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Naming the Silence

Guest Blogger

edge1 Tuesday, I give my junior high ESL classes a simple homework assignment. As you speak English, I say, pay attention to where you fall silent. Notice the words you don’t have English for. Then choose one of those that you think you really ought to know and look up the English definition.

I assign this mostly because my students, who speak Chinese at home, are having trouble wanting to speak English. I want them to start listening, and to be a little curious.

The next morning, the students remind me that they are ready to share their words. For once, everyone has done the homework. Their words are scribbled on small bits of paper: bride, executioner, honesty, forgive, ensue, barrette, vacuum cleaner, voodoo.

Lilith has brought in phenomenon. She says she means a word for “the strange and beautiful clouds.” Phenomenon fits, sort of, but I suspect that her Chinese word is more casual, less scientific. There are so many words like that. Words that fit perfectly in the shells of their original sounds. Words that resist being pried out and served up in just any language.

I help each student pronounce the English they’ve chosen. After I do, the students teach me their Chinese word.

Or rather, they try. Chinese has always been hard for me. My students wave their hands like orchestra conductors, trying to signal the up and down inflections of the Mandarin tones that fit so naturally on their tongues.

It takes a long time for all 19 students to share words. I keep expecting the class to get restless, but they stay focused, listening in a sort of reverent silence.

I’ve been thinking about that silence ever since. That’s just not an everyday mood in a junior high classroom. What made that assignment so different?

I had asked my students to teach me something very personal about their learning, and about their lives. It was something that allowed us to step into each other’s experience. Together, we were naming the silence between us—now we could both say the word in our home language.

Really, poetry is a similar act. As poets, we learn to listen for moments in life for which we don’t yet have language. When we find these unnamed spaces, we translate them for others. It’s not always a perfect translation, but in the act of naming what was a silence, we are drawn together.

- Guest Blogger, Christina Lee (Read her poetry in Relief 7.2. Purchase here.)

Photo by Mikko Lagerstedt