On worst-case scenarios

I met my Afghan student today. For the purpose of posting about her I’m going to call her Fatima, which is the second-most-common Afghan girls’ name, but isn’t hers.

I suspect I’m going to be talking about her quite a lot for the next little while.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything I was worried about with Fatima appears to have come to pass. She speaks virtually no English at all; she knew “hello” but I don’t think I heard her say even one other word of English while she was in class. She can read in neither English nor Pashto, although I was able to confirm after struggling with it for a few minutes that she does speak Pashto specifically basically by trying different names for languages until she lit up. As it happens, I have students in that classroom who can speak Urdu and Arabic; she understood neither language.

I gave her this when she came into the room:

The top language is Pashto; underneath that is Urdu, as Google Translate doesn’t have Dari available. I thought about adding Arabic but ran out of room, and it looks like Urdu is more common in Afghanistan anyway. It was immediately clear that she couldn’t read either. Later in class, I had her write her name (I wrote mine, then an arrow pointing to me, and handed her the pencil) and she was able to mostly write her first name, in shaky, second-grader’s handwriting, but it wasn’t quite spelled like it is in the computer and didn’t quite line up with how she pronounced it, so … yeah. Later I wrote 3+4 on the page; she did not recognize them as numbers, as far as I could tell.

Effectively, I am unable to communicate with this kid via anything other than gestures until I discover some sort of resource– an app, a website, something— that is able to speak Pashto. I’ve found several that can translate it (with who knows what level of quality, since I’m not able to evaluate it) but she’s effectively illiterate as far as being able to communicate grade-level content or anything close to it. So we need to work on nothing but getting her up to speed in English and basic literacy. I literally can’t teach her any math right now.

You can imagine how easy it is to find something that translates written English text into the spoken version of a language that is only spoken by maybe fifty million people worldwide and only about sixteen thousand (as of 2010; the number has certainly jumped recently) in America. I can find dictionaries and auto translators; they’re useless to me if they don’t speak, unless I learn to read Pashto.

On top of that, I had to bite some heads off in the morning, from kids who should have fucking well known better, for enthusiastic and obnoxious use of the word “Ay-rab” and jokes about the kids blowing up the building. I made it clear in all of my classes today that I’m landing on anyone bullying these kids like the wrath of God. We’re putting a stop to that shit with a quickness.

So, if anyone can make some suggestions for some “learn the alphabet” types of activities that work well for ESL kids, I’d love to hear it. Because our ESL teacher? Is out with Covid right now.

2022’s awesome so far.

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Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

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