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Saturday, March 19, 2011

The power of a child's home language

Way back when I was learning to be a high school music teacher, I remember feeling incredibly irritated by having to learn songs in foreign languages (including one Aboriginal song which was never even translated for us by the tutor).  I honestly couldn't see the point of the exercise.  It wasn't that I was bad at languages- in fact I was brought up with a French-speaking grandmother, and I studied three languages at high school. I just couldn't see that singing in other languages was meaningful or useful as a teaching tool- it seemed to detract from the study and enjoyment of the music itself.

Back then, the likelihood of striking a genuinely multicultural classroom was much lower.  We were taught ethnomusicology (the study of other cultures' music) as an academic discipline, not as anything that related to our ability to connect with the children.

Come to think of it, I don't think connecting with the children got a look in at all- teaching was an intellectual process for my lecturers, and the idea of trying to touch the children's hearts with music as a learning tool was a radical concept.  Their view, I think, was that we needed to sing in other languages in order to nurture the future opera singers we met in our classrooms.  (As if.)

These days, though, I'd like to go back and bang my old lecturers' heads together, and ask them why on earth they didn't explain how important a working understanding of the language and music of other cultures could be in the classroom, on a human level. And last week I had cause to be rapt that I learnt that Aboriginal song- here's why.



In the last couple of years I've been brought almost to tears on a number of occasions by the simple power of speaking a few words of a child's home language.  For some children, it's like throwing them a lifeline when they're drowning.  I was reminded of this last week when I was asked to take a group time at a centre where a large number of Aboriginal children, many with special needs, were running wildly around the room and ignoring the carers' requests (and demands) to use their walking feet and listen.

I thought it might be time to pull out that Aboriginal song, and see if it had any effect at all on the children's focus.  I used one of my usual tricks to get them on the mat (do something outrageous, like singing the instructions at the top of my voice and including a reference to their very favourite comic body part- 'Everybody on the mat, sitting on their BOTTOMS!' complete with hand gestures... laughter and compliance....).

Then without further ado, I started slapping my knees rhythmically... and they did too... and started to sing in my best 'Aboriginal' style.

Inanay gapu wana...

That's as far as I got before every Aboriginal child in the room snapped their head around to look at me with a huge beam on their face. It was the first time all morning that every indigenous child in that room had been focussed and happy at the same time.  It was actually hard for me to keep singing without crying- it was extremely touching.  The tiny 3-year-old girl sitting next to me had such absolute rapture in her eyes- and she'd never made eye contact with me before.

It changed the indigenous children's attitude to me in the longer term, too; all of a sudden they started coming to me with their problems, giving me hugs, allowing me to comfort them when they hurt themselves. I spoke their language, for however short a time, and it was a short cut to trust.

So yes, it's worth a teacher making the effort to master a song or a few words of as many relevant languages as they can.  Oddly, it's not always something that's encouraged by parents, who are often keen for a child to be immersed in English language immediately when they are new to the country.  I wonder if Australian parents are the same when they take children abroad for an extended stay- do they insist that teachers refrain from using English? I hope not, after the following experience with one small child.

'Gretel' was only two years old when I first met her.  Her parents were newly arrived from Switzerland and had given the carers a list of phonetic representations of a few important words in German, so that they could understand when she needed the toilet, for example.  But they stressed that they wanted Gretel to learn English, and the phonetics were only to be used for emergencies.

Just put yourself in Gretel's place for a moment.  She had just been transported thousands of miles from everything that was familiar to her, and instead of having the support of her parents while she acclimatised, she was thrust into day care (needs must- it was an extended work trip for her parents) and surrounded by strange children and adults who pointed at things or grabbed things from her while gabbling incomprehensibly, physically guided her body from place to place while gabbling incomprehensibly, sometimes got annoyed when she did something or didn't do something and angrily gabbled incomprehensibly at her... this child had no way of making her needs and desires known, and no way other than following the leader of knowing what was expected of her.

Enter Aunt Annie. I hadn't studied German for over 25 years, but I remembered a little basic vocabulary and the rules of pronunciation.  I was too shy to even try using my schoolgirl German the first day I helped look after Gretel; I just watched how she reacted to the carers and other children (tentatively), when she cried (often), when she withdrew completely (often).  She was clearly a very bewildered little girl.

On the second day, when she was sat down at the lunch table, she started to weep uncontrollably.  The carers kept trying to sit her back down at the table, and she kept trying to get up.  I couldn't stand it any longer!

Are you hungry? I asked- at least, that's what I tried to say in my creaky old German.

Gretel's eyes opened wide and she stared at me for a moment.  Then she launched herself into my arms and a torrent of baby German poured out as she clung to me.  I had no hope of understanding her, so I ventured a little more bastardised German.


I don't understand.  I speak a little.  Hungry? Yes, no? 

Nein!

Tired?


Ja!

So I took her to the sleeping area, where she immediately lay on a bed and clutched my hand to her face until she fell asleep.  When she woke, I gave her the lunch I'd saved and she ate it like a lamb. She kept a close eye on me as she went through the routines of the afternoon; knowing I was there to translate a little when things got confusing gave her just enough confidence to try to become part of the group.  Those few words of her home language, regardless of my strange accent and probably inaccurate grammar, had created an immediate bond.

I spoke to Gretel's mother that evening, and it turned out that Gretel had never eaten directly before sleeping in her life.  To be sat at a table and expected to have lunch when her body was programmed to sleep was the last straw for this poor lost child. Without my terribly rusty language skills, she would have remained sad and bewildered, and the other carers would have remained frustrated, resentful and annoyed by her failure to conform and their failure to understand her.

So please, please don't insist that your child speak only the new language when you drop them into a strange environment in a different country.  It's not fair to anyone.  Children need all the help and support they can get when a major change takes place in their life.  Walk a mile in your young child's shoes before putting bilingual expectations on a baby.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this story! It was lovely. I feel like I want to share one of my own...

    When I was on internship, there was a young boy, two years old or so, who seemed a little 'shy'. He never seemed to speak to any of the carers, although he went along nicely with everything that we asked - sitting down at lunch, listening at mat time (which was enforced in a 0-3 room ...).

    He and another girl in the room had non-English home languages. I printed out phonetic 'translations' for hello, goodbye, how are you?, good, bad, thank you, please. At nappy change time, I used the one-on-one time to say 'hello' in his home language. It was quite astonishing to see him stop, stock still and look me straight in the eyes.

    Later on, he was sitting down at the table (not during meal time) and said something to me. I didn't understand it, so I bent down to eye-level with him and asked him what he said. He repeated the same word, very clearly, but it wasn't in English. Sawati - probably a terrible phonetic-transcription, it was a while ago now, and though I tried, I couldn't find the correct word in Google Translate or any other way.

    I told him I didn't understand that word, could he point to it? He points over the barrier into the kitchenette.

    "Are you hungry?" No. "Do you want the paintbrushes?" No. I lifted him up onto my hip and peered over the barrier. He pointed at the tap.

    "Oh, you want a drink, right? Sawati, drink? Water?" "Sawati!"

    I provide him with a cup of water. "Sawati all gone!" he exclaims when he's done.

    After this interaction, this boy - who hadn't spoke to me or more than a couple of words to any of the other carers - became a regular fount of conversation. He loved trucks and motorcycles and buses, and would call me over to the window whenever one came by.

    Even though this boy - from what I know - had been in care a while, the indication from a carer that they *cared* about what his home sounded like, was still very powerful. It helped so much in building a relationship with him. I know that when I go to work or Centrelink or anywhere else where I'm expected to 'behave' (as he was in day care), I sometimes feel a little bitter that they expect me to do so much for them, without them even caring where I've been or where I come from, what I'm facing in my life. Isn't the same thing to be expected from children - who we expect to listen to us (often too much, too often, obedience, obedience), engage with us, 'behave'? Like this little boy, I often behave and comply even though those institutions don't care about 'where I'm coming from' - but I still feel a bit off-kilter, a bit un-cared-about, maybe a bit bitter, at times. Maybe he did too.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing that story, yahalomay. What a perfect illustration of my point. It's great to know that you are out there making the effort to go that extra mile for the children.

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  2. I loved this post, I was just wondering if you shed some light on what the meaning is of the aboriginal song/lullaby

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    1. I have tried so hard to find a full translation, without success! But I believe it's about a little fish swimming around.

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  3. From what I have read it's about a goanna...guana...goanna and the "choo" is about chasing it away like shoo in English. I also read online that it was passed down from Malaysia into the Torres Strait, Thursday Island then I guess down to Victoria and has some connection to one of the Aboriginal songlines. That's all I've found so far. Hope it helps. Great post- Catrina

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    1. Thank you, Catrina! Have been scouring the internet for translations and this is the closest I've come to an explanation too. Much appreciated! =)

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    2. several years ago I was lucky enough to work with an Australian lass who taught me this song. She explained that it was about the fishes in the sea and the fishermen casting the nets, to catch them. having researched a little further the Goanna is describes as one of many monitor lizards found in the Australian countryside.

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    3. Do like any of you live in Australia?
      Even thought the song has goanna in it, goanna is pronounced guanna in the song and goanna as the animal, so it's either an accent thing, so it might mean something completely different. If it wasn't for my awesome music teachers and the super boring school syllabus I would never have known this song.

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    4. GOANNA is just an altered version of iguana, and has an english origin, so i doubt it is about a goanna, considering it is an aboriginal song.

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  4. WHAT the hell does this song mean !!!!!!!!!!!!

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  5. Thank you,what a beautiful caring teacher you are Aunt Annie. Your story is an inspiration to me. I wish you more success. I love this song and it is very soothing.

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