“There’s nothing worthless about being wordless, it will only save your mouth from talking gibberish.” —Michael Bassey Johnson

“Good morning, maestra. How are you?”

“I’m well, how are you?”
“I am good . . . thank you.”

Her English is halting and deeply sincere. We look into each other’s eyes for a brief moment, both of us willing to say more—if only we spoke the same language. We are building a bridge as the weeks pass, but our work doesn’t seem like progress. She learns my language more quickly than I learn hers—that is, after all, why we meet. She wants to learn English; I can speak it. She is one of a handful of adult students from Mexico, China, and Vietnam. We sit together for an hour every morning, enter into the same rhythm: I read, they repeat, I annunciate, they repeat. They strain to wrap their lips around the contours of this strange language, but their tongues refuse reform. Their accents add intricate flourishes to words that would otherwise escape my notice.

We started with the basics. I scrawled upper- and lower-case letters across the whiteboard, pointed to each letter and pronounced its particular identity. They mimicked these vocalizations in drawn-out syllables:
Ayyy. Beee. Seee. Deee. Eeee. Efff…

We’ve moved forward since then, always at—what might seem to anyone walking past the classroom—a glacial pace. Simple conversation is an exhilarating victory:

Hi, my name is Barbara. Nice to meet you.
Hi, Barbara. My name is ______. Nice to meet you, too!

The tendency of the English language to shove words together has presented learning opportunities I never anticipated. “She is” becomes “she’s” and I find myself in the midst of an in-depth annunciation. Their tongues soften the hard ch sound to a soft sh, and I write on the board:

she’s = she is
cheese = queso 

Together we practice the art of slow attention; we notice small sounds and learn their differences in meaning. We are building a bridge, but our work does not seem like progress.

I’m a sucker for personal stories and I’m passionate about the importance of telling and receiving each other’s stories. Not long after I’ve had my first cup of coffee, I sit with these students and together we cross a language barrier. It is painstaking. It forces my passion for story to encounter other ways of seeing. Once in a while, a student finds the words and I find the ears to share a particular facet of her story. The rare moment comes along in which a student makes his way across the bridge enough to tell me what he did before he moved to this country. But more often than not, our stories are shared in quick glances of reassurance, hard stares of concentration, and the mirroring of the movement of our lips.

We are building a bridge, but our work does not seem like progress. It is the slow emergence of story; the work itself becomes the story we share.

Buen trabajo, I have learned to say when they complete a particularly challenging exercise. Good job, they have begun to tell me at the end of each class. And before we leave the room, there is an unspoken agreement to stop, smile, and wave goodbye. Wordlessly.


  1. Esther O'Reilly

    I’m wondering, did you use “annunciate” versus “enunciate” on purpose, for a T. S. Eliot kind of effect? Pretty cool if so, but I just realized maybe it was an accident. 🙂

  2. Jennifer K.

    I felt, on reading and re-reading this, like I did when I had four weeks of physical therapy following a treatment on my tilted hips. While in there, I witnessed folks, because of injury or age, having to relearn simple things that we take for granted: climbing stairs, walking, grasping objects. Training brain and muscles to do things in a slightly different way. It was intriguing but I felt intrusive, witnessing the intimacy of the therapist and the patient in vulnerability – repeating one basic motion over and over. Like a baby pincering Cheerios. But at a time of life when success brings relief more than joy.

    I didn’t know how to describe how I felt without relating this. I took Spanish in high school and helped both sons with it also, stumbling through a new set of rules and phonemes. I felt much like I did in therapy…convincing mind and muscle that speech could be created a different way. I felt that struggle and vulnerability in your story.

    I’ve been interested in TOEFL for a long time. And you are a fine writer. I’d love to hear more about you and your class.

  3. Barbara Lane

    Hmmm…annunciate vs. enunciate. I *have* been reading a lot of Eliot lately. Must have slipped in unawares!

    Jennifer–that’s a beautiful parallel. It’s incredible, the vulnerability on the part of both myself and my students…of your and your physical therapist. Something about the forced simplicity in our focus, perhaps? Stripped down to a bare minimum knowledge or physical ability, we have to rely on things more essential to our existence–like simple movements and tiny sounds.

    I was really struck by what you wrote here: “…at a time of life when success brings relief more than joy.” Poignant. Simple, elemental, and so deeply true.

  4. Peter B

    Barbara, I would read chapters and chapters of this. The story, the cadence, the compassion that filters a million stories through this patient repetition… exquisite.

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