Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lesson No. 1: Laughter Needs No Translation

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lesson No. 1: Laughter Needs No Translation

Article excerpt

"What's it like," a fellow volunteer in Laos asks, "teaching in one of the last communist governments on earth?"

"It's hard," I say, "to make them do homework."

It's probably because I've confused them so much. Just the thought "Intermediate English" leaves a cramped, wiggly feeling in my throat, like a small frog there trying to get out.

My classroom at Communist Party Headquarters in Vientiane is the size of a one-car garage. Four windows frame a sizzling egg-yolk sun, a profusion of coconut palms, and fuchsia orchids clinging to a chain-link fence.

A rickety green fan wobbles overhead as the Intermediate English class - 12 middle-aged men in gray uniform and three women in ankle- length silk skirts - file into the U-shaped configuration of desks. Their rubber flip-flops go thwip-thwip-thwip, chairs scrape the floor, papers rustle. I push my round metal glasses high on my nose, hoping the frames lend maturity to my face. It's my third week teaching; I need all the props I can get.

"We'll review the verb 'to be,' again." Since Day 1, I have floundered. "These are the tenses of the verb 'to be,'" I say, boring myself. "This is the present - for today, now." I translate a little into Laotian, as the marker squeals across the board, "and the past. We did these last week."

This fails to stir the flat quicksand in their eyes.

"And next is the past perfect, that you use when...." I squint through a column of sunlight, wishing it would beam me upward, as in an Italian painting.

"Mr. Kamfan," I say, "please read the rule for past perfect. Bottom of the page."

I forgot: Three of the men are named Khamfanh, Kamfanh, and Khamfan. In Laotian, a tonal language, they sound different.

"Kam-fan," I say again.

The trio confers in whispers. One of them looks up, "Me?"

"Yes, you."

A Laotian man with black, square glasses reads the rule in halting English.

"OK, do you all understand?"

Silence.

"I want you to work in pairs," I say, "on Exercise 3."

They gaze at me, motionless.

"OK," I relent, "we'll continue together."

At the end of class I ask, "Any questions?"

One of the Kamfans raises his hand. "Teacher, can you explain the verb 'to be'?"

"That's what we covered in class today. Anything else?"

"How old are you?"

"I'm ... older than you think."

For the first time, they smile, as if forgiving me the immaturity I'd hoped to conceal. They gather their books and depart, the thwip- thwip-thwip of flip-flops fading. "Bye, teacher," they call. I wince at the word.

I might have resigned myself to failure but for the beginner's class, an hour later. They speak no English beyond what we've covered in Unit 1. They breezed through greetings, names, introductions. I feel a proprietary affection toward them. Maybe it's their curiosity, the spark of pure intention that is the beginner's gift. …

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