Yesterday, I went with the Community Cycling Center to teach a Create-A-Commuter workshop, a 5-hour class where adults who are enrolled in various employment programs get a new bicycle built especially for them and equipped with a lock, rack, lights, and hand pump. They learn about the rules of the road, how to fix flat tires, and all the stuff that will help them be successful commuters, the idea being, of course, that by providing low-income adults with a reliable means of transportation, we’re helping empower them to get to where they need to be in a low-cost manner.
It’s pretty amazing, honestly.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. Yesterday’s workshop was at IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, and the sheer number of languages that the people in our workshop spoke was astounding. It was a whole different experience, giving a workshop in English and having it be simultaneously translated by several different people into many different languages that I absolutely did not recognize. I got to try to translate into Spanish for a man and his daughter who sort of understood English but had a hard time speaking it to ask questions. And in the meantime, there were two women–one from Haiti and one from the Congo–who spoke French, so I got to talk to them too.
Speaking a language is one thing (and when it comes to Spanish, definitely halting and slow for me), but it’s a whole new deal when you’re trying to use a specialized vocab set. I realized I have no idea how to say things like “bicycle rack,” “chain,” “brakes,” or “seat,” much less “frame,” “handlebars,” “pedals,” or “gears” in Spanish, and I had a good time learning from the father. (I hope I was as helpful to him with my halting Spanish as he was to me:) But it made me think about what the other side is like. Say you’re a refugee with this new bike, and something is wrong with it–how do you explain to someone what’s going on when you don’t have the vocab? I had a hard enough time, in the context of a bike class where nothing is even wrong and people are really motivated to understand me, explaining what we were talking about. How frustrating would it be to try to explain yourself to someone who’s maybe not so motivated? We’ve given these people bikes; now how do we keep extending our services to make sure they can take care of their bikes and themselves even if they don’t speak English as well as they’d yet like?
I guess there’s no easy answer to that, but it made me appreciate the finer nuances of really getting by in another language, when you get to the point where you know more than just the conversational vocab and can actually dabble in the words that may not come up otherwise (and that you certainly don’t learn in a textbook).
And it made me really want to get better at other languages. It seems so silly to be limited to one when there are so many people in the world, even in my little community, who speak others. I do pretty well, I guess, but it could always be better. And this workshop made me think I could definitely be better when it comes to talking about bikes:)