“How do you spell onion?” I asked the Level One ESL class during my first lessons as a substitute for the GRC.
We had started class reviewing classroom vocabulary and spelling and, at the request of the students, continued to practice spelling words beyond pen, desk, chair, etc.
I thought that grocery store vocabulary seemed practical, so I began naming off fruits and vegetables for the students to spell. After we’d cycled through a few, apple, tomatoes, potatoes, easily, it seemed that onion presented a bit of a challenge.
The class was a bit stumped. We got as far as O N I before the crickets started chirping. And then one brave soul, Jeanette, spoke up, “G.”
“G?” I hesitated, the dry erase marker hovering over the whiteboard.
“G,” she said confidently.
I put the G on the board (this is one of the tricky things about teaching: do you let the student make the mistake before you correct them? Or do you stop before the mistake takes place in their brain?). My curiosity prevailed as to how onion could be spelled with a G, so I let her continue.
After a few shouted letters and hesitant marks on the board, I asked if she would like to come up and spell the word. At the board, she took the marker, pondered for a second, erased my G, then the I that came before it and filled out the word: ONGNON.
I pondered the spelling and the only familiar word that came to my mind was Mingnon, as in Filet Mingnon.
“That’s very French of you,” I said.
She looked confused. I pointed to the letters. “This spelling in French makes the same sound that you’re looking for, the nion, but in English it looks like this.” I took the marker and spelled out onion below her interpretation.
The power of our human brains is the power to make connections, find patterns and make strange things more familiar. It’s the connection that takes the sounds of the English word onion and translates them into the familiar, the French combination of letters creating the same sound “ngnon,” for a West African refugee.
For me teaching ESL at the GRC it’s the ability to connect my limited French vocabulary (Filet Mingon) to a misspelling of an English word with a similar sound (onion).
For refugees, displaced from their homes, taken away from everything familiar, food, language, family, the only lives they’ve ever known, the desire to make connections becomes even stronger and more necessary. Language is one of the strongest connections that we, as humans can make. It defines us, roots us in our heritage, but also has the ability to make or break us. Without language, we cannot communicate, which is the GRC is trying to provide the opportunity for refugees to connect to a new community through a new language, minus the silent French G.