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June 18, 2017

8:56 PM

Openness and empathy, so needed for true communication, are rapidly disappearing

Francisco Miraval

I was recently invited to attend the first class of a summer course focusing on teaching English to new immigrants with very limited English proficiency (or none). I must confess I was not prepare for what happened at the beginning of that class.

I wish I could have such an imagination to create a stranger situation as the one I witnessed. But, with a limited imagination, I can only share what I saw. And what I saw is that the first questions asked (in English) to the those in the class ready to learn English was:

What are the three main obstacles preventing you from learning English? Please, be as specific as possible.

Let’s see. All the participants in the class recently arrived in the country and they speak little or no English. Obviously, they are enrolled in the class precisely because they don’t speak English. So, what’s the point of asking in English to answer a question in English about the reason why they don’t know English?

I was so intrigued by that situation that I inquired about the reason for the question, a question that even for me, after three decades of speaking English, would be difficult to answer. I was then told that the question was asked “because that’s what the textbook says.”

By the way, the second question asked (also in English) was: Why do you want to learn English? Money, education, health, family, work, or other reason? Please, choose the top three reasons and explain your answer.

In my mind -clearly uneducated in teaching languages-, if somebody could answer in English the reasons why he/she is not fluent in that language, he/she would not be attending an English 101 class. Same thing with somebody able to explain in English the top three reasons why he/she wants to study English.

Am I the only one seeing the contradiction? Is it so difficult to see it?

In my opinion, the absurdity of the whole situation is even worst, because it is based on “the textbook says so”. But, what about what reality is saying? What about the people? How come nobody sees that asking a non-English speaker to explain in English why he/she doesn’t speak English is not going to promote understanding or learning?

Where is the empathy and the openness towards the others? Plato, in his dialogue The Sophist, said that teaching meant “to create and to be created” (to form and to be formed). How are we going to teach if we refused to be transformed by that experience? Is it really that easy to hide ourselves behind what the books say? Is that ease to deny reality? Unfortunately, yes.

I wonder what would happen if one day the instructor of the English class were in a situation where that person had to explain in a language he/she doesn’t know why he/she doesn’t speak that language. Perhaps at that point he/she will develop empathy towards the students. And empathy could lead to communication and cocreation. 

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