Once a week, on a Monday evening, I volunteer one hour or so of my time to teach English to a refugee couple from Iran. I’ve been seeing them since last September. They are my first English students and, before I started, I never quite realised just how challenging it would be!
What this hour a week has taught me is how important words, language and communication are. Without a means of making ourselves understood, life is so much more difficult. It must be a daily struggle for refugees and migrants who speak no English and are trying to make new lives in a foreign country. Especially those who are middle aged and probably haven’t had much education in their homeland.
I think it would be easier to teach someone from a French or German or Italian background. But Persian has different letters in the alphabet and the writing runs from right to left and it’s impossible to even decipher or guess at what their words mean.
The wife is slightly better at English than her husband. She has had a few years more of school than he has and seems to pick things up a bit faster. At times he seems overwhelmed with the whole concept of dealing with a new language, but then he almost visibly picks himself up and tries again and again. We spent several weeks on the concept of “on” and “under”. I’m still not sure he has quite got it.
This week I took my netbook with me and we talked about families. I showed them photos of my boys, my father, my aunt and my cousins. I talked about my family, the boys’ ages and what they were doing. But the best thing about the netbook was having access to an online Persian-English dictionary! Finally I could show them the equivalent word in their language.
By the end of the lesson I had my first real breakthrough. The husband told me he had two brothers and two sisters, one father and one mother! I was very excited that he had strung together such a long sentence.
I don’t think I will ever again underestimate the power of words, language and communication.