Found in Translation

Without the assistance of  Tao Yuhong (Dolores), my earning difficulties are exposed in China!

Without the assistance of Tao Yuhong (Dolores), my learning difficulties are exposed in China!

Inevitably when working in Asia I have language difficulties. Typical of most British people, my knowledge of European languages is limited, but when it comes to the languages of Asia I am completely at a loss. In India, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia I have usually found a number of people around me who speak a good level of English. In China, and particularly on this visit to Xinjiang Province this is most definitely not the case. In such situations I am obviously dependent upon an interpreter or two to get me through meetings, my teaching or conference presentations and to assist me in social situations where I am otherwise like the proverbial fish out of water.

Fortunately on this visit I have been assigned an interpreter with superb English and the kind of understanding of local custom and etiquette that keeps me out of trouble. Tao Yuhong (Dolores) has not only assisted me in teaching, but has been a constant presence at meals and in other social situations where I would otherwise falter. (Did you know that if you sit at the head of a fish at the dining table you must propose a toast to whoever sits at the tail? – no neither did I!). The professionalism of good interpreters always amazes me, not only do they need to know the language well enough to speak with authority, but they are also required to navigate the technical nuances of the subject of the person for whom they translate. Sitting with Tao Yuhong prior to sessions and going through presentation materials ensures that terms such as inclusion, assessment for learning and differentiation are understood. This enables an audience to be reassured and assists them to find the meanings and concepts through the translation. It also inspires confidence in the presenter.

I think it is quite good to place oneself in a relative position of helplessness such as is occurring with me at present. Finding myself in a situation where I cannot manage the spoken language and have no hope of reading the Chinese or Uighur script that surrounds me I have some idea of how many children who have learning difficulties must feel. As a normally (reasonably) self-sufficient and competent adult I have reverted to being as dependent as a child and look to others to support me in the most basic of situations.

Of course, a significant difference between myself and most children with learning difficulties is that I am in a very different cultural context and as a rare visitor to this part of the world nobody is suggesting that I be taught the language and gain a degree of personal autonomy. Also unlike children who have learning difficulties, in a few days time I will be back in familiar surroundings and will almost miraculously have recovered my learning competence.

Perhaps it would be good for all teachers to experience this situation from time to time if it made them think of the challenges faced by their pupils. Such an experience makes us re-evaluate terms such as independence and competence as well as encouraging us to think about how we go about understanding the world we find ourselves in.  For now I would just like to say thank you to Tao Yuhong (Dolores) for being my teacher and carer for a few days here in Urumqi. Your skills as an educator were greatly appreciated. I hope that I have not been too troublesome a child!

6 thoughts on “Found in Translation

  1. I found myself in a situation recently where I felt alone, scared and vulnerable. It made me realise how many with a learning disability must feel at night, even when the doors are closed and made me determine to work even harder for change.

  2. Hello Hayley,
    Isn’t it interesting that all of us from time to time feel that our personal learning is inadequate for the situations in which we find ourselves. Even those of us who are supposed to be well educated with degrees and titles like Professor or Doctor have learning difficulties in some contexts. Thanks for your posting

  3. I feel teachers find helplessness when they are unable to reach out to a particular child. So, we have “teaching difficulties”. It will therefore be wise to understand that all of us have difficulties in some form or other and that is when we will really be willing to work towards developing the right attitude.
    Richard, thank you for giving us such a simple yet effective example in this post.

  4. Hi Savitha,
    I often find that simplicity helps us to think more clearly. I am sure that all of us can provide examples of when we have felt helpless because of our lack of understanding or insufficient skills. I am also interested in how dependent we all are on the means of communication with which we are most familiar. In a country surrounded by two languages in a written form that is completely outside of my understanding, I was struck by how much written material surrounds us all the time in our lives – when you are unable to access this it can be both frustrating and confusing. This is an experience that I am sure is familiar to many children through most of their schooling.

  5. I agree with your thoughts of the benefits to teachers of spending some time in a location where they are still themselves but their ability for independence is limited as they lack literacy skills. As you say it makes us appreciate the extent to which the written word surrounds us. I was lucky enough to spend some time in Japan when I was in my late teens and echo your experience of feeling like a young child as my power to read was taken away. A few years later I participated in an adult literacy course and the first session few people turned up. The venue was new to most and the successful arrivals had better survival strategies: flaming to have left your glasses at home meant that others assisted by reading information. I recall one person who made it to the second session saying that he had caught the right bus but it had gone in the wrong direction. He could read numbers but not words. Perhaps privileging ourselves to such experiences would enable us to be better teachers – walk a mike in my shoes before making a judgement.

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