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Just dropping by ... I felt like a baby in Italy until I learned to speak

Yevet Tenney for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 March 2017

I have argued with myself over the refugee and immigration issue. On the one hand, as Christians, we need to help our brothers and sisters in their time of crisis. That is what Christ would do – but on the other hand, will my Christian beliefs and freedom be swallowed up in the new customs and traditions they bring to our country?

I guess I must reach into my soul and pray about my feelings. No matter how it goes, we have people already in our country who need our help. We must teach them that we really are Christians by the way we treat them, and one of those ways is helping them to integrate and learn to communicate.

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When I was 21, I went on a Christian mission to Italy. I had learned a few words and phrases in an intensive crash course, but I was not prepared for the language barriers and the culture shock I would encounter when I got to Italy. From the time I switched planes from American Airlines to Al Italia, I knew, to quote a famous movie, “I was not in Kansas anymore!”

The sights, sounds and smells of a new world flooded my senses. The rapid machine-gun rattle of the language was mind-boggling. Even the words I thought I knew sounded different when spoken by the native Italians. I knew I was in trouble if I ever got away from my friends. I wouldn’t know how to even ask to go to the bathroom, let alone how to find my way if I got lost. I felt like an infant, totally dependent on my companions.

Native Italians oohed and aahed at the new American. They were anxious to help me and to teach me, but they didn’t speak English, so most of the words and phrases they used didn’t make any sense. Finally, I learned a couple of phrases that helped me tremendously.

“Che cosa e?” Which means “What is this?” Or “What do you call it?” Then I learned “Come se de se?” “How do you say it?” With those phrases, I built my vocabulary.

At first I felt like a sideshow. They spoke behind my back in front of my face. They laughed at my phrasing and choice of words. They could tell I didn’t understand them, even though I laughed when they laughed and nodded with fake understanding. I didn’t want anyone to know I was ignorant.

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Gradually, I let my pride go and began to ask questions if I didn’t understand. Much like a child learning to talk, I listened and repeated phrases until I became proficient. I learned to read Italian before I could speak it, and that helped, but the actual talking with people helped the most.

As time passed, I started to think in Italian. I had to translate my thoughts back from Italian into English if I talked to someone in English. My English vocabulary grew because I learned grammar and prefixes that came from Latin-based words.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience.

My experience in Italy gave me insight to understand the plight of refugees: You are here to learn and assimilate into our culture. Refugees are thrust into a new world where everything is new and different. They need to have someone who they can trust to help them with the language and the culture changes.

Helping them learn the language of grammar will help, and giving them a few phrases to get them to help themselves is vital. They need to know where they can meet their needs and how to contact someone if they get lost. Basically, they need a friend.

Another experience that gave me insight to how refugees feel in a new country was my experience adopting a child with a foreign background. My husband and I adopted Paul from a couple who brought him over from Bulgaria a year prior. Paul learned to speak English from looking at the cars and going to car dealerships.

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His first adoptive parents recognized that he loved cars and would do anything to get close to one. They took him everywhere and gave him experiences with the language, so he was quite fluent when we got him, but there were cultural and other special challenges that came from his background that may not be unique to him. Other refugees might relate.

Paul was in three orphanages from the time he was 6 years old. He was terrified of severance and being left alone, so he developed defense mechanisms and games that he played when he was in an uncomfortable situation. He would pretend he didn’t understand people when they talked to him and would exhibit monkey-like behavior when he met anyone new.

I knew about his games because when he was alone with me, he was normal. Finally, I said, “Paul, you are our son. No one is going to take you away from us, so you don’t have to act silly when you meet people. They are not going to take you.” That stopped the monkey behavior, but it did not stop the games.

Every new teacher had to start from the beginning because he would not own his progress. He would act like he didn’t understand, and they would start him all over again. He took delight in the fact that he had fooled them. He stayed at the first-grade level in reading for two or three years.

I didn’t understand why he didn’t progress because at home he had a good command of the language and he knew many sight words, yet he could not read.

One evening, he brought home a small book with words I knew that he was familiar with. I sat down to listen to him read. He couldn’t even pronounce the first words. It became clear that this was a game. “Paul,” I said, “You are not going to bed until you read this book.

You know all the words, and I will stay up all night if I have to.” He read it the first time without a mistake. From that time on, my challenge was to convince the teachers that he was much smarter than he pretended to be.

Finally, he got a teacher who could see through his games and would demand that he perform. I was a teacher at the school, so I communicated with Paul’s teacher daily. This teacher was trained in “Spaulding,” an intensive phonics, reading and writing program, and he taught Paul to read and write.

Paul became one of the best spellers and readers, and his penmanship was impeccable. Then we had a new challenge. Though he could read all the words and spell them with precision, he didn’t comprehend what he was reading 95 percent of the time. We had to work with him to overcome that challenge. Even today, Paul can read much better than he understands.

It has not been easy raising a foreign-born child, but I have learned many valuable things from him. The most important being: It takes time to overcome language and cultural barriers.

We must, of course, be careful to pray for guidance on who to bring into our homes because there is real danger in allowing wolves among the lambs, but we can be Christians. We can show those who are suffering a better way to live. We can extend arms of friendship and kindness.

I am not saying we should open the floodgates and allow everyone to come into our country to be fed and clothed by our government, because that is destructive to everyone. We have a problem, and it will not go away by ignoring it.

Many refugees are already here. They need our kindness and sympathy and our expertise in helping them learn the language and incorporate into our society if they are to become legal American citizens.

There is an old saying, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” We must teach these refugees to fish. In other words, we must teach them American work ethic, values and respect for our laws. That always starts with communication, and communication begins with language.  end mark

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