In the spring of last year, many Arabic-speaking students on campus were contacted to volunteer with Austin Independent School District elementary schools as the district saw an influx of Arabic-speaking immigrants. From February to May, I worked with one fifth grader for four hours per week. When I met him, he had spent three months in the United States and was independently producing four words: paper, pencil, backpack and hello.
I quickly came to realize both of us were unprepared for this partnership. I was finishing my second year of intensive Arabic but mostly knew the Modern Standard dialect and spoke about current events and University life while in Arabic class. He was from Baghdad and spoke a dialect I had never heard or encountered, and he had not been in school long enough in Iraq to have learned the dialect of Arabic that I was speaking.
My conception of our partnership quickly changed. Both of us acknowledged that I was not able to communicate with him in the ways we wanted. But we enjoyed our time and had fun making jokes about language differences. There were still so many things we were capable of doing, and it was important to me he enjoyed our tutoring hours.
So we chose to start with math — his favorite subject. I learned the basic words of addition and subtraction in Arabic, and he focused on memorizing the names of all the numbers in English. As we began doing basic arithmetic with numbers in English, I saw why he was struggling. There are four corresponding symbols in both languages — 0, 1, 7 and 9 — but only 1 and 9 have the same numerical value in both languages. As you can imagine, this was confusing and annoying for him and his teacher, who recognized a patterned problem in his math but could not identify the source.
This one anecdote is the best explanation of my role at the elementary school. I helped communicate small things and used my Arabic to identify problems that might be missed by his other teachers.
He was going to learn English whether or not I was there. He went to an elementary school with a well established English as a Second Language (ESL) program and had a great relationship with his teacher. Also, most of the Arabic-speaking students at the elementary school had been there for over a year and could speak freely and answer questions with very few slips or grammatical mistakes. In an immersive environment with students that are young, language acquisition happens remarkably fast. But that doesn’t mean there are not months of confusion, frustration and loneliness. I was often thanked by his teacher for giving him a break, a time to ease the tension of the language barrier between them.
Heston is a history and Middle Eastern studies junior from Austin.