Recently, I learned that some elementary schools in my area are introducing foreign language in kindergarten. Looking back, I would’ve loved to learn a second language all throughout school, or at least been familiar with the existence and importance of language in cultures of countries outside the United States. Most of my life I had friends who only spoke English at school. I had many friends who spoke Spanish at home, but I never encountered that so I never really thought about language, or how valuable it is.
One day, my second grade teacher told me we were getting a new student named Tina and asked me to help her adjust to our school’s environment. This wasn’t anything strange for me because I was always willing to help my teachers and welcome new students to our classroom. Somehow, a crucial detail about Tina was left out of our conversation. She had just moved from China to our tiny South Carolina town, and she didn’t speak English. Not a single word.
I cannot even begin to imagine the stress and anxiety she experienced. At 8 years old, she had moved across the world to a new country, to a new school with no friends, and no method of communication. If not being to express herself verbally wasn’t enough, she was also picked on. Other kids in our grade would pull their eyes back and go up to her, or compare her to Chinese cartoon characters. Although she couldn’t understand the words they were saying, she could see what they were doing and she knew it wasn’t kind. I was disappointed in my peers’ behavior, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t tell Tina I wanted to be her friend. Frustration caused by lacking communicative ability was something Tina and I shared. I thought I could understand where her frustration and emotion was coming from, even if I just had the tiniest glimpse of what she was dealing with.
Were we even helping her?
Each day, while my classmates were working individually with the teacher for extra help, my best friend and I would try to help Tina. We started teaching her the alphabet and some simple classroom vocabulary. At the end of the day, we still couldn’t explain anything to her and she still couldn’t ask us questions, so I didn’t understand how this would help her. Eventually, I realized that it didn’t really matter if we could have a conversation, or teach her any English, because she was learning to trust us. Knowing she was safe and welcome with us was way more important than trying to teach her how to say “pencil”, in that moment.
She stuck with me.
As I finish up my junior year of a residential high school program for science and math, I am surrounded by more languages and cultures than ever before. Thankfully, everyone at my school is accepting and no one is ostracized for their culture. However, I hear a lot about immigrants being teased or discredited for the language they speak in the United States, whether it be English or not. This situation is basically a lose-lose. If the immigrant speaks their native language, then they are immediately labeled an outsider, but if they are learning and speaking English, then they are teased for their accent or their fluency. Someone who has to restart their life in a new place, while learning a new language has to be determined and resilient. It is so important for us to be welcoming and supportive to any new faces we encounter, especially when they are adjusting to and learning new things.
Hello! My name is Aubrey Best and I am an 18 year old from South Carolina. I am fortunate to have a method of sharing lessons and experiences through Girlspring, while connecting with others. I am happy to have any role, no matter how small, in empowering others to learn and love!