Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On not laughing

Some years ago now, I worked in a learning centre which used government funds to provide really low cost IT skills training to the general populace. Most of our students were either middle aged women re-skilling to get back into the job market or senior citizens wanting to learn how to use computers.

The terminology was completely alien to especially the latter group and they adopted all sorts of approaches to try to make the jargon stick. Since many of them started out being utterly terrified of computers, it was important for us to encourage them at every turn, which meant not laughing, no matter what they came out with.

I kept a straight face through sloppy disks. Slippy disks. Flippy disks. Tick with the mouse. Broadsheets. Microsoft Exceed. Words. I didn't laugh when a lady tried to use her mouse like a remote control and point it at the screen. I maintained my composure through it all. Although sometimes it was tough, I reminded myself constantly to focus on the effort and the achievement, not the unwitting results.

Yesterday I was glad of it, when the young Korean lad who cleans my house to earn a bit of extra money while he attends a local language school came and asked please to buy "What is this?" He held out... oh no... a lint roller refill. I kid you not. He is the sweetest kid and so earnest and keen to learn. He tried very hard to copy what I was saying and, when he finally managed "lint row repew" I decided that was close enough. I was delighted that this little session emboldened him to ask another favour.

Apparently his English host family has asked him to say grace before the meal, and he would like to be brave enough to try. Would I please help? I wrote down a short prayer of the sort we say: "Lord, we thank you for this food. Bless the hands that prepared it and bless our fellowship. Amen."

He worked so hard at this, practising as he pottered about, that he made my heart swell. How the Almighty must have felt, being thanked so profusely for a future meal, I can only imagine!

As he left the house, he tried out his little prayer on me. I gave him the thumbs up and he set off with a broad grin.

Such a small thing. Yet it meant so much to him.

At times like this I wonder how many other teaching/learning moments we miss because we only notice the funny side of people's attempts to master a new skill.

Of course, I don't want to become so intense that I lose my sense of humour, but it was a sobering thought. I can't wait to find out how it went.


V Yonkers said...

And yet, sometimes laughter makes language learning so much less embarrassing. When I was learning to speak French and Spanish, it felt good to laugh at my own mistakes and understand how silly they were. I once had a conversation with my landlady about a student who was looking for a "vaca" to study instead of "Beca". In Spanish they sound alike. I thought I was having a conversation about a scholarship that this Biology professor was looking for to study in the US (una beca) whereas my landlady heard about the cow this biology professor was looking for to study in the US. She kept asking me why she needed to look in the US when they had plenty of cows/scholarships in Costa Rica!

When we finally got the meanings sorted out, we both laughed until we had tears. If she had been embarrassed to tell me, rather than laughing when she realized the misunderstanding, I would have 1) been uncomfortable speaking to her in the future or 2) continued to talk about my students looking for cows to study in the US!

The upsycho said...

@Virgnia Good point, and there are other anecdotes I could share, where much laughter did ensue, that they are quite rude (although that wasn't the intention of the parties involved at the time!)