I aspire to communicate well in English. As an immigrant who arrived in the United States at the age of 9, a limited vocabulary and the lack of knowledge of how to use a period or a comma made learning to communicate an arduous process.
Initially, the task was exacerbated by an almost incapacitating shyness that still surfaces in unfamiliar settings. In an era when there were significantly fewer immigrants and before bilingual education or English as a Second Language was in place in the schools, in the school setting I barely spoke.
In fifth grade, one-year into elementary school in the U.S., I was sent to the nurse for that reason. “Why don’t you speak?” asked the nurse. Confused and trying to understand what was occurring, I answered, “I don’t have much to say.” Unwittingly, the few words that I employed then exemplified the communication rules I follow today: be brief, only speak when you have something substantive to contribute and try not to engage in irrational discussions.
Not being able to write or express my feelings fully made attending English Language Arts classes dispiriting. Nonetheless, an aptitude for History gave me some confidence. And, knowing Spanish, a phonetic language, helped me ace exams in the spelling part of the Reading, Writing and Spelling class in seventh grade. I would memorize how a word is pronounced in Spanish to remember how to spell it in English. Excelling in those classes was affirming and strengthen my resolve.
Eighth grade English is a blur, except for viewing a slide version of Flowers for Algernon, a story about a cognitively-impaired adult who undergoes experimental surgery designed to increase his intelligence. The surgery is partly successful. He becomes a genius for a short-time. During this period, he witnesses how persons who are different are treated and is emotionally and intellectually conflicted. My struggles to communicate made me feel like Charlie, the protagonist of the story played by Cliff Robertson.
Despite my limited ability to communicate in written form, I made it to high school. In eleventh grade, the English teacher noticed my inadequate writing and made an effort to teach me how to develop a topic sentence. Unfortunately, my problem was more severe. I did not know the fundamental rules which are integral to the construction of a sentence and could not explain the connection between a subject and predicate. Excelling in history, government and economics, I was encouraged to take the advanced version of the courses. Cognizant of my writing debility, I declined because I was afraid to fail.
As a senior, I took Journalism as an elective and somehow wound up competing in the University Interscholastic League Journalism competition at the district level. Totally unprepared for the event, I could not place a word on paper. Up until then, my writing style consisted of haphazardly compiling a superfluous amount of words to fill the number of pages a writing assignment required.
The lack of basic writing fundamentals caught up to me in college. Frustrated, attending remedial courses and stressed by family financial strains, I dropped out after two semesters.
Four years later when I returned to school, lessons on the subject of communication imparted in a political theory class provided a template to improve my writing. The professor explained that when writing an essay every word had to play a role in strengthening a sentence. Every sentence had to contribute to strengthening a paragraph. And, every paragraph had to strengthen the overall hypothesis of a composition. I learned that understanding the circumstances surrounding the subject being addressed when writing or speaking is important to effective messaging. And, an essay is not complete until it is scrutinized by asking: “What does it say; what does it mean; and, what does it matter?”
Still, it is one thing to absorb lessons on the interconnectedness between thinking, speaking and writing and a totally different thing to possess the skill that enables the production of concise, coherent and cogent verbal or written presentations. That ability is not magically bestowed upon individuals from one day to the next. For me, it took years of reading and writing outside the classroom to achieve any level of competency.
During the time away from school, I wondered about where the struggle to communicate originated. Intuitively, I thought in a foreign language. So communicating in English included an imperceptible translation process. I became aware that in part this burdensome step and the success precocious immigrants achieve in and out of school are intertwined and have a never-ending evolving relationship.
The daily struggles with the English language made me realize that to ensure agile-minded children fulfill their potential we have to do all we can to help them learn to formulate a proper sentence. More importantly, the struggles helped me understand that communicating well is a lifelong formal and informal educational endeavor.