First, an explanation: My name is Amy McDaniel, and it has been a month since Stacey graciously introduced me (scroll down to "In other news") as a new guest blogger. As she mentions, I will be writing from time to time from Bangladesh, where I have just begun teaching a poetry workshop and a food & fiction class at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong. I've spent the intervening month recovering from some kind of tropical stomach virus and filling out maintenance request forms to secure a working kitchen drain and reliable electricity.
But during my first week here, in the first blush of novelty, before the culture (and digestive) shock set in and when every small errand was still an adventure, I began learning the alphabet. The Bengali one.
The last time I learned to write an alphabet -- the Latin one -- was also the first. I don't remember it, but I do remember learning to write numbers. I was four; my family had just moved from Charlotte to Atlanta and we were living in an apartment while my parents house-hunted. One morning, my mother and I sat at the kitchen table and I pushed a fat crayon over the dotted lines she marked. I had little faith that I'd ever form these strange shapes with a free hand. This wasn't like drawing pictures, which translates the visual to the visual. Nothing about the symbols for numbers or letters evokes their sound or meaning. 2 and 5 vexed me particularly, with the way their curves hastily became angles.
2 and 5. 25. 25 years have passed since I learned new symbols for sounds. Many of the sounds, too, are brand new for me. Unaspirated t's. Extra-aspirated d's. Chchh's. Ksm's and Ntb's.
Then there are 32 simple consonants, and at least 90 symbols for paired consonants, many of which resemble neither of their component simple consonant symbols.
I could be daunted by all this, to the point of giving up, and sometimes I come close, and often I go for many days without study. But for now, it's worth it to try. I can recognize about 19 of the most common symbols, and that's enough to bring some comfort when I look at street signs and food labels. I know enough to feel in a real way that I'm looking at words, not pictures. I can write "am," for mango, and "lal," for red, and "amma," for mother. (I could write a lot more besides, but my vocabulary is even more limited than my letter recognition).
Semi-literate as I am, my students astound me all the more. I teach 2 students from Bhutan, 1 from India, 3 from Nepal, 1 from Pakistan, 1 from Sri Lanka, 5 from Vietnam, 3 from Afghanistan, and 12 from Bangladesh. In what for many of them is their second alphabet, they can write much more than "red mango mama." They can compose poems that unravel the meanings and metaphors of their given and family names. They can evoke food memories that at once awaken the appetite and touch the heart. And that's just in the first week.
Educators commonly highlight the challenges that face ESL learners. The accommodations that must be made for them. And that's all important and worthy to discuss. But we mustn't forget the intellectual and creative gifts that learning a language bestow. The language learner is by definition thinking hard about language, which is exactly the work we do as poets. Studying a foreign tongue teaches us what is arbitrary in our systems of symbolism, what is cultural, what is universal. I can't speak for my students, though I can say that poetry is alive and at work within my students in a way that, frankly, I envy. Speaking just for myself, learning the Bengali alphabet reawakened in me that earlier sense of the magic bouncing between sign and sound.
While it's true that this is a challenge, it's one that should be celebrated before it is merely accommodated.