I rode on busses and trudged through the snow to the opposite end of the city today, to visit a Syrian family of new immigrants (refugees, earlier this year) that I am gradually getting to know. This is the third week in succession that I have gone to their newly rented house in Ottawa to teach the young mother a little English; I'm sharing this task with my friend Vija who visited her on the previous three weeks. The lady seems very young; I found out today that she is only 23 years old, although she already has three children. They are charming: three little girls with curly hair, winning smiles and an intelligent, lively look in their eyes. They are remarkably well behaved, considering the disruptive start they've had to their lives. I met the oldest one for the first time today whose English is already more fluent than her parents'. Being four years old, she goes to a Canadian (pre-)school. Her sisters are still too young. Their father usually attends an English class at the hour when Vija and I come along, but I have met him at the house on my last two visits and he joins in on the periphery of my lessons. He too is a very a courteous person.
This week I planned to teach the mother some verbs in the present continuous and had the opportunity to demonstrate that tense the minute I walked through the door, shaking the wet flakes from my outdoor clothing. It was her husband who had opened the door; she herself was on her knees in the living room, facing Mecca, literally deep in prayer. "I'm sorry I arrived too early," I said to her. "You are praying!" But she didn't seem to mind, and rose from her prayer mat to brush the snow off my bags for me. She and her husband were not only devoting themselves to Allah on this day; they were also fasting ("Not eat!" --- she drew a seal across her mouth and shook her head --- which I tried to correct to "we are not eat-ING. We are fasting," but I'm not sure they understood.) Anyhow, this fast did not prevent my being served a hospitable bowl of sugary rice pudding flavoured with rose water before I left. The baby had some too, from a different bowl. Last week her mother had served me vine leaves (ورق عنب, waraq eanab) stuffed with flavoured rice.
When I first came in, the baby was asleep in a rocking chair, so I took another opportunity to use the present continuous: "Look, she is sleeping." Her older sisters were by no means asleep and came over to see what I was going to do today and what I had in my bag. I had brought a colouring book for the middle daughter with animal pictures and a few repetitive words, so we looked at that in some detail before coming back to the verbs. Not much later, the baby woke up. "Look, she is waking up. She is sitting up. She is smiling!" The baby may not know many words in either language yet, but she seems to accept me and came to me for a cuddle at one point.
I had prepared a sheet of reference notes with only two Arabic words (that I'd found on Google Translate) among my English verb lists: عادة (eada, meaning usually / normally) for the infinitive verbs and الآن (alan, meaning now) for the present continuous verb pattern. I demonstrated "sit ... sit down ... stand ... stand up... walk ... jump ... listen" etc. with actions and gestures and then said told them that NOW "I am standing up ... sitting down ... walking ... speaking English" until they got the message. Then we repeated the words with refernce to a different worksheet, with pictures, saying "He is ... [danc]ing ... [runn]ing ... read[ing]" and so on. I'm pretty certain that the father had already been through this sort of childish exercise at his official English class before, so he (listening) could follow my gist easily and help his wife with this exercise, discussing it with her in a jumble of Arabic. Clearly, the oldest little girl was understanding my examples too, because she ran to fetch me an picture book with captions, to show me a picture of someone "...playING with a toy." "Look!" she said, and was delighted when I praised her for this. This child --- who has even learned some French at school --- can already combine verbs and nouns in English without prompting and at one point during the conversation lesson her mother managed to do this herself, suddenly coming out with "I am sitting on a chair!" which thoroughly pleased me, because I had been trying to teach her adverbial phrases of place with the relevant prepositions last week.
These English classes are going to be a slow uphill struggle for my family of students, but highly rewarding for me. I'm so glad to have become involved with them.