Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Learning English

Most of the kids we work with at swimming lessons are learning English. They speak some other language at home and they are just starting to spend full days with people who speak English. It's not too alarming with the two and three year-olds. Even the most WASPy American ones have a pretty limited vocabulary at two. They learn a new word every day and babble way more than they make sense. Yesterday I taught all my kids the word shallow. So the gap between a two year-old whose parents are English-speakers and whose parents are Chinese-speakers is usually pretty small in my experience,

It is shocking, however, when I get a five year-old who doesn't speak English. This summer is the first time it's happened to me in awhile. His teacher introduced him "This is [we'll call him Oscar] and he is learning English. He should pretty much understand what you're saying, but his first language is French." My first thought was a sigh. It's nothing like teaching an adult English language learner because the kid is much more likely to put himself in some stupid, dangerous situation. It's nothing like teaching a two year-old learning English either because the little ones just do what you say trustingly (whether they know what you are talking about or not) while the five year-olds ask why and how (even if those are the only words they know). It's easier to teach someone who is learning English than special needs, but only barely.

Oscar is always swimming away. He's never doing the drill. He barely improves. It's frustrating for both of us. I want to put away this arrogant American idea that everyone should know English (especially because I don't actually know any other languages), but when the only thing I'm sure we have in common is the word "no" I find a little fury that we can't communicate better. I know he's smart, but sometimes I don't know what to say to even keep him safe in the pool. It's all ok. Nobody has drowned yet, but I prefer the ones with excellent vocabularies if I'm honest.

One word really surprised me last week. After his lesson a five year-old was asking "What's that?" to everything around the pool deck. After we went through the names and various uses of flippers, fins,  pull buoys, and blocks he [we'll call him Graham] pointed to one thing and I notified him that they were called diving sticks. "They sink because they are heavy, right?" I cringed. Two years of high school physics made me abhor the word heavy. I looked at Graham and said,  "Well, if we want to get scientific about it the heaviness isn't really what makes it sink." Graham cut me off. "Is it because they are denser than water?" I... Yes. Denser. I agreed with him.  He even knew what it meant. That's the kind of vocabulary I can speak to. I brought out a rubber duck that was heavier than the diving stick so we had a ten-minute discussion about density. I don't know how you teach your five year-old words like density, but I appreciate it when I find a parent who has figured it out. I know they are all little, but I really respect kids who can use their words.

No comments: