Yesterday afternoon I interviewed a prospective student for Legacy Institute, and he stated (in Thai), that he thought his English skills were pretty good. The entire conversation between him and me was conducted through one of our third year students who serves as our Thai translator. I was a bit skeptical of his English skills, which he said were equal to his Thai skills (he is a Lahu), considering he did not say a single word to me in English in the course of 40-50 minutes of the interview, nor afterward last night or this morning. I therefore thought that his skills in English were pretty rudimentary.
However, a former teacher talked with him, according to her account, for about 30-40 minutes in English, and pronounced his English to be quite excellent. Clearly there is a problem here. There are a few reasons why someone would speak fluently and well to one person and not to another, and none of them are good. After all, my English is not vastly more difficult to understand than that of others, even with my interest in using larger words than ordinary mortals. Either I must have seemed particularly intimidating to him (which is possible I suppose), or else he is one of those people who prefers to deal with those of the fairer sex, and that is something I cannot be too harsh about lest I condemn myself for the same fault.
One of the fundamental challenges of teaching in a foreign language environment (where both sides lack a great deal of understanding in a common language) is making yourself understood. As an expressive person, I have tried to take advantage of my natural abilities in gesticulation and dramatic reading to convey a point through the use of tone and gestures to an audience where there is an insufficient shared vocabulary of words to make the same point. It is fortunate that tone and nonverbal communication can aid so much, as it would be vastly more difficult to communicate an understanding of the stories of the Bible, or my own lessons, without the freedom of having a very expressive way of communicating.
This morning, one of my second-year students told me, in slightly broken but comprehensible English, that she really enjoyed the lecture I gave them in our previous class about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. In that particular class there was a great deal of laughter about Adam trying to hide from God, or Adam pointing his finger at Eve in blame for eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and Eve blaming the serpent in turn. Pointing fingers is generally considered a particularly rude gesture here, so I imagine that made the point of Adam and Eve’s lack of personal responsibility even more easy to understand (and probably funnier too). It was nice that they appreciated it, and I might have to keep up my habit of more dramatic reading when I return to the United States, God willing, as it takes the edge off of my general scholarly and intellectual bearing, giving it a bit more enthusiasm and accessibility.
After all, all of the eloquence and truth that one possesses is not generally very helpful if one cannot be understood by one’s audience. I have never been someone who sought a huge reading audience (I am aware that my interests are probably a bit too esoteric, and my approach too text-based and not enough image-based to reach a mass audience), but at the same time, I like to be understood by the people I am talking to and writing to, and I like to know that they understand as well. Hopefully that is something that I can continue to work on, and hopefully my intensity and seriousness does not scare off too many people who wish to make it known that they understand as well.