Greece, Day 2: The Language Barrier

sA typical instructional day here in the summer camp is four hours. The lesson plan that Sonny-my teaching partner- and I constructed for the first day  for the 4th-6th grade classroom looked like this:

Lesson Plan One 

First Hour

  • Play the name game (have each student state their name and one fact about themselves)
  • Have the kids make name placards, emblazoned with both their names and drawings of things that they like

Second Hour

  • Establish goals and rules
  • Ask them what activities they like

Third Hour

  • Play various games as time permits, including Pictionary and Hangman

Fourth Hour (this is usually a play hour) 

  • Kickball in the yard

So, lesson plan in hand, we set off for the school at 8:10am after eating breakfast and having a morning meeting consisting of a volunteer reading a “Thought of the Day” journal. The walk to school takes about fifteen minutes through a narrow winding road that is surrounded by farmland and greenery.

2015-07-06 18.33.09 2015-07-06 18.16.14

I’d be concerned about children walking to school along this path, given the tight space and the semi-regular passage of cars, but I’ve noted that Greek kids here are very watchful. They know their way about the streets, far more so than many Canadian or American children of the same age.

When we arrive at the school, there’s already a small crowd of kids surrounding the gates to its entrance and more are arriving. It’s an interesting contrast from that which I am personally used to, which is kids arriving at the last minute (I’m certainly not exempting myself from this behaviour…). Some of their parents stand with them or are in their cars with windows rolled down, smiling and waving to greet us. Sam already knows mostly everyone there, and enthusiastically returns the greeting in Greek.

2015-07-07 08.32.56

The school in Gazi.

She walks slightly ahead of us, unlocking the gates. The school consists of the main building and portable classrooms to its side, as well as large courts for playing games. The children say goodbye to their parents and run inside. It takes virtually no time at all for games of kickball and four-square to arise. Meanwhile, Sam and the four of us go to the portables. Expectedly, the rooms are a bit cramped, especially for the 23 students that we later determine that we have. We lug another desk inside; the desks virtually adjoin each other, closing off the already limited space. Sonny and I head over to the teacher’s desk, which is modestly equipped with necessities such as blank paper, writing utensils, and scissors.

Class starts at 9:00am. It’s 8:45am now. So we wait.


Don’t ever make a lesson plan and expect to stick to it unwaveringly. It just won’t happen. Especially not here, where the communication falters and breaks off entirely at times.

We do have a translator in the room. He’s a 14-year old boy who goes by the name of Lucas with us, and he’s been going to this very same summer camp for years. The kids in the room have a very clear liking for him, which is both a blessing and a bit of a curse. On the one hand, he helps us to keep communicating with the class in some form. On the other, the children are very much inclined to respond to questions through him in Greek.

“Luca. Luca!” The calls resound from everywhere within the room.

Now, I definitely want to make it clear that I don’t find his work problematic. He is very personable and composed within the chaos of the classroom, and does an absolutely excellent job of translating and helping us out. However, it is necessary for for Sonny and I to work together with Lucas to test out the waters and figure out what works for us. Communicating through a translator feels impersonal, and I know that direct communication is important to establishing a basis of mutual respect and understanding.

It’s difficult to find. As I sit here writing this, I still feel lingering frustration. How to get them to listen? How to motivate them to care? These are challenges that I’ve faced many times before as a former mentor at my high school, but I had the advantage of being able to use my native language to address them. But me wishing to know Greek isn’t going to make it happen. I definitely won’t be able to learn enough to sit down and talk openly and honestly with the kids.

So what to do? Sonny and I discussed making better use of body language to demonstrate what we want the kids to do. The use of lots of encouragement (Bravo! And a thumbs up to accompany it) was something we began to use and seemed to be effective, and is a habit to continue. And it’s important to understand that they’re embarrassed. Embarrassed to make mistakes. Afraid of how we might judge them for it.

You see, I haven’t been on the opposing end of the language barrier in a very long time. I am fluent in English, one of the most widespread languages in the world. The language that we expect others to know in foreign countries, and reserve the “right” to be annoyed when they don’t. I’ve been there; we all have. And yet, foreigners become so genuinely excited when we attempt-and butcher-even a few words of their language. It’s a culture of entitlement.

That’s something to remember.

~A

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