Tennis Anyone? A Good Old-fashioned Ramble about Childhood, Team Sports, Second Languages and More

Penn Championship XD Tennis Balls (Single Can/3 Balls)I took a break from work today to head down to the tennis courts and watch TRC in his last tennis lesson. We signed him up for tennis this summer, mainly because it was one block of lessons that didn’t start until after we got back from Europe. He’s been looking forward to it ever since, and he really enjoyed the experience.

(Full disclosure: I’m not exactly pro-team-sports. I was a band and drama geek in school. I had few friends who were on a high school team, and most of what I saw of the team sports players didn’t exactly leave me with a favorable impression. Thus, as an adult, I tend to want to steer TRC away from football, soccer, baseball, and basketball. I’ve since met some people who played team sports in high school and emerged as good, nice, quality individuals in the process (even if they are Red Sox fans), but on the whole, I don’t really relish the idea of TRC going whole hog into team sports. I played little league for one miserable season, and I’ve successfully managed to block that memory (more or less). Why would I do it to my son? That said, if TRC ever expressed a heartfelt desire to play team sports, I would let him. I’m not going to force my personal biases on him. But if I can nudge him away from something that I think could prove problematic for him later in life, I will–whether or not other people agree with me. It’s the same thing with skateboarding. He’s expressed desire for a skateboard. I doubt I’ll buy him one. I’m raising a geek, not a skater.)

Anyway, it was fun to watch  TRC have such a great time playing tennis, or trying to at least. There were only three other kids there, and they would take turns trying to hit the balls the teacher was lobbing their way. Out of fifteen or so sent his way, he probably connected with 7 of them, and got 3 of them over the net. The great thing? He didn’t care. He was just out there playing and having a good time. Enjoying the experience of learning something new. Doing something different.

That’s something I think we forget how to do–at least most of us. How many experiences do I pass up because I don’t want to look stupid or foolish? Take speaking German, for example. It’s been 12 years, but I can still talk quite well when I want to. I forget the genders of some nouns, and formal and informal speech trips me up, but as long as I don’t worry about it, I do fine. Until I’m faced with a real live German, and all my German ability flies out the window. I’m worried I’ll sound stupid or make mistakes, and so I morph into a wallflower, instead.

The same thing’s true with Slovak, of course–only worse. Talking to a stranger in Slovak? Forget about it.

Which leads me to another thought. So often as native speakers, it’s easy to dismiss non-native speakers as ignorant or stupid. After all, if they were smart, they’d speak English, right? I know I’ve encountered that mindset a lot, particularly when I was in Utah and talking to some of Denisa’s ESL speakers. These were bright, talented people, who were lucky if they could get a fair shot at a decent job. The bias and sentiment against them was too strong.

Folks, I’m a fairly well-read, intelligent person (or at least I’d like to think so). I can go on for pages and pages on a blog, and I can talk your ear off on any number of subjects. But get me in a foreign country, speaking a language I don’t have full control of, and I turn into a different person. Timid. Hesitant. Willing to make the lamest jokes–and laugh at them myself.

I guess I’d rather appear mute and shy than stupid.

My point is this. Part of the problem is mine: I need to be more willing to stick my neck out. To be like TRC and throw myself into the experience. Forget about what other people think. And at the same time, part of the problem is other people’s: we need to avoid making judgement calls about a person based solely on their command of a language. People who haven’t spoken a second language have a hard time understanding that. (It’s also one of the many reasons why I’m continually amazed by my wife and her ability to do everything she does–in a second language. Crazy.)

Anyway. That’s all I have time for today. And all of that was inspired by watching one seven year old do his best to hit a few tennis balls. Good job, TRC. I’m proud of you.

4 thoughts on “Tennis Anyone? A Good Old-fashioned Ramble about Childhood, Team Sports, Second Languages and More”

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I’ve recently been working to learn Korean, and the thought of going to Korea on a trip and speaking the language is both a goal and a big scary thing. I think about trying to talk in Korean with my old roommate (who is Korean) and I worry that I’ll just sound stupid. But the thing is, I knew her when she was just learning English. She had the same fears. She wouldn’t speak to anyone on the phone because though she could understand people in person while looking at them in the face, she didn’t have that same confidence with just listening.

    That made me think of all the smart, capable women I’ve roomed with over the years who were here to learn English (my BYU apt was around the corner from the ESL school on 700 N in Provo, so I had 2 Brazilians, 1 Mexican, 2 Koreans, 1 Chinese, and I think I’m forgetting someone else–as roommates). When the Brazilian girls first moved in, we communicated via post-it notes around the apartment with the Portugese and English words on them so we could learn something from them while they learned to communicate with us. It was tough for us US roommates culturally, but how much more tough was it for them?

  2. Good points. I remember one time I was at barbecue for some of Denisa’s ESL speakers. There was this one many who was very much a level one. Really rough English, but he was willing to give it a try. And as I talked with him, I discovered he was a doctor back in Venezuela–that he had multiple degrees. And he was working as a custodian in Utah right then as he tried to get his English up to par. I couldn’t believe it. So often, you meet someone with poor language skills, and the knee-jerk reaction is to assume they’re uneducated. That experience was an eye opener for me.

  3. I have a theory that our treatment of non-native English speakers is a holdover from our ability to identify native speakers who have something “wrong” with them (brain damage, intoxication), who lack adult competency (children), or who come from a different place (people with a different accent or dialect who therefore aren’t part of our same “tribe”).

    It makes sense that we’d be so adept at picking up on these clues since there are clear evolutionary advantages to being able to identify people who fall into these groups, but it has the unfortunate side effect that we tend to treat ESL speakers as if they weren’t intelligent adults.


  4. Interesting Kjerste. Certainly a possibility, although I’d like to think that we’d be able to override that knee-jerk reaction. From my experience, once people can get outside their comfort zone–go other places, talk to people with different ideas–they usually start to be much more accepting of other people. It’s always easier to understand what it’s like to be a minority once you’ve been a minority yourself.

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