The Therapy of a Language Class

Feb 24, 2020 9:55:11 AM Sarah Rymer

Last night I received a text from one of my English students. “Sorry to bother you, teacher. What does ‘capeesh’ mean? It’s not in the dictionary.”  

Katherine Blog 2-2I have an idea of what’s she heard, but I ask for the context before I start to explain.  

She responds, “I heard it in a movie.”  

I laugh to myself. I send back a response. “It’s a slang word that we get from an Italian word. It means, ‘Do you understand?’ ” 

But then I quickly add, “Just use it with your English-speaking friends, OK? They’ll think it’s funny, but it’s a bit rude.” I add that caveat because I know she will try out this new word. 

“OK, thanks, teacher. See you tomorrow.” [heart emojis]

I think of my English class at the refugee center this morning. Students struggled to understand the word, "recognize."  With great storytelling and dramatic flourish on my part, I was hoping they could figure out the meaning.

My official job as an English teacher is to teach the necessary grammar, phrases, and vocabulary so that our refugees can be independent to care for themselves and their families and perhaps even find jobs. I try to make sure they say things politely and graciously so that people will listen to them. I correct mistakes that they’ve picked up. I frequently think of a quote from The Princess Bride: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”  

An English class, however, is so much more than a place of language acquisition. It’s a place where we laugh until we cry. We’re all in this together. Language mistakes are embarrassing but we learn to enjoy them with each other. It’s an hour-long escape from all the runaround, long lines, and challenges our students regularly face. It’s a place where a refugee is called “student” and can be the intelligent person they are.  

There are difficult times too, like when I ask a basic question from our lesson book, such as, “How many children do you have?” Tears well up as the effects of war and violence bring up sad memories of great loss. But after five months our class has become a community, and students who know similar losses come alongside and offer hugs and understanding.  

An English class is also a peek into what the world could look like. Historical enemies sit across from each other at the table playing grammar games, smiling, trying to make themselves understood, sharing experiences that let each other know we’re not all that different from each other. 


About the Author: Katherine is an IDEAS Associate who has lived and worked in Turkey for the past 18 years before recently relocating to Cyprus. Her background is in education, and she enjoys working with refugees. Enjoy other posts by Katherine, such as What's Your Name?


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