Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, once wrote:
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Failure in life is inevitable – especially when you’re working in a foreign country. But that doesn’t mean you can’t experience what success feels like. It’s just all about how you decide to measure success. As my girl Emmy D said, success is counted sweetest by those who don’t succeed much; they are able to comprehend and appreciate it so much more – and as parched, they taste that sweetness and juiciness of a nectar like no other.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: English development is challenging for my kids. Learners learn in home language until grade 3, then switch to English and curriculum work is equivalent to that of an American English standard.
Thus, how am I going to measure success during my time here? Quantitatively? How my kids score on the upcoming nation-wide exam at the end of term two? How much homework they complete? No way, Jose. I’m almost positive not much of that is going to change. Call it failure on my part, I don’t care. Failure builds character, strength and courage. Numbers aren’t everything, and success can be measured qualitatively, too.
One of the ways I’ve decided to measure success is analyzing my student’s English speaking and listening abilities. It’s only the middle of term two, and I already see a drastic change with how my students communicate with me.
Most – or at least my mediocre and top learners — are speaking English to me, even some of the ones who can’t really speak. They are trying to have conversations with me. They follow my instructions. They respond to me in complete sentences. They come to my hut on weekends to visit and speak only English. Some can copy down word-for-word what I say to them. And the best part is – they aren’t scared to talk to me. They are confident and trying because they know I won’t laugh at them.
Even if it’s the most broken and ungrammatical English ever spoken to me, I’m somehow now able how to decipher what they are trying to say and then say the sentence appropriately to them. Of course being around this daily has toyed with my English ability and I speak the slowest and loudest possible English (my village voice) and enunciate all contractions — “DO — NOT — TALK” or “I – AM — GOING — HOME”. I usually catch myself talking in my village voice to other Americans and people back home. Don’t even make me think about what I’m going to sound like after another year here…
My learners know well enough now that I will NOT translate to Zulu for them, and I will not speak Zulu to them. Yes, this means my Zulu isn’t top notch – but I’m here to make sure these kids get English exposure. If I wasn’t doing this, these kids would never get this much English exposure. Everything at school is done in Zulu – except grade 5 and up classes – but those classes are a mix between both languages. The educators only speak in English because the classwork and teacher’s guides are in English. However, as soon as they’re done with the class books – hello, Zulu!
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of spending a weekend at one of my co-worker’s home in Nquthu, our shopping town. Her little 5-year-old, Wendy, was visiting home for the weekend from boarding school. When I first met Wendy in November 2012, she couldn’t speak a word of English. I still played with her and spoke little Zulu to her, but there was a huge language barrier. Wendy left for boarding school last January to start grade R (kindergarten) and was thrown into an English-only environment. She still takes a Zulu class because it’s her home language, but is taught in English.
Common knowledge: Kids thrown into a language at a young age will catch on quickly. Wendy has done just that. This month when we had a sleepover, played games and coloured, she spoke to me in English. She even taught her older brothers how to play Uno in English. Her vocabulary is advancing as if English was her first language, and this all developed within five months of school. FIVE MONTHS. And you wonder what would have happened if my grade 5 learners were taught in English from grade R and up? They’d be fluent. Many probably wouldn’t be failing. Oh, if only…
Too bad that’s not a reality for my kids or any other rural kids. So, in my case, success is sweetest when the learners try to talk to me. If they’re already chattin’ away with me this much, what’s it going to be like a year from now? We’ll be even better best friends!
There is one spoken English issue here that everyone who learned English as a second language says and drives all the Americans crazy. In Zulu there is only one verb for “lend” and “borrow” so everyone says, “Please, borrow me ______.” My PCV friend who teaches grade 8 English even saw this phrase used as a correct English phrase on a district exam once, which is hysterical but makes me also face palm.
I have this jump rope I brought from America the kids love to use. If they say, “Please, Miss, borrow me the skipping rope?” I say, “I will if you say, ‘Please let me borrow the skipping rope.’” Most grade 5s have caught on and now will only say to me, “Miss, may I please borrow the skipping rope?” OH SWEET SUCCESS!
There are plenty of setbacks in the Peace Corps and South African schools, but depending on how one decides to interpret success, you can get a little taste of that luscious nectar Emmy D was talking about. Take what you can get, and treat it as a great triumph.