I have never been so happy to hear the words ‘thank you’ in my life.
It was decades ago now, but I remember it as though it were yesterday. I had been teaching overseas a while at that point, and at times it felt like living in a different world. Waking up to a language that was not mine, slogging through one linguistic hurdle after another just to get through the basic errands in my day, and finally falling asleep at the end of it pretty much done-in. Please don’t misunderstand, I loved my job. It was an eye-opening and adventure-filled time like no other. But sometimes the exhaustion of continual translation and re-translation could tire me out in a singular way.
I was teaching in a city bordered by mountains to the north, and ocean to the south. Public schools there remained open for much of the summer, when temperatures reached into the high 30s. The school where I taught was perched just where the land began to rise. Below the school, the city stretched down towards the water. Behind it, the earth rose to towering green peaks.
Each weekday morning involved a train ride, followed by a trek on foot through hilly streets. In the heat of the summer, this slow ascent to the school gates was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was the backbreaking humidity that usually did me in, the wall of watery air that refused to let anyone cool down. This particular day I had been standing at the front of the class, windows open to motionless afternoon air. I began to write something, trailing white chalk down the dark green board. But before I finished the first letter stroke, the chalk crumbled in my hand, breaking into clumps from all the moisture it had absorbed in the humidity, and fell to the floor in pieces.
That image pretty much sums up the day I was having.
I was hot. I was tired. I missed my family. All I could think about was getting home and hopefully waking up to more hospitable weather the next day.
After school I made my way down the sloping streets to the subway entrance. The car was nearly full when I entered, but I managed to get one of the last seats.
As the train moved across the city, more and more people got on, the swell of commuters slowly building. At one of the final stops before mine, an older man walked through the sliding doors. He scanned the car hopefully but seeing no empty seats, he simply held onto the rail as the doors shut behind him.
I got up to give him my spot, and once he realized what I was doing he began to say something, and then stopped. He looked off to the side, as if mentally going through his old high school English classes, and then looked up at me. “Thank you” he said, in clear, bright English.
Those words appeared so suddenly, so unexpectedly. I stood staring at him with what I now hope was a relatively calm and normal expression, but the truth is I almost wanted to cry. I never heard any English during my daily staff meetings, none during my daily commutes and chores, and yet here it was. An indescribable gift in the middle of a crowded train ride home. Like finding an old friend in a room full of strangers. The sound of those two familiar words was beyond wonderful.
Years later and back in Ontario, I found myself at an ESL event at our school board. One of the guest speakers was a recently-graduated high school student. She spoke eloquently, telling us about her family’s journey from Somalia to Canada, and her own journey learning English from scratch as a teenager. I don’t remember how it came up, if someone asked her or if she volunteered the topic herself, but she began speaking about the things that had made a difference to her when she first arrived at her new high school, the things that made her feel welcome. She told us several teachers had made a point of learning a few words in Somali. When they first greeted her, she recalled thinking they might know even more Somali and asked them if they did. She laughed as she recounted one teacher saying “Oh that’s all I know!” From her story and her smile, it seemed to me it was a warm welcome indeed.
I am not the first to note that language, first language, is an inseparable part of identity. I did not realize the loneliness its absence could create until I experienced it myself. And I am continually overjoyed to see the ways in which many teachers across our board have tried to meaningfully include and use the languages of their students. From the teacher I saw having a basic conversation in Arabic with a newcomer family, to the teacher who takes language classes on his own time in the main languages of his students, to the thousands of friendly greetings and salutations in our schools, bringing a little bit of light and joy with each one … the multilingual framework continues to grow.
I was searching for a way to end this post that encapsulates the importance of first language, and what it means to all of us on a human level. In that sense, it seems only fitting to close with Nelson Mandela, who observed that when you speak to someone in a language they understand, it goes to their head; but when you speak to someone in their language, that goes to their heart. 1
To the heart, indeed.
1 paraphrased from a circa 1992 conversation excerpt in Nelson Mandela by Himself