I love languages. People always ask me, “How do you learn languages so fast?” The answer is: I always speak. When I observe adults learning a language, they rarely speak out loud for fear of saying something wrong.
They’re not misguided to worry; it can get seriously awkward. My mom is Punjabi, and I learned Hindi through a mix of childhood classes and Bollywood movies. One day in the office, while chatting in Hindi with my coworkers, I said something about my father. Immediately, everyone burst out in surprised laughter. I froze. What had I said? They explained that the word I spoke was used as an insult. I wanted to crawl into my skin. Luckily everyone was understanding, but I knew if it wasn’t for my personality, I might have stopped trying to speak Hindi then and there.
When I thought of the skills I could bring to this fellowship, confidence wasn’t one of them. Yet it’s become an undercurrent in every one of my projects, and I am happy to have it and proud to inspire it. It’s the reason why I recovered quickly after such a mistake; I am confident that I will work hard to correct it the next time. Confidence– or boldness, audaciousness, whatever you choose to call it– is an essential language skill, as unrelated as it seems.
I began working with 25 young women at Vikalp Sansthan in November, who requested that I teach them English. With the help of a partner organization, Shadika, these women are the first in their village to go to college. They have stopped their marriages as children, left their houses, and faced all kinds of opposition. Most of them are under 20 years old.
These girls have worked harder for their freedoms than I’ve ever worked for anything, yet they were silent around me. They are from two separate blocks near Udaipur; Gogunda and Maveli. I understand little about India’s social dynamics and structure, and how they are affecting the population. But I was able to pick up on this; very few girls from Gogunda spoke up, even when I directed questions at them as routine as “What is your name?”. With a nervous look and giggle, they didn’t answer. More girls from Maveli were outgoing and talkative, which was great for learning. But every single student should have a place in a class, and here, I could feel that many girls were being pushed away.
My colleagues explained that this was a combination of social differences (caste or tribe, job status, language), as well as a difference in the length of involvement the girls had with Vikalp. And of course, you can sprinkle a little teenage drama onto the climate. So, we traveled to Gogunda to conduct a meeting before our online classes began. I did my usual of cracking jokes, laughing with them, and encouraging them to feel open and safe as best I could. We revisited technological issues they were having, and I gave a short lesson in English. When the ice was broken, I asked how they were feeling, and why they were so quiet.
I am an audacious person, but I know that attitude doesn’t belong in every situation. I try to regulate myself, especially since I am in a new country. Here, however, I felt boldness was of use. I let them know they could talk freely and openly with me about what was going on, and they did. They told me that the Maveli girls sometimes put them down, and rarely gave them a chance to speak. I told them to let me know of any drama, and sass the other girls back if needed; this was their class too. At the end of a short English lesson, each person wrote one sentence they wanted to communicate to the class, and I helped translate. One girl wrote, “I like when everyone laughs together”.
We meet for an hour on Google Meet on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. There are two students I want to highlight; G and V. G is an extremely sensitive and assertive student. Her friend K doesn’t have a phone. So each class, G unmutes herself after giving her introduction to let me know that K is with her. K was very nervous from the beginning and had a hard time getting out English sentences. She missed a few sessions due to her lack of a phone and was slightly behind. When she finally joined and spoke her introduction, someone else un-muted and made fun of her.
Before I could even speak, G unmuted herself. “Didi, she didn’t come to the last lessons, that’s why it’s hard for her. But it is not okay to make fun of her because then she will speak even less.” I quickly agreed and reiterated the rules. I thanked G for her courage in speaking up for and supporting her friend.
Another student V had network issues. She was very quiet at first and didn’t join classes. After some troubleshooting, she began calling me on WhatsApp. I would put her on speaker so she could hear the lesson. At first, when I called on her, she laughed nervously and said she didn’t know. “Just try!” I encourage her.
One month later, she raises her hand every class. “Didi, mujhe nahin pata par koshish karoongi,” she says, I don’t know but I’ll try. This week, she spoke a new sentence, “I have to dark for English class,” she said. She meant that she didn’t have service at her house, so she walked in the dark through the jungle just to attend the class! It is inspiring to see how far she has come not only in her English learning but also in her confidence and ambition to participate.
The lengths my students go through to navigate a quiet space, technology, and most importantly, speak English in the face of teenage shaming, is nothing to overlook. Every day I do my best to infuse confidence. When they apologize for getting something wrong, I remind them that there is nothing to be sorry about. In my class, trying is succeeding. Now K speaks loudly and boldly when she gives her introduction. V translates complex sentences one word at a time. My students have given their introductions in English to Vikalp Sansthan’s American donors, and even translated their English for others, all in under two months!
I hope that the discussions we had on those first days are a part of what inspired these students’ trust in me and themselves. We reviewed the last few months as a group during a site visit. “At first, we were scared that Didi would scold us if we got something wrong,” one student said. “But now we know she’ll help us.”
I had the privilege of growing up taught to always speak my piece. If I wasn’t given the space, I was encouraged to take it. I was surely a menace to teachers. However, many of my mentors recognized that quality of mine as something to be cherished and protected.
Here, teachers often tell me I have to scold students or they won’t learn. I saw a tendency to put the onus of students’ learning solely on their shoulders. But from my work teaching young and old, I find scolding further discourages students from speaking up. I can still be stern and maintain a classroom while keeping out the fear of failure. Even when these girls speak out of turn, to me that is an expression of freedom. I can still remind them to be respectful and work as a team without discouraging that boldness.
I hope that my presence, friendship, and mentorship with these girls will encourage them to confidently occupy space, in any language. Sexism everywhere tells women to be quiet and cooperative. It stands to reason, then, that women’s empowerment and liberation should encourage women to speak, laugh, be loud, bold, and always: confident!
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