Story posted October 26, 2007
"Bowdoin as a Second Language"
Bowdoin College's 2007 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 26, 2007, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by student speaker Ekaphan "Bier" Kraichak '08.
It is my great honor to be here in front of you today, not only because I have the chance to stand right here to congratulate you all, congratulations, but also because I have the chance to stand right here, being one of you, despite my inability to master something that you already have. That is the English language.
You might have started to notice already that I have a really thick accent. I apologize for that. But, believe me, my English now is much more bearable than it was three years ago, when I first came to Bowdoin. So please bear with me today.
Of course, English is not my first language, and actually far from it. As an international student from Thailand, I was required to take a test of English as a Foreign Language (or TOEFL) to demonstrate my ability to use English to gain admission to Bowdoin. And luckily, I managed to get just above the recommended score. The test didn't say that I was competent in English by any means; however, sadly I thought I was.
Although I did worry about having a difficult time dealing with cultural differences, I was somewhat confident that I knew enough English to get through academic classes. Following my passion in teaching, I signed up for the first-year seminar in education called Educational Crusade. Still confused by what crusade really referred to; nonetheless, I went ahead with my decision and attended the first class of my college life.
I came to Bowdoin, not knowing what "freshmen fifteen" or "screwed up" really meant, but I had my first assignment in hand already. The short assignment wanted me to describe my "educational utopia." The disaster was looming in front of me.... What did "utopia" really mean?
In the habit of an English language learner, I consulted my beloved dictionaries immediately. American Heritage explains it as "an ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political and moral aspects. Oxford refers to the Latin root of the word, coined by Thomas Moore, as the combination of a "good place" and "no place. I personally recalled hearing this word before, perhaps at Disney World. In any case, I had to start explaining my own utopia.
I don't know what goes on in your head as you are writing a paper. But this is what goes on in my head as an ESL or English as a Second Language student: the sentence needs a subject, a verb and perhaps an object, if a transitive verb is used. To combine two sentences, you can either make them become a compound or a complex sentence with an appropriate conjunction. When using perfect tense, you cannot forget the verb "to have" with the past participle afterward. Most importantly, do not forget the article.
I tried to recall everything from years of learning English, where all the explanations were in my native tongue — Thai. I was certain that if I got the grammar right, everything would be fine. I understood what people said, why couldn't I write what I understood? Or what seemed to be even more ridiculous — why couldn't people understand what I was saying?
That three-paged paper was probably one of the longest papers I had ever written in my life, both literally and metaphorically. I spent so much time working on it, squeezing every possible drop of my ideas and knowledge of English grammar and turning them into a paper. An ideally perfect place, I did it! I turned the paper in and patiently waited, half-expecting it to yield good results.
The following week, the class received the grades and feedback on the paper, except for me. My assignment was filled with corrections and question marks. I found no grade on my paper, but instead a short comment, saying "Bier — you will want to make good use of the Writing Project, first floor Kanbar, so that you can communicate your ideas clearly and concisely in English."
The damage was done. I went back to my room, completely destroyed. I had known that my English was not that great, but it should not be this bad. Weren't my ten years of learning English worth something? How would I be able to continue studying at a place where English is the primary language of instruction? Perhaps, I was too ambitious to be here. Perhaps, studying in a second language was not an option for me. However, the show must go on. Something needed to be fixed.
Complying with my professor's heart-breaking comment, I gave in and went to the Writing Project, explaining my situation with barely comprehensible English to the director, Kathleen O'Connor. At that moment, we did not have any ESL tutor, much less anyone who had any experience working with a student with minimal understanding of English. Kathleen paired me up with a writing assistant, Jenny, a senior English major, to help me go through each draft of my paper.
I allowed Jenny to completely destroy my confidence in the English language and to help me build it up again from scratch. She admitted that she knew nothing about linguistic terms, but she helped me grow strong in my English usage. It was not a thick reference book of grammar that helped me. It was the willingness to let the language take me in.
While telling me to be mindful of grammar, Jenny taught me to learn from my own mistakes, discussing and correcting my common errors, from tense confusion to the use of articles — when to use "a" or "the," which honestly, sorry Jenny, I still don't exactly know. However, little by little, I started to recognize my own mistakes and committed to not making the same errors. My English became more comprehensible, and I was able to communicate my ideas a little bit more clearly and concisely in English.
The ability to embrace English as a second language liberated me from my false notion that an ESL student like me would not be able to study anything but math and science. I have become an education studies minor and enrolled in many other humanities courses, which this semester also includes English.
However, it is not only the better comprehension of English that allowed me to explore a broader academic world, but also the ability to immerse myself into a totally foreign place that brought me to this stage.
I believe in what Salman Rushdie writes in his book, Midnight's Children, that a metaphor can be active. My experience of learning English might reflect what many of us here already have been doing. By allowing ourselves to be in an unfamiliar situation, to be unsettled by the whole new experience, we will be able to gain a better understanding of things — or, using a flowery and vague term, to gain "wisdom."
If knowing all of the grammatical rules of English is not enough to become an English as a Second Language speaker, then memorizing all the quotations and acing all the exams in your life are probably not enough to become an exemplary Bowdoin student either. Bowdoin is not just a place where we come, write tons of papers, take hundreds of exams and get out with a diploma. Bowdoin is a place that allows us to feel uncertain, unsettled and, then, ready to reconstruct ourselves again. Let us use our Bowdoin experience to make sure that once we get out of this bubble, we are ready to be unsettled again.
Let us embrace Bowdoin as a second language.
"utopia." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Answers.com, Sept. 17, 2007.
"utopia." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 2001, 2004. Answers.com, Sept. 17, 2007.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. London: Jonathan Cape, 1981.