Found in translation

A volunteer from Walthamstow Migrants’ Action Group is helping new arrivals learn English

Ortrun Peyn

Ortrun Peyn (credit Rosie MacLeod)

The language barrier operates as a two-way system. Undeniably, it causes some concepts to become lost in translation.

Yet it also highlights the reason for semantic loss; underlying cultural differences. These make it impossible to fully translate a lexicon, inextricably linked to one particular social context, into the language of another.

Since retiring from her job as a librarian, Ortrun Peyn volunteers at the Walthamstow Migrants’ Action Group, where she teaches English to (mostly) Muslim women with the right to remain in the UK. The teaching experience illuminates the structural differences that set cultures and their languages worlds apart.

All of Ortrun’s students have chosen to learn English, not as part of any legal requirement. They are all “very grateful and appreciative for the opportunity to attend the English lessons” and wish the class operated more frequently than once a week. Ortrun says their “openness and determination to learn is admirable”.

This is hardly surprising given the barriers they face. As women, some of her tutees never went to school in their country of origin and consequently lack the basic study skills taken for granted by the most apathetic students among their Western counterparts.

Having been denied an education as girls, Ortrun’s students had never encountered the example sentences hardwired into the British educational psyche. “La plume de ma tante” (“the pen of my aunt”) has entered popular culture among speakers of British English who once learned French. However, Ortrun’s students could not see the value in saying something without meaning or relevance to their own lives. Since then, only example sentences faithful to the women’s lives and background (such as “you never eat pork”) are used in class.

Practising conversational English for 20 minutes before the start of the lesson has proven beneficial to one of Orturn’s students. Despite being unable to speak, read or write any English a year ago, this student is now getting noticeably better. It is never long before topics of home and family make an appearance in the spoken exercises and she requires more serious vocabulary than is prescribed by standard language learning materials.

With a sister in famished, war-torn Yemen, the student asks Ortrun for vocabulary related to a lack of medicine and just enough food to survive in “very dirty” conditions. These topics are not covered by a beginners’ textbook. Nor, notably, in any of the British newspapers that overlooked the Yemen famine in favour of Brangelina’s divorce when the two events coincided last winter.

Linguistic relativity also rears its head in these discussions about Yemen as the student uses the phrase “things are okay” when an English speaker unfamiliar with living in conflict would say “her sister is coping”.

It is easy to see how multilingual situations act as a lens on what they cannot translate, and why Ortrun says she might be learning more from teaching them than her students are taking home from her lessons.