I’ve been teaching a number of students lately who don’t speak English. I am not a bad ESL teacher, having some idea of what it is to be an ESL student and some idea now of how to speak well in English and how to teach. The big challenge is, of course, that when my student and I don’t speak each other’s language, we don’t understand each other.
That’s frustrating. We get through it, with humour, games, much pointing and silly gesticulating, pictures and a weird sign language that seems to get made up on the spot. Still, it’s annoying and maddening and hard and I remember that the temples destroyed on Tisha B’Av were not the first attempt we made to build a temple to be close to God. The tower of Babel was destroyed by God because we got too close (and too obsessed) and we’ve not understood each other since.
It’s even more annoying and maddening and hard when I think of how many times I find myself cursing language barriers, even when I’m speaking to a person in a language we’re both supposedly fluent in. This seems to be a much too frequent occurrence, described by enough people that I don’t think I’m the only one it happens to. It’s easiest to see it in movies, of course, where everything is exaggerated so we can all understand. This one says “I guess we shouldn’t see each other any more,” and you can tell that the real meaning is “please hold me and tell me it’s going to be OK, and love me and this is the only way I can tell you that I’m scared and worried about our relationship and feeling a little hopeless.” That one says, “well, let’s give it one more try,” and it’s clear that actually, it’s more like, “ew, you smell funny and are way too clingy, and I only went out with you because my Mom asked me, but I’m too polite to tell you how uncomfortable you make me.” You have this strong desire to climb through the screen and bash their heads together and explain it to them. Of course, if it’s a comedy, you laugh.
I laugh too. I laugh because I remember how lonely and awkward and sad it can feel when this happens – and how often it does – and the alternative is getting depressed and laughing is better. It’s hard to make words say what we want them to! I can think of any number of times when I’m trying to express, “wow, your last sentence was irritating but not enough to make me want to say anything so I’m not but I’m still feeling a bit uncomfortable and I’d say something except it’s too late, and you’d react really negatively and also I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve said something similar, but it really does bother me and I wish you could know that .” Instead, what comes out is an expression that mostly looks constipated.
That might be a small example, but they build up, leaving me feeling shut in to a world that’s much too small and much too lonely. I can’t stand it. It’s painful and annoying, angry making and disappointing, and broken that I can’t communicate to people. I’m reasonably good at English these days. I’ve learned many words. I can tell you the difference between a conjunction and an interjection, and what to do if you meet either one in a lonely, dark paragraph. I can explain the difference between turn on, turn in, turn up, and turn out and why none of them have much to do with rotating one’s body. I can edit essays, proofread poems, and review resumes (call me if you need any of those done). Yet still, I often feel unable to communicate.
God, I’m sure had a reason for making this so hard. Maybe humility? (“Are you feeling a bit constipated, sweetie?”) Maybe to make us work harder? Maybe to reinforce the importance of independent action? Or to teach us that communication matters? Maybe to teach about caring. It’s caring that lets those people in the romantic comedy get through that awkward conversation and finally end up happy with the partners they want. It’s caring that lets me let go of that confusing reaction to what was actually an utterly unimportant statement.
It’s Elul, and working on communication is important. I use my best language skills to write and talk about how I can connect to people. In the end though, I don’t have much. Just when I write my most brilliant words ever, I realize that no one understood a word of what I said! (“You could try some prunes…”) I’m left with exactly what I’ve got with my ESL student. We get through it, with humour, games, much pointing and silly gesticulating, pictures and most of all – caring. It’s not a fix for the tower of Babel, but it helps us laugh and it gets us through, together.