The (Super) Power of Language

Guest article by Morgan Hughes
College of Wooster
Morgan and students participate in a small-group discussion in class.

I spend a lot of time thinking about language. And not just in the sense that I teach English and so it is literally my job to think about language. Parts of speech, irregular verb conjugations, and compound words aside, I think about language a lot because the ways I communicate, understand, and am understood are a daily struggle. There is limited English at my school—among students and colleagues alike—so much of my day is spent acting as a glorified mime- pointing, gesturing, sketching badly on scrap paper, and constantly wondering if I have made myself clear. Conversing takes place in a jumbled combination of simplified English and Malay. I find myself using the same 15-20 verbs, recycling phrases, simplifying every sentence. There is such little variation and so much repetition, I wonder how many times you can use the same word before it is stripped of all meaning. In this way, my Malay vocabulary is not the only limited language I encounter; my English is similarly restricted. I started truly craving language months ago. It drove me to download NPR podcasts and listen to days-old news in my room. Starving for words, I listen to poetry in the car ride home from school; drink in metaphors and irregular syntax and give thanks for the wealth of words that still exist outside my very small world here in Gerik.

The other day, a student asked me if I could speak anything other than English and the pitiful amount of Malay I have learned. (She didn’t actually use the word pitiful because my students are kind and respectful, but she should have.) I told her that I could speak some Spanish and she excitedly asked me to say something. At this point a small crowd had gathered and, appropriately, I was at a loss for words. Not because it is a human imperative that the instant you are asked to “say something” in another language, you instantly cannot think of anything to say other than, “Hello my name is…” but because I had truly lost all words. I could think of the sentiment I wanted to portray but not the words to express it. In any language. I stood for a moment with my mouth half opened and my eyebrows raised in shock. When words finally surfaced they were muddled and nonsensical. Undeterred, I charged ahead and produced an incomplete sentence in which I attempted to conjugate boleh (the Malay word for “can”) instead of poder (Spanish), creating “bolehmos” (not a word in any language as far as I know), and said “but” in English despite using the Malay and Spanish equivalents (tetapi/pero) fairly regularly. The sentence sputtered to an unconvincing halt and I smiled sheepishly. My students gave me confused but empathetic looks and left me standing alone in the hallway to contemplate my newest shortfall. This was not the first time language failed me, but it had been a while since it failed that completely. I was reminded once again of the superpowers my students possess.

Form one students take a break to listen to a favorite storybook.

“Code switching” is the term used to describe the process of moving between languages, and my students are professionals. For many, English is not their second language but third (or occasionally fourth). I watch them switch between languages and dialects with seemingly effortless ease—right up until they are asked to speak English. Then there is a moment of panic, observable in the way their entire bodies stiffen, eyes widen, and heads duck low. I want to tell them that I understand exactly how they feel. I want them to know that they are not alone in this fear of speaking. Anxiety tangles itself in a tight knot in my chest every time I prepare to speak Bahasa Malaysia (BM). It travels up my esophagus and braces itself against my teeth. My students gather sentences together and it sounds like how fingers trailing from a kayak feels—skimming the edges of water, just breaking the surface. They tell stories I cannot yet fully understand, and the sound of it pools around my feet. I spend my day wading through bubbling vowels and soft consonants. The words are all rounded and fluid, and I open my mouth and they come out sharp edged and uncertain. I understand this fear of speaking. In a culture where making mistakes is cause for shame, I know that language is scary. I repeat time and again that this is all part of learning. “In my class we will make mistakes and I will make the most.” I flaunt my inadequacy and hope my confidence in imperfection somehow transfers itself to them. Some days are more successful than others.

Many of my interactions with students are prefaced with the apology: “I am sorry because my English is so broken.” It is a funny phrase because it perfectly describes how I feel about my own shrinking grasp of conversational English over the last several months. But it is not an accurate description of my students’ English. Their English is not broken; it is a superhero’s skeleton still being formed. Their speech isn’t fractured; their bones are missing the strength of marrow; tendons of fluency are still gathering holds between muscle and bone; pronunciation needs to creak and ache and stretch.

It takes so much time to grow.

Language is a superpower and they are superheroes still learning to use theirs.

Students try their hand at interviewing one another at camp.

I recently took five students to a weekend-long English camp in which they not only communicated entirely in English but were also required to tackle subject matter that is difficult to discuss in any language. I cannot fully explain how proud I was and am of these students. I left the weekend utterly exhausted and I wasn’t even the one translating every word in my head, striving to create meaning from foreign sound. By evening each night, they looked absolutely haggard. At one point, a student was struggling to understand what her other teammate was trying to explain. “Tell her in BM,” I said. Technically, it was breaking the rules, but what are rules if not meant to be broken? Her whole body relaxed. Her eyes softened. Relief flooded her face. They spoke for a minute, turned back to me, and smiled. “Ready?”

“Ready.” Back to English.

I tell them how proud I am of them and they don’t believe me; they go as far as to tell me so. They claim they’re not understanding enough; that their English isn’t as proficient as the other teams’. I should not be proud of them, they say.

I don’t cry but I want to. I decide the rest of the weekend is dedicated to making them believe my pride. Believe in the strength they keep forgetting they have. Believe in themselves and their abilities and the importance of making mistakes. Believe in the superpowers they are growing. I tell them the second night that not only am I proud of each of them, I think they should be proud of themselves. They are skeptical. I tell them I am proud over and over and over again, and each time I tell them specifically why. This is one word I refuse to allow to lose its significance to repetition. We take breaks frequently. Let ourselves breathe. Let the words in our heads separate first by meaning then by language, and pause before we speak. When we do speak, we do it with confidence. I make them repeat their sentences until they say them looking me in the eye, mouths uncovered by hands, voices louder than the mosquitoes buzzing outside. When they lapse into another language, I do not allow them to apologize. We simply take a minute. Breathe. And start again.

A group pinkie promise to make mistakes without fear, trust the team, and try their best.

The weekend was a massive success through no credit of my own. My team dedicated themselves to doing the absolute best they could. They asked me to join for meals and in their limited free-time insisted on using English only (despite these being their only breaks) so that I could understand as well. They explained concepts to one another using English synonyms and by talking around the subject rather than taking the easy way out and simply stating the same word in BM. They started to police themselves and neither allowed each other to apologize for speaking BM nor used BM as a substitute for attempting to speak English. One of my favorite moments came when I told a student he could just ask me his question in BM (because I was confident I already knew what the question was, not because I was confident I could actually understand it in another language), and he told me he could do it in English if he could take a break to think. Yes. 100%, absolutely, always. Yes.

I build language breaks into lessons at school now. We are forever pausing, sometimes mid-lesson, to stand, stretch, breath. One. Two. Three…Ten.



Even superheroes need to rest.

Playing a game at English camp. 

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