It seems like I start every blog by saying, “OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I haven’t been on in such a looooooong time cuz I’m sooooooooo kewl!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” But this time it’s true. I’m soooooo kewl.
Actually, I have just been doing stuff. It’s been a long month, it seems like. Went to Berlin and Queen’s Day happened, which were pretty swell things to happen, if I do say so myself. I will write about those things at some other point, but for now I want to talk about language.
Language is the most beautiful, funny thing in the whole world. The end.
Okay, not the end. I’m being particularly ADD with this post, I know.
Last week I had my first day of English tutoring with the Native Speaker Project. It was a beautiful, funny thing. The Native Speaker Project, if I haven’t described it already (obviously I can’t remember so I’m describing it anyway) is a program where people who speak English as a native language or are very fluent in English go to schools in Amsterdam and just have conversations with kids.
The schools where the NSP takes place are called “black” schools because a vast majority of the students are non-white, even though most of the kids are not black themselves, but are of Middle Eastern descent. Because parents in the Netherlands can choose which school to send their child to and because the government subsidizes all education, this leads to white parents putting their children in white schools, not because of racism but because the schools are just better. It’s like choosing between sending an American child to an inner-city school or to one in the suburbs. Schools in the suburbs are just better, and everyone knows it.
Another factor that contributes to the black/white school issue is the Cito test. In the Netherlands, all students attend elementary school, and at the end of elementary school, at around age 11 or 12 they take a test that basically determines the rest of their lives. Depending on what score they get on the Cito test, the students then go on to secondary schooling in one of three divisions: VMBO, HAVO, VWO. The VMBO is vocational training-oriented, the HAVO schools are general education-oriented, and the VWO are university prep-oriented. The secondary school type that one attends affects everything from their admittance to higher education institutions to their placement in the job market. Students at the VMBO schools are trained to be hairdressers, carpenters, or nurses, while students at the VWO schools go on to university to be whatever they want. I should also mention at this point that there are two different types of higher education, as well: the HBO and the WO. The HBO schools are professionally oriented while the WO schools are research universities. The HBO students get degrees in teaching or business, while the WO students get degrees in philosophy and other subjects that eventually lead to no jobs. :) As a side note, the University of Amsterdam is a WO institution; therefore, I take classes about things like the Netherlands’ educational system, and not about how to make money or have a successful career. Us WO kids don’t have careers. We have Religious Studies degrees.
Anyway, you can kind of see how the black/white school problem is a self-perpetuating system. Children of immigrants, who usually do not have the academic preparation and resources of their Dutch peers, take the Cito test and get sent to the VMBO schools. The white kids, who are often socio-economically advantaged (and whose parents can pay for Cito test-prep, which actually happens sometimes) go on to the VWO schools.
The schools where the Native Speakers go are all VMBO black schools. While they are taught in Dutch, it is usually their second language after the language their family speaks at home. English is often at the very least their third language. The students can opt to take English classes in a formal, structured class setting or use their English time to talk with Native Speakers. Obviously, since these are middle schoolers we are talking about, they want to talk with people.
The kids I talked with were incredibly funny and smarter than I will ever be. If I ever know the name for a jellyfish in three different languages, then we can talk, but until then, these kids have me beat. The first session was a little awkward for me because there were so many Native Speakers that we were paired up, two to a group. It was my first time so I was a little unsure anyway, but it made it more difficult that the guy I was paired up with was Dutch, and he could understand what the kids were saying amongst themselves and could laugh at their jokes. Even if you know Dutch, you are not supposed to let the kids know that because then they will try to talk in Dutch and not in English. But the guy didn’t really care because he works for ING and only does the Native Speaker Project because he has to for his job. He told me later that after his four week committment is up he will not come back, and that he has had enough of the kids. So here I am, surrounded by four middle schoolers and an old Dutch guy, all talking in Dutch. I felt really humbled and stupid. Who am I to try to force my language on them when they are obviously having no trouble communicating without me?
My second session was much better than the first because I was on my own. I was paired with three girls–Chantina, Aleena, and Madiha. Chantina’s family was from Curacao and Aleena and Madiha’s families were from Pakistan. All of the girls were great, but Madiha really stood out as a character. She had the most amazing grey-green eyes, like those of the Afghani woman on the cover of Time magazine back in the day, and she spoke so quickly and vibrantly, mixing two or three languages together to tell me the entire plot of “Paranormal Activity.”
The most rewarding part of the day was when we were done with our scheduled activity (naming animals–they were done in 3 minutes!) and could talk about whatever we wanted. After they explained Paranormal Activity in probably more detail than I ever wanted to know (And then she kill her boyfriend and the police come and she lopen…what’s the word?…walk… outside and they kill her!! They kill her!!!!) we talked about travel. I asked them where they had been, and they had all been to a few countries in Europe and then to either Pakistan or Curacao, depending on where their families were from. They asked me where I had been and I told them that I had only been a few places like Belgium and Germany. Then Madiha said, “You’re from England, right?” I thought it was rather funny that she thought I had an English accent, but I could not tell her Pakistani accent from any other, so I guess it makes sense.
I said, “No, I’m from America.”
The girls, who had seemed a little disinterested before, suddenly looked excited and their eyes began to sparkle. “Oooh!” they said. “You know Justin Bieber?”
I laughed and had to break the news to them that, though I am from America, I unfortunately do not personally know Justin Bieber. However, I have heard his songs, and that led to a big tweeny discussion about Justin Bieber. I thought he was like thirteen or something, but the girls quickly corrected me by shouting across the room to the resident Justin Bieber expert. “Hey Sheree, how old is Justin Bieber?” Sheree turned around and said, “Sixteen,” with the sort of look that said “and-four-months-twenty-seven-days-sixteen-hours-and-forty-three-minutes!!!!!! Oh Em Gee!!!!!!)
Our session ended shortly after that, and afterward the jolly Australian man that all the kids wanted to talk with asked me how it went. I told him that it went well, especially after Justin Bieber came up, and he said in that delightful Aussie accent, “Oh yeah. I forgot to tell ya, but anytime ya get stuck, jus’ mention Justin Biebah!” Thanks for the advice, mate.
I know it was only my first time, and I’m sure there will be times when the kids are terrible tweens, but I love it. And you have to know I’m telling the truth, since I had to catch a tram at 7 am to ride half an hour across town to talk about Justin Bieber. Volunteering with the Native Speaker Project made me realize that a lot of people go into volunteering or community service with the idea that they are going to help someone else. That they are doing a service for others. But it has always been my experience that I get more out of volunteering than the people I am supposed to be “helping.” I think if I were on the admissions board of a medical school and someone told me they wanted to be a doctor because they wanted to help people, I would immediately reject them. That person has obviously not done enough “helping” to realize that, in serving others, we are actually helping ourselves more. And so I’ve come to the conclusion that these kids don’t need me or my English. But I think I need them. I need them to make me laugh and to teach me about horror movies and to describe Curacao. And of course, to squeal about Justin Bieber.