Learning by Proxy

I’ve never been much of a student. I have, however, gotten lucky at stretches, and put together 2 good years of focus and requisite diligence in community college that enabled me to get a university degree.

Back in high school I spent more time looking out the window than I did at the whiteboard. Lessons passed, homework disappeared, and my report cards were often filled with pity grades from overly courteous teachers.

In no class was this truer than foreign language. I earned a ‘C’ in French 3 (I also earned plenty of less-than-C’s in other classes) that was probably more a reflection of the teacher’s unwillingness to award anything lower. The safe assumption being that she might have felt a poor grade would reflect more on her inability to teach me rather than my unwillingness to learn (it was really no fault of hers).

I estimate that my true work and comprehension level in that class was somewhere around 40-50%.

I would often spend crucial grammar lessons daydreaming of adventures in distant countries or elsewhere while failing to connect the dots that inferred just a little more attention during foreign language lectures might lead to an easier time fulfilling each wandering thought.

Luckily I’ve had a far easier time learning languages on the go and in everyday practice, as I talk with people in new places and do my best to pick up meaningful phrases.



The more I’m exposed to language, the more I enjoy them.

An old adage goes that you learn most when you teach. Teaching language hasn’t necessarily expedited my understanding of linguistics, but patterns do emerge that nonetheless help me understand different pitfalls in my own comprehension and how to correct them.

I have a varying level of English abilities among my students. Each students’ learning process reveals not only individual strengths and weaknesses, but windows into the Kurdish language for me as well.

Seemingly simple omissions of basic words and grammar, which at first seem an anomaly, soon form patterns. I’ve learned to look for these patterns. Watching them emerge while students make the same valuable mistakes helps me learn about the construction of the Kurdish language.

Each mistake they might make is not only a learning opportunity for them within English, but for me in Kurdish as well. Extrapolating their mistakes for clues unearths new lessons about Kurdish sentence structure, basic grammar, phonetics, etc. It’s a symbiotic relationship; as I understand their missteps I can not only explain what the correct answer should be, but why the differences emerge.

The great benefit is attaching logic to language, something that is often fleeting in a subject where rules are frequently accepted as they are without having the wherewithal to explain to a non-native speaker the reason. Understanding Kurdish better helps me add the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ when explaining and deconstructing English.

Granted, my Kurdish is elementary, and I’m sure at any given moment dozens of clues are hidden in plain sight or flying right over my head. I can order meals, take taxis, ask for and understand directions, and inquire about someone’s day, but my shortcomings still leave me guessing at so many of the missteps in my student’s writing.

What I never expected in my effort to better learn the language is the role of my students unintentionally being as big a boost for my understanding as practicing my conversational skills with adults or studying texts.

When I grade their written work I not only break down and rebuild their word choices, but continually search for the clues in mistakes that will help them and I both.

The more you teach the more you learn.

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