. You have coworkers. You have other expats in the community with you. If you need help getting around or navigating the paths of life, ask for help. No one is going to turn you away. I taught at an American school, so most of the other teachers in the school came from the U.S. I cannot tell you what a great help they were to me as I learned to conduct life, or at least parts of life, in another language. They were generous with their time and knowledge and even their homes, and without them I don’t know how I would have transitioned to my new life. You have people who are there for you, whether they are expats or natives to your host country. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do to navigate your way through a host country is to learn the language.

It’s definitely not a quick fix. Fluency takes time, and not all of us can do language studies in the appropriate language before we go overseas. But even if you find yourself illiterate like I did, make language studies a part of your life while you are there. I had a Chinese tutor who was patient and gracious and helped me learn enough Chinese to get around. I only taught overseas for one year, so I never became fluent in Chinese, but I did learn what I needed to get through the day and the taxi rides and the market. You’re a teacher. You know how valuable learning is. I won’t go into the merits of learning a foreign language here, but I will say the numerous benefits are worth the effort it takes to learn. If you don’t believe me, just ask some of your students.

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