Thursday, November 6, 2008

ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE

The interpreter was standing in the grassy meeting area, watching the vehicles of the program’s participants stream into the parking lot. This program was to be an introduction to the park for adults, but with a twist — this was a class of adult ESL students.

"KEEP IT SIMPLE, AND SPEAK SLOWLY AND CLEARLY," were the instructions the interpreter had been given over the phone by the ESL instructor, who had a voice like a saw cutting through a downspout. This person taught English to new Canadians? Would they all think it necessary to shriek?

The interpreter had no trouble picking out the instructor. For one thing, she was the only pale-skinned Caucasian among the swelling crowd. And then, her voice -- “ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, EVERYONE, GATHER HERE, ANYONE NEED TO USE THE WASHROOM? IT’S OVER THERE, BEHIND THE NATURE HOUSE. MARY? YOU HAVE TO GO? WELL HURRY UP, WE HAVE LIMITED TIME. IS EVERYONE WEARING STURDY SHOES OR GUMBOOTS? WHAT ARE GUMBOOTS? THESE ARE GUMBOOTS." She waggled a rubber-booted leg at them. Then, over her shoulder, to the interpreter, "WE’RE READY WHEN YOU ARE, AS SOON AS MARY GETS BACK. ON SECOND THOUGHT, JUST START. I’LL GO SEE WHAT’S TAKING HER." The ESL instructor clomped away, and everyone’s blood pressure went down.

The interpreter approached the crowd, about twenty people, more women than men and more Asians than otherwise. "Welcome to the park." he said. "I’m an interpreter."

There was confusion on several faces. A woman raised her hand. She asked, "But we are here for English version, not for translating?"

The interpreter said, "Yes. I’m not a language interpreter. I’m a nature interpreter. A person who teaches about nature is a nature interpreter."

"Ahhhh," said several of the participants, and everyone laughed.

The laughter was a relief, because on hearing his own words the interpreter feared he might have insulted the participants by speaking to them as if they were in grade 2, which seemed to be the way the ESL instructor talked to them. He had inadvertently followed her lead. Out of interest, and as a way to break the ice, he asked what countries they were from. Down the row it went,

"Taiwan,"
 

"Korea,"
 

"Korea,"
 

"Japan,"
 

"Taiwan,"
 

"China,"
 

"Taiwan,"
 

"Korea,"
 

"Viet Nam,"
 

"Taiwan,"
 

"Taiwan."
 

and so on until the last person, who was a dark-skinned, non-Asian man. He grunted,"Peru."

The others laughed, as though this man were their punch-line.

Mary and the ESL instructor returned. “ALL RIGHT, OFF WE GO!”

Off they went, on the Lakeshore Trail. The interpreter stopped at a bend and showed them the stubs of young alders, recently nipped off by beavers. He showed them a weathered, gnawed stump. He took a very fragile beaver skull from his backpack to show the orange–fronted incisors, and amazed the participants by slowly pulling one of the curving teeth from its socket, revealing its seemingly impossible length. He showed them trees wrapped in hardware cloth to prevent felling by those teeth. Beavers were a fruitful topic, crowd-pleasers in any language.

"SPEAK SLOWLY AND CLEARLY!"

Further on, the interpreter pointed out the foraging holes of a Pileated Woodpecker in a rotting birch tree, and gathered up the soft wood-chips from below. He used his hands to describe the size of the bird.

"Ahhhh,"said the participants.

“TELL THEM WHAT PILEATED MEANS!”

A great blue heron dropped from the sky and landed very near, at the lake’s edge. It suddenly noticed the crowd, leapt back into the sky and squawked away across the water.

"Ahhhh," said the participants.

“DID ANYONE TAKE A PICTURE OF THE STORK?”

The interpreter jumped from the trail to scoop up a late-season garter snake, groggy in the cold. He was surprised by the horror on the faces of the participants. Several backed away, but the ESL instructor commanded, "EVERYONE STAY STILL!" Fear gradually turned to nervous laughter as the interpreter, speaking slowly and clearly, explained the harmlessness of the snake. Many dared touch it.

The walk went on, past its scheduled endpoint. The participants were genuinely interested and engaged, and the interpreter was enjoying himself. This was one of those rare programs in which he didn’t mind working overtime — despite not being paid for it — but he was beginning to worry he might miss his bus if this didn’t wrap up soon. It was important he catch that bus to be home by 6 PM, which in Toronto was 9PM, the bed-time of his nephew, Michael, who turned seven yesterday. The interpreter had been kicking himself all day for forgetting to phone his nephew on his birthday. Recently he had been criticized by his mother, and others, for "moving way the heck out to BC and forgetting about his family."

He could not be more than one day late. Word would get around.

A flock of ten Canada Geese honked noisily overhead, fast and low. It made a gliding landing, still in formation, cutting Vs in the water very near the shore. The participants applauded.

The interpreter led the group back to the parking lot, hoping for a brisk yet gracious good bye, followed by a sprint up the road to the bus stop. But then, 20 cameras were removed from twenty bags and pockets and zippered pouches and were deposited in a line on the grass at his feet.

The interpreter, one camera at a time, took a picture of the twenty, with the ESL instructor beaming front and centre. He still had time. Then the ESL instructor approached. "YOUR TURN,” and coaxed the interpreter to take her former position in the middle of the group.

On one knee, with someone from somewhere’s hand on his shoulder, the interpreter endured the ponderous photography of the ESL instructor, one of those who, inexplicably, waits interminably to click the shutter. The interpreter grinned gamely in response to proddings to “SAY CHEESE.”

After six or seven cameras, the interpreter asked, “Can’t you just email the picture? Doesn’t everyone have email?”

“NO, MOST OF THEM DON’T!”

“Does everyone have email?” asked the interpreter.

“Yes, yes, yes,” they said.

“NO, MOST OF THEM DON’T! CHEESE!”

Two more cameras, a dozen to go. This was insane. This woman didn’t want to take pictures, she wanted to control all those around her. Action was required.

“Oh my,” said the interpreter, feeling inspiration rising in his trunk like indigestion...or perhaps it was indigestion, it didn’t matter. He raised his hand. “Excuse me for a minute.” He feigned some vague incapacity, some wooziness related to a problem in his gut. Perhaps it was legitimate—honest revulsion to a screechy-voiced control freak who revelled in her bullet-proof advantage over newcomers hoping for a fair shake in this country. He wobbled to his feet and gestured at his abdomen, although still not sure of what he was pretending was wrong. “Be right back,” he called as he jogged to the washrooms.

Behind the cover of the nature house he paused to open and slam the door, an audio red-herring. Then, still out of sight, he ran to the trail-head and into the woods. A hundred yards on, the trail looped close to park boundary, where he would be able to bushwhack to the road, about a block from the bus stop.

He ran like the wind, with a delicate beaver skull bouncing to bits in his backpack.

4 comments:

kd said...

Did the interpreter catch his bus? Did he manage to phone his nephew in time? But, what a wonderful gift he gave to the ESL students! Not simply an exercise in language, but also a lesson about the local environment, photo-op included, despite being caught between the proverbial rock & hard place.
There is one nephew out there, somewhere, in TO who has cause to be very proud of his uncle.

/krys

Seabrooke said...

I love these stories. They'd make a great little book of short stories. Ever consider publishing them?

themanicgardener said...

I agree with Seabrooke. This is hilarious. Also with kd. At some point, the interpreter will be able to share this story with his nephew.
--Kate

Hugh said...

Thanks for the comments, Krys, Seabrooke and Kate. It's always fun to know that these stories are enjoyed.

Seabrooke, others have suggested I publish them too, which I would like to do, but haven't come up with a way to pitch them.