“I’m awake at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning,” should never be the words out of someone’s (well, my) mouth.

Alas, there I was this a.m., blurry-eyed and droopy-tailed, waiting for our teeny-boppers to roll out of bed and into their last-minute 8 a.m. volleyball practice.

Surprise! I’m a “Parent”!

As of late, I have been smacked with a deeper appreciation for my parents, since I am now awkwardly some semblance of one…to one 100 fourteen to sixteen year-old girls.  

The students we are responsible for are…well, I’m not quite sure yet.  It’s only been 2 weeks on campus with our little women.  Of course they are inquisitive, hopeful, cheeky, sassy, thoughtful, and hard-working, but I don’t really know them well enough to properly describe them at this moment in time.  The gargantuan neon-coloured elephant on campus, Language Barrier, keeps yanking back the rope on the “get to know you” process.  

The girls in our building have a wide range of English skills – candy for a linguistics nerd like myself.  Understandably they prefer to speak their mother tongues, Korean and Chinese, instead of the school’s mandatory “language of inclusion”, English.  It is harder to convince the girls to use it without the doom of being graded.  As such, it is nearly impossible to have an edge when we’ve caught them sneaking around past lights out, or groaning to each other when asked about homework.

Multi (-Lingual) Personalities

As a multi-lingual individual, I can empathize.  It is exhausting (as well as exciting) to think, feel, and express oneself in a foreign language.  I have not (yet!) had to do so while living in another country, however I can imagine what it’s like.  

Many people who speak more than one language will say they feel as though they are a different person, or altered version of themselves when using another language to communicate.  I have discussed this with countless friends and students who can identify with this.  Some of them delight in the possibilities of shedding an old skin and developing a new one to add to their Self.  Others I’ve talked with feel restrained and saddened by the change.  

Recently, this topic surfaced during a conversation with my boyfriend.  He grew up overseas and speaks several languages, English being one of them.  He expressed how wonderful it felt to have someone speak with him in the language he used growing up in school.  I could hear the relief and joy in his voice as he recounted the interaction.  Finally he could communicate in a manner that fit part of his personality, a part of his whole Self, that he doesn’t get to most days at work, in daily interactions, or with me.  He explained to me that the semantics of the language they spoke in was more direct, forward, and to the point.  If he were to speak the same words in the language we share, he would be misunderstood as blunt or rude.  I might not recognize him, there is such a noticeable difference.

How Do You Understand Someone Without Language?

I have the utmost respect for people who need to learn the language to survive in a new country.  Interacting with 100 teenage girls, whose mother tongue I have barely scraped the surface of, has been a frustrating to say the least.  I want to get to know and understand them so that I can do my job – help them with homework, being homesick, and the daily fun of being a teenage girl. 

I’m in a unique position because, despite moving to a non-Anglophone country to work, it isn’t imperative for my survival to learn Korean.  Life/Work (there is no separation of these) is bubble-wrapped.  The majority of teachers and people in positions of power here are anglophones from around the world.  Employees and students whose native tongue isn’t English are required to speak it in class.  In the residence the rule is “English, please”, but we’re not quite there.  I feel conflicted enforcing it and haven’t yet found an effective way to motivate students to practice their English.  I hope that as I earn their trust and respect that they will practice more.  It is a tricky line to walk, especially as a guest, and one I am aware of at all times.

On the Plus Side…

On a happier note, there have not been any jailbreaks (girls sneaking out to visit friends after lights out).  I had a couple of wonderful chats with students who had academic questions but stayed for conversation.  I must say, it finally felt worthwhile being here.

Thanks for reading!  🙂

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