One of the most beautiful introductions I have witnessed happened on an ordinary fall day. I had word that a new student would be joining one of my schools, and I remember walking into the office that morning and seeing a girl sitting next to her mother. Her name was Mariam* and she had just arrived in Canada. And as I worked with her over the next year, I learned just what this bright and resourceful student was capable of. Despite having had the opportunity to attend only one year of school in her home country, she was literate in Arabic. And despite the fact that she was just learning English for the first time, she was able to quickly grasp curriculum concepts taught visually and with strategic translation, and demonstrate her knowledge in a host of ingenious ways.
But as I say, I was to learn all of this over the coming weeks and months. The first day of school, in a new country, surrounded by strangers and an unfamiliar language, she was understandably uncertain and worried.
With the help of an interpreter, we explained some of the daily routines, and gave her a tour of the school. We showed her where we would take her to be picked up by her mother at the end of the day, the washrooms, the drinking fountain. Several students had already eagerly asked if they could be her friend, and when she walked into her classroom for the first time with us, the entire class smiled and welcomed her.
But I could see that she was overwhelmed. And really, who wouldn’t be? The scary situations some children have navigate each day might make most of us adults freeze up in panic. Yet Mariam carried on. She walked to her desk and sat down, but when the attention of her classmates again focused on the teacher, I could see her quietly brushing away tears.
The girl sitting across from her noticed as well. Her name was Ellie*, and she said something reassuring in English but realized Mariam could not understand. I saw her pause, then look around until she spotted one of the class iPads on the table next to her. She took it, and began typing. For the next couple of minutes, I saw her hunched over the iPad in unwavering concentration, looking back and forth from the screen to her paper, onto which she was copying something. Finally she straightened up, looked at her paper one final time, and then passed it across the desk to Mariam.
Mariam hesitantly took the paper, and when she saw what was written on it, her entire expression changed in an instant. A smile like sunshine brightened across her face, creating a change in countenance so rapid and complete anyone walking in at that moment would assume she had been having nothing but a blast all morning.
I looked over at Ellie’s iPad and saw that she had been using Google Translate. She had typed in English “My name is” and then copied the translation of that phrase, the wobbly and earnest Arabic letters proudly centered in the middle of the paper. At the end of her carefully-copied script, she wrote her own name in English.
اسمي هو Ellie.
My name is Ellie. Said in a different way than usual, but all the more beautiful for it. Since Arabic reads right to left, the name “Ellie” was placed at the wrong end of the sentence. But Mariam knew what she meant.
Needless to say, a friendship was born.
And this introduction is just one of seemingly endless examples of the importance of first language in the classroom and the power it has, sometimes, to make all the difference.
*names have been changed