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Facilitating activities in a foreign language setting

This blog post is written by Vic, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion. This is Part 2 of a series on "Breaking the Language Barrier" (read part 1 here:

The first few days at my placements in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion went by like a breeze. In the eyes of both the local educators and the students that studied there, I had come across as an obscure stranger who spoke some weird languages and had come to play with the kids. Sometimes this stranger might have tried to speak their language, but he had this weird accent, and he kept on making mistakes and sounding funny. He said he came from this land called Yavan (יוון, Greece), a place where people apparently start breaking plates at the sound of a bouzouki (Spoiler Alert: this is actually not that far from the truth, even though it is kind of exaggerated) and where many Israelis usually spend their vacation at. However, as time went by, this stranger slowly had to stop getting the rock star treatment and become an effective part of the staff of each placement that he belongs at. And for me, this meant that I had to be what I had become during the four years of my university studies: an educator.

In contrast to more practical professions, though, education is a field of work that very heavily relies on communication between people (That is not to say that there is any profession that doesn’t require it at all. Communication is, after all, the very basis of human society. The point is, rather, that for the educational process it is so essential that its absence could very well render it utterly useless.). It should come to no surprise, then, that when I first tried to facilitate an activity on my own with Israeli children that had minimal knowledge of English, things appeared to be more complicated than expected. For me, it felt like I was unable to utilize the abilities I knew I had, despite the fact that I had acquired them during the course of four years of university studies! As a result, in order to overcome this limitation, I knew I had to answer some questions: communication in general with minimal language skills is one thing, but how does one educate without verbal speech? How does one lead an activity without being able to properly talk to the students or understand what they’re saying? Does this act require skills other than the mere act of interaction between people?

…and if all goes wrong, improvise! I was fortunate enough to find out that not all activities require high level communication skills!

The first word that came to mind when I was called to answer the questions above was preparation. The main idea here is that all activities need to have a certain momentum in order for them to work and to be impactful, and that said momentum is very much at risk when the facilitator is taking extra time to explain in a language they don’t fully understand. Thus, it was clear to me that I needed to find ways to minimize casualties on it as much as possible. For this reason, I thought that, whether I would be facilitating activities for Itamar Elementary School or for the moadonit (i.e.: Children’s Afternoon Activity Center) that I was into, I would have to be as prepared as possible. That primarily includes planning, gathering and preparing the materials very, very thoroughly. In addition to that, I needed to figure out and to practice the way that I would explain these said activities to the children in Hebrew, with the help of either our Hebrew teacher (thanks, Maayan!) or our good friend, Google Translate. Also, since verbal communication is so limited, it is also very important that this said preparation includes as many different types of stimuli as possible, so that the activity could have maximum outreach towards students that gravitate towards different learning styles. For the purpose of achieving this goal, activities can include pictures, sounds, colorful materials, multimedia if available and, especially if the setting is non-formal, opportunities for the child to move (of course, not everything is applicable in every situation, for obvious reasons, and one must usually choose what they think is best to include). Going through all this process, apart from helping me retain the flow of each activity, made me feel a lot more secure and confident about what I was going to do, and thus the overall quality of my work improved drastically.

Often items that seem the most irrelevant can be turned into useful, fun educational materials. This beach ball, for instance, was modified and used to motivate the students to talk about their favorite things!

Despite all that, though, we all know that no matter how prepared we are, some things might very well take an unexpected turn. In my case, children sometimes struggled to understand my broken Hebrew, others were disinterested in the activity or even started arguing among themselves. In situations like this I find that it is very important to be flexible and vigilant. To always be aware of how things are going at the moment of its execution can go a long way towards success. Sometimes I had to switch up the activity for more variety in order to keep the students engaged. Others just understood a different version of a game than the one I was trying to explain to them, and so I decided to stick with it! There are many occasions during facilitation of teaching, formally or non-formally, in which one needs to improvise and act on the spot, even when there is no language barrier to deal with: this is not something new, and our case does not particularly differ from any other form of educational work in that manner. Nevertheless, it is always useful to have this in mind, not in order to stress facilitators out even more, of course, but as a mindset that can potentially get facilitators out of tricky situations.

Sometimes educators are required to improvise and acquire multiple roles during the educational procedure. Qu'est-ce que vous voulez manger, messieurs?

Maybe the most useful tip I’ve been given so far, though, is to try and learn the language of the classroom (credits to Tiferet and Danielle for that one, you guys rule). But what does that even mean? Doesn’t it suffice to just go to ulpan and learn Hebrew proficiently enough? These are questions that may very validly be asked. However, one does not address children the same way as they do adults, especially when they are in primary school or younger. Words carry values, ideas and ideologies, sometimes consciously and others less so. For this reason, one who addresses children in these vulnerable ages should be careful how they talk, as this can potentially affect them in the long term. Examples like this could be the heavy use of imperative, which can come across as authoritative, or the use of only masculine forms, which can be exclusive of anyone that does not identify as male. This kind of language is not taught in any ulpan - for what it’s worth, we may not realize its existence even in our own mother tongues! -, and so one that seeks to learn it should do so by observing other, native educators, on the job. This is not only because of their training, but also because they have internalized the local norms in terms of communication and culture, and they know the way around them. I’ve found that, once one figures out which kind of language is considered more appropriate for each educational setting and starts using it more frequently, it changes the way the students related to them. And the mere act of relating and building rapport is the most important part of the educational procedure in all its forms.

Reenacting the ancient Indian story of “The blind men and the elephant”. You can probably tell which is which…

As one could probably tell from all the above, attempting to facilitate activities for children in a different linguistic and cultural setting is a challenging endeavor, and it almost always gets overwhelming in the beginning. However, following all of the above while constantly working on my Hebrew skills and the overall understanding of Israeli culture, as well as the subcultures connected to this specific neighborhood, helped me set a steady path towards improving my work here. This whole procedure has been one of the most enlightening and rewarding experiences of my life, and the satisfaction of “unlocking” my abilities once again has never been greater.


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