I sat through four years of high school French—four long, hard, years. That’s four years of snarkily pronouncing “bonjour” as “bon-jur.” Four years of counting the seconds as they ticked off of the oversized analog clock in the far corner of the room. On my last day in this Francophonic purgatory, I gathered all of my French supplies: the notebooks filled with doodles, the workbooks full of red pen, the folders filled with handouts that I never looked at (and never would). I dropped all of these things into the recycle bin, staring directly into my poor French teacher’s eyes. I was done—done with foreign language, done with exploring other cultures—I would speak English, and only English, for the rest of my life and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Fast-forward two and a half years and I’m sitting across from a student from Shanghai, listening intently as she tells me about Chinese festivals and how they compare to American holidays. So what had happened? Had I matured this significantly since high school? Why would I suddenly subject myself to this type of learning, which I had sworn off of years ago? I can’t help but think of The Godfather Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Video courtesy of Paramount Pictures, “The Godfather Part III”
Just one of the many similarities between myself and Michael Corleone
(Except for the verb-tense issues).
The truth is, when I started working at the loop writing center, working with non-native English speakers was something that I was dreading. I didn’t want to have anything to do with spoken language. After all, I’m a writing guy. That’s how I got this job in the first place. When I imagined these conversation partner appointments, I thought back to high school. I thought back to all of the times where I had to have graded conversations with my French teacher. I remembered the way that her left eyebrow would creep up in judgment immediately after I made a mistake (or a “faux pas” as she used to call it). How could this possibly be any different? The situation is inherently a little awkward: someone scheduling an appointment to talk to someone else. Of course, we aren’t just talking: we’re improving their conversational English. I guess I just had a hard time picturing anyone actually wanting to go above and beyond in a foreign language class. So it was with more than a little apprehension that I began my first few conversation partner appointments.
What I discovered after speaking with several English learners was that these students are not at all like me in my French class. They are genuinely enthusiastic about learning English and genuinely thankful that we, as UCWbL tutors, are helping them to improve. I also discovered that often these students know more about the mechanics of the English language then I do: they talk about the subtle differences between the regular past-tense and the past-perfect tense, the differences between a direct object and an indirect object, and a host of other things. In short, they are the kind of writers that my French teacher wished that she had, and I am grateful for the opportunity to engage and learn from them.