Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cultural illiteracy

I have been volunteering 2 mornings a week in a literacy class for new immigrants to Canada. I love it. The students I help are in the beginning literacy class and their English speaking and understanding is very low. The students continually humble me with their persistence and determination. But last week I had a small reminder of just how difficult this must be for them.

A lady brought in food in anticipation of the coming holiday that most in the program celebrate. So being a bit ignorant of their holidays, I asked what the celebration was called. The students tried to tell me but I didn't understand them. When I went home and looked it up, I realized that they had said the holiday clearly and correctly but because I wasn't aware of the term, I didn't hear. Because they couldn't say, "It is called .....", I didn't understand. Because I am illiterate of their culture, I didn't know what they were saying.

So many of the concepts that we try to teach are totally foreign to them. Concepts that are vitally important to North Americans have no meaning to them. These beginning students learn almost everything by rote memorization. It must be so difficult to memorize words that have no meaning or context to them. But it is beautiful to see the lights come on when they learn something new and it sticks.

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