“Listen... PORT-smith. PORT-smith.” I pronounced it slowly, then rapidly, the way you’d hear it in ordinary conversation. I pointed to the sentence I’d written on the board. “I’m currently living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.”
To a person, my adult students frowned. I could tell what they were thinking. “It’s spelled MOUTH. How can it be pronounced SMITH?” And, “Have I really been saying the name of this town wrong for the last three months?”
My Taiwanese student cleared his throat. “Teacher,” he asked carefully, “are you sure?” A few other students nodded in solidarity.
They had a right to question my pronunciation. I’d told them many times that I was not a native New Englander, and that Americans had a wide variety of regional accents.
Just then Jackie, a school administrator and lifelong Portsmouth resident, happened to pass by the classroom door. “Jackie,” I called, “can you read this sentence for us?” I tapped the blackboard.
Jackie popped her head through the door. “PAHT-smith,” she sang confidently. “I’m currently living in PAHT-smith New HAMP-sha.” She smiled brightly at the students and continued her way down the hall.
My students’ strained smiles belied their frustration. Okay, “MOUTH” was clearly “SMITH,” but now was it “PORT” or “PAHT”? And why was stupid English always like this?
I sympathized. How far along would I be if I were on the other side of the desk, learning some dialect of Mandarin, or Hindi, or Portuguese? The time seemed ripe for a classroom discussion. “Why should you try to pronounce ‘Portsmouth’ the way local people do?” I scanned the classroom full of attentive faces. “Have any of you experienced a time when it was really important to pronounce something correctly, to be understood? Maybe the name of a town, or a person, or something else?”
There was a collective sigh, then a few raised hands. I called on Amala from southern India. She gazed around the room as she related how she had tried to take her young daughter shopping in downtown Portsmouth. “COAST was late,” she relayed in her heavily accented, British-tinged English, referring to the local bus line. “So I used the help phone at the bus stop. I asked the operator when the next bus would arrive, but he could not understand me. I repeated several times, ‘When does the next bus arrive?’ but each time I asked, the operator said, ‘Sorry, ma’am, I don’t understand you.’ I was so frustrating, I started to cry a little bit.” Amala’s eyes filled at the memory.
“You were frustrated,” I corrected gently, as the students made sympathetic clucking noises. “Was this a while ago, Amala?” I asked. “Because your English is quite good; I understand you perfectly.”
“This was a few weeks ago,” admitted Amala sadly. “My English gets bad when I know the person listening to me is becoming unpatient.”
“Impatient,” I said automatically.
“Impatient,” agreed Amala. “Teacher, my English is better in the classroom because you are so patient. Outside of the classroom…” she shrugged. “People are not patient. They don’t want to listen.”
Several more hands shot up, and my pronunciation exercise was clearly over. The students wanted to talk about loneliness and isolation. “People here, they are so friendly,” exclaimed one Korean student, “but I have not made any American friends. All my friends are Korean, so I don’t have much chance to practice my English.”
“I need some American friends, too,” interjected Ruchita, another Indian student. “I wait all day for my husband to come home from work, just so I can have a normal, grown-up conversation without worrying about what I say, or how I say it.”
More nodding heads and raised hands. “My kids listen to me,” said Lise, a twenty-something au pair from Poland. “I am the mom when their mom is at work, so they have to,” she laughed. “When I do their homework with them, I learn quite a lot. But I understand about wanting grown-up conversation,” she said, acknowledging Ruchita’s comment.
“Let’s talk about finding ways to practice English outside of class,” I suggested. “Where can you find people who will listen to you?”
“Anywhere you buy something,” commented the Taiwanese student. “If you have money to spend, people will talk to you.”
All the students’ suggestions were for transactional discussions, rather than true conversations, and I said as much. The room got quiet. “Where is it possible to connect with other people, without having to buy something?” I asked.
Beatrice, from Brazil, answered, “Prescott Park. Sometimes when it’s nice outside, I’ll go to the park and sit on a bench, and sometimes someone else will sit there, too, and we will talk.”
“That’s a great example of two people striking up a conversation,” I observed, and wrote ’strike up’ on the board. “This is a phrasal verb that means to begin or start something – usually a conversation or a friendship. So, you can sit on a park bench, like Beatrice does, and strike up a conversation with a stranger.”
“Talk with someone who is strange – like, weird?” wondered Hanh, a student from Vietnam.
“Well, no,” I chuckled, “a stranger is just someone you don’t know.”
“Stranger danger!” exclaimed the Polish au pair, recalling one of her charge’s lessons.
“Yes,” I nodded. “The rhyme ‘stranger danger’ reminds American children to be careful of strangers.”
“I thought stranger meant weird or scary,” lamented Hanh. “Like the TV show, Stranger Things.”
“Oh, it does mean that, as an adjective,” I clarified. “But as a noun, it means someone you don’t know.”
Sidelong glances amongst the students as they scribbled notes, and I could hear them thinking, “What an impossible language this is.”
“Where else might you strike up a conversation?” I prompted the class.
“Um, I think at church,” volunteered the Korean student. “But I go to a Korean church, so we mostly talk in Korean.”
“Okay but that’s still a good suggestion if anyone is interested in checking out an English-speaking church. Where else?” I asked again.
“One thing I notice,” volunteered Ruchita, “is that Americans make appointments to see each other. Like, can your child play with my child on Monday between four and five o’clock? Can they play for one hour? In my village,” she continued, “kids will just appear. The parents do not call first or make appointments.”
“Yes,” chimed in Amala. “I think it is more difficult to make friends in America than in India. I am not accustomed to making friends in this way.”
“What makes someone a friend, and not a stranger?” I asked, wanting to keep the conversation going. I called on an Egyptian student who had been silent. “Mo?”
Mo scrubbed his head and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. “A stranger has no connection to me,” he said softly. “Even if we are next to each other - on the bus, for example - he will probably not talk to me.”
“But a friend…?”
“A friend will want to know what I am doing, where I am going, how I am feeling, how is my family.”
“He is curious about your life,” I agreed. “And you…?”
“I will want to know the same about him,” Mo affirmed.
The Korean student jumped back into the discussion. “If I go to Prescott Park and sit on a bench and talk to a stranger,” she mused, “I will not talk about my family or my feelings. We will probably talk about the weather.”
“That’s what Americans call small talk,” I explained. “When you want to talk to someone you don’t know, you can start with a small, neutral topic, like the weather. If that goes well, you can try another topic. Let’s practice – I need a volunteer.”
Mo gamely raised his hand. I invited him to the front of the classroom, pulled two chairs around to face the class and sat in one of the chairs. “Okay, we are in Prescott Park, and you want to sit down, so you sit here next to me on this bench.” Mo sat down.
“Nice day, isn’t it?” I asked Mo.
“Very nice…and um, sunny,” replied Mo nervously.
“I was getting tired of all that rain!” I said conversationally. “My garden is still full of water.”
Mo bit his lip.
“Is there something you are curious about?” I asked him in a stage whisper.
He whispered back, “I had a garden in Egypt. I wonder what you grow in your New Hampshire garden.”
“Go ahead and ask me,” I encouraged.
“What do you grow in your garden?” asked Mo in a normal voice.
“Oh, the usual.” I replied. “Cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, onions and parsley.”
Mo smiled. “Those are exactly the things you need to make Salata Balati – a nice Egyptian salad. You chop the vegetables into small pieces, and then add olive oil, and lemon juice and some nice spices.”
“Mmm, sounds good, I’ll have to try that!” I replied. “Which spices will I need?”
“Oh,” he said, “some cumin, black pepper, sumac…I’m not sure of all the names. A little sugar for sweetness, not too much…”
I turned to the class. “How is Mo doing?”
The students laughed and clapped.
“Are Mo and I friends, now?” I asked the group.
“No, but you are no longer strangers!” called out Hanh.
“And why is that?” I asked her.
“Because you were interested in each other, and you were both willing to listen.”