Friday, August 26, 2011

Teaching English and learning Samoan

When I was younger, many years before I studied abroad in New Zealand, I always told myself that I never wanted to visit a country where English was not the first language. At that time in my life, I wasn’t interested in travel and I was more of a homebody. For those of you that do travel, you know that once you go abroad, you don’t ever want to stop. Following my semester in NZ, I caught the travel bug and when I started thinking about other places I would like to visit, I noticed that almost all of the countries on my list were not English speaking countries.  Now that I am living and teaching in a place where almost everyone is an English language learner, I am constantly amazed at the strength, desire, and work it takes for people to speak to me in English.
Most of my 100+ students have an extensive English vocabulary. They can carry on conversations that I have started, as well as start conversations with me.  This is a relief as I was expecting (prior to coming here) most of my students to be at low speaking levels.  Every morning before first period, and usually between classes, I stand outside my door and greet all the students that walk by. It’s one of the highlights of my day because the overall Samoan culture is so friendly. Everyone wants to say hello and smile when they see me. We all know that in the USA, people are more prone to turn their heads or to look down when passing someone. That is not the case in AmSam.  But the funny thing is, (and this is a tangent off my English topic), high school boys are the same here as they are everywhere else. For some reason, whenever the boys say hi (and they are in a group), they start to giggle and playfully hit each other after they pass me. I find it hilarious. I've also got boys who aren't my students that like to tell me they love me as they run by my classroom. I just yell back "no you don't!" and I hear them hyena laughing as they keep running. But back to my original point – not all of my students can speak English well. In the second week of school, I had to have 2 girls transferred out of one of my mainstream classes because they did not understand a word I was saying. I would say something to them and they would look down at their desks. That alone was a sign to me that they needed to be in an English class with an instructor that could teach in both English and Samoan.
Then I’ve got the kids who speak at a “middle” level of English. They understand the majority of what I say, but if they don’t get something, they’ll speak to each other in Samoan to figure it out. I can always tell when they do this because they’ll get a puzzled look on their face, turn to someone who understood what I said, and ask them a question. This doesn’t bother me because I know that I can’t explain everything in a way that everyone can understand. Teaching English to speakers of other languages is not an easy task but it is rewarding in many, many ways.
The word “fabulous” has somehow popped its way into my vocabulary and I find myself saying it often, especially when I am checking my kids’ work. One day last week, I was looking over an assignment we were doing in class and as I stopped by each desk, I’d say fabulous as I checked it. I never really got a reaction, but at the same time, I wasn’t expecting one. Out of nowhere, one of my sweet but extremely quiet students said, “Miss Quinn, what does fabulous mean?” It caught me by complete surprise and I thought to myself, how could he not know what fabulous means? When I told him why I say it, he and many other students in the class went “Oh! We thought it meant that we were doing something wrong.” WHOA.  Like I said, I learn something new every day. The lesson I learned was that I have to slim down my vocabulary here…no more big fancy English words (unless I have time to explain them). But either way, at least my kids now know what fabulous means…J
Being a native English speaker doesn’t always make my life easy either. My Samoan speaking level is very low. I can say a few basic phrases and I can catch my students saying swear words (that totally caught them by surprise!) but other than that, I really have no idea what’s going on when I’m sitting in school meetings and they are spoken about 75% in Samoan. As frustrating as it can be, it’s also kind of fun to just sit back and listen. This past Sunday, I went to church for the first time, and for an hour and a half, I listened to an entire sermon in Samoan. The pastor spoke a total of three minutes in English, and as I was sitting there, I suddenly heard the word Jesus, which snapped me out of a daze. I remember thinking to myself, HEY! That’s ENGLISH! But as soon as I was able to start understanding, he went right back to Samoan. I really enjoy listening to the language and I hope that throughout the rest of my time here, I can learn a bit more of it.
Outside of speaking, one of the top things that I love about living in AmSam is listening to the Samoans sing. Every single person on this island can sing (except me) and their voices are beautiful. The very first time I heard them sing was during orientation. When the WTers were giving our lessons to a few high school students, they sang a song for us, and that short two minute song will be engrained in my mind for the rest of my life.  It was so overpowering and incredible that I had to look down at my desk to keep myself from bursting into tears. I was stunned. Now that I am teaching, I get to hear them sing every single day. In the first few minutes of first period, a student in my class will stand up and lead the class in a song and then a prayer. Every day. I just sit at my desk and let it all soak in. I’m going to record it sometime soon and if it will load onto Youtube, hopefully you can hear it too. It’s magical.
In other news, I had my first Social Committee meeting today. Remember that I was chosen to be the English Department Representative. HA! Well anyways, once again, I somehow became the secretary for the overall committee. I’m telling you what people, I’m still having a hard time saying no. It’s so darn hard for me! But in this case, I wasn’t even asked, I was just told. “Okay, Quinn, you’re our secretary!” Ok. Fabulous?
The weather the past few days has been bizarre. It’s been COLD! I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night freezing. Last night I actually had to shut one of my windows. What the heck! I thought I lived on a tropical island? The funny thing is, it’s probably only 70 degrees at 1 a.m.  
For those of you that are my friends on facebook, you might have noticed my recent status update about getting attacked by dogs on a run. I figured I would fill you in on the whole story. As I was running down the road that I take to get to school, 3 dogs came running down a driveway and started barking and snapping at my feet. I was “halu”-ing as loud as I could, and as I bent down to try to pick up an invisible rock, a fourth dog came running at me. I was cornered! YAAAY. Long story short, I didn’t get bit, and I just hopped around yelling and kicking them (I know, I know, sounds so bad, but you’d kick too if dogs were trying to bite you!) until they finally cowered and ran away. It wasn’t until I kept running that I realized that my heart hadn’t even skipped a beat. The hair on my arms had not stood up. I laughed out loud to myself because I had just gotten attacked by four dogs and I hadn’t even gotten scared! What has happened to me? I must be turning into a Samoan. Fabulous?
Food update: I’m still eating. Tonight I got extra creative and baked a marinara tofu casserole thing. I don’t really know what it was, but what I do know is that it was delicious. I am being forced to learn how to cook here and I’m loving every minute of it!
Happy Friday! Let’s hope that the Leone Lions can actually catch the ball at the big game against Tafuna High School tomorrow…
Much alofa (love)!


Mom said...

Just when I think your blogs can't get any better, Quinn...

It's funny, fascinating, and of course...fabulous!

How much you have already grown as a teacher and person in such a short time.

Anonymous said...

Your excitement & wonder just jump off the page! I LOVE reading about your adventure! In fact, I get kinda choked up! What's up with that??:) Keep soakin it all up! Jan:)

Ami said...

marinara tofu casserole? sounds delish! wanna share the recipe? :)

i'm a bit behind in reading your blog, but i'm glad to see things are well (at least, so far in my cathing up)!