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The things I have come to learn...

I apologize that my volunteer updates have been rather sporadic. Our spring break and MNIC's spring break did not coincide, so I missed two weeks. In addition, I volunteer for just an hour every week as opposed to 2 hours every other week like most people do, so I've been trying to combine my journaling into longer narratives. This way, I feel I can better sum up the work I have done and I can look back at what I have experienced in perspective every few weeks or so.

Lately in class, the students have been working on learning about cells and body systems (nervous system digestive system, ect.) and are now moving on to learning about the classification of organisms and taxonomy. I have to admit, it is a good refresher for me as well. It has been quite some time since I learned and used this kind of scientific information. I was slightly worried at first that I wouldn't remember the content and wouldn't be able to help the students. It is funny, though, how you can suddenly remember things you thought you had long forgotten when need arises.

Throughout my lifetime, I have said on many occasions, "Man, I would hate to have English as my second language." This is because I have always thought that it would be extremely difficult to learn. I mean, I am in college and I STILL could not tell you the proper usage of "who" and "whom" or the correct spelling of recieve (receive...? This one gets me all the time...I know its "i before e, except after c" but I also know that this is not always true...). Anyways, I always speculated that English would be exceptionally hard to become fluent in. I hadn't really realized how true that was until I started volunteering at MNIC.

Kids ask me frequently about the meaning of certain words, and quite often I end up confusing myself. The English language is tough...really tough. On one occasion, a student asked me to explain to him what the nervous system was. So, I broke into an enthusiastic description, telling him about the brain sending messages through your nerves to various parts of your body, telling your arm to move or your legs to walk, etc. However, when I finished, he had a completely blank look on his face. I asked him if he understood.

"What does it mean, nervous? To be nervous?" he asked.

I realized that he had mixed the two contexts of "nervous," so I tried to explain that they were different concepts. One was an emotion and one ("nervous system") meant a physical anatomical structure in you body. All in all, they are somewhat related, but they are still different.

"How is nervous spelled?" he questioned again.


He stared at me. "How is other nervous spelled?"

"Umm...well....it's...spelled the same...but it is a different thing," I stuttered.

I could tell he understood, but was confused why one word, spelled the same, could mean two different things. In all honesty, I was a bit, too.

A similar case evolved when I explained to another student the difference between "produce" (to make or create something) and "produce" (vegetables, fruit, etc.). She understood, but was also confused as to how one word could mean two different things. Just imagine for a moment that you are an immigrant, in a foreign country, and you hear the sentence in a strange tongue, "I produce produce on my farm." How confusing would this be?? I know that other languages have different meanings for the same word, but I feel like this fact in the English language, combined with all our grammatical rules, makes it extremely tough to learn.

I have such deep respect for the students that I work with because of this, among other things. Of all the students I have talked to, most of them have cited wanting to learn better English as one of their top reasons for attending school. And they have such a passion to do so. When they see a word they do not recognize, they always ask me its meaning. Then, they'll make little notes in their readings so they can remember it later. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to try to learn a completely new language, all the while trying to learn subjects like math and science being taught in it.

There is one additional event, clear in my mind, that I know I will never forget. At the beginning of class today, a student who I work with quite often came in, looking rather sad. He smiled at me and sat down, saying "hello" and the usual greetings. He paused for a moment and then asked, "How is school?"

The students know that I attend college at the U, so I told him that I had pretty busy day and that I had a bunch of tough homework to do later.

He smiled, laughed a little, and said, "It is tough, your school?"

I told him honestly that at times it was very tough, but mostly it was a lot of hard work. He nodded his head, looked away, and then looked back at me.

"Yes well...it is much more difficult for us. For us immigrants...to understand english. To learn."

He didn't say it bitterly, more sadly, with an obvious hint of frustration. I was kind of taken aback that he had said it, but I really appreciated that he did. In college, we have our complex assignments. We have our research papers, our group projects, and our scholarly readings. But can we say that our work is more difficult than that of these students, living away from their home countries, going to classes and learning english while trying to learn other subjects and graduate from high school? I am really not sure that I can.