Learning English is About More Than the Language

Learning English is About More Than the Language

By Anjelica Rankin who is continuing to build on the solid English training skills that her twin sister Gabby provided during her placement in Timor Leste from 2019-2020.  One of Anjelica’s roles is mentoring the Balibo Community Life Centre English Trainer to provide community English classes to local Balibo and Belola primary school students. Anjelica shares Davinho’s story below [tall boy at the back of the photo on Anjelica’s right].

When the Belola English Class debuts, the students are nervous to come into the classroom. They stand across the dusty road, near a little shop, and wait for someone else to make the first move.

It’s almost a stand-off. High noon in the desert, except we all clutch books instead of weapons. It’s broken by a boy, nearly as tall as me, with a notebook in his good arm.

This boy is Davinho. Davinho, as I found out later, walked 7 kilometres to come to English class. And to think, I used to complain about catching two buses to get to high school.

The educational culture in East Timor is very different to the educational culture in Australia. In Australia, we are encouraged to engage, awarded for asking questions, and persuaded to participate. In East Timor, however, getting the answer right is the most important thing and, if you don’t get it right, it’s an embarrassing, and sometimes punishable, offence.

Although I teach English, I try to make my classes more than just a language lesson. Each class is a safe space for children to build confidence, take risks, and develop critical thinking skills. They’re rewarded for effort, not for perfect answers. Just like my teachers did, I reminded them that you can’t learn without making mistakes.

Davinho is always tired by the time he arrives at English class. It’s understandable, his commute is the same distance people in Australia run for exercise, except for Davinho this activity isn’t done for leisure – it’s a journey towards opportunity. This motivation extends towards more than just his travel to and from class.

Like a lot of my students, he is harsh towards himself when he gets an answer wrong. This might be a hang up from their stringent school system, where answering incorrectly can result in social humiliation and anger from their teacher. Although this discourages most students from participating, it doesn’t discourage Davinho. He never stops answering questions and he never stops trying to learn.

During one class, I pair the students up so they can practice counting. I show them a picture that has a quantity of items they must count, and the pairs write down their answer. Most pairs consist of a stronger student who takes the lead and a partner who nods along with what they say.

When I make my way to Davinho and his partner, Davinho starts studiously counting. He takes his time while his classmates watch him struggle. His partner, like most other partners, goes to whisper the answer in his ear. But Davinho, tired from his long walk and already annoyed at himself for being slow to get the answer, shushes his partner and keeps trying.

This never happens.

Understandably, most students take a lifeline when they get one – it’s preferable to losing face or getting laughed at. But not Davinho. Every lesson, he tries. Despite his long walk, despite the stares of his classmates, he always tries.

After shushing his partner, Davinho studies the picture again. He refers to his notes. He furrows his brow and gives me his answer. When I correct his pronunciation, he repeats it to himself.  

Davinho is the inspiration behind the Merit Award – an award I created to recognise the effort, not academic achievement, of students. I was nervous when I was presenting them because I didn’t know how the community would react. They might think it was something made up by the fanciful malae (foreigner) who had more idealism than sense. But, to my delight, the community loved it.

Davinho, of course, received a Merit Award. I couldn’t think of anyone more suited to receive the award than the inspiration behind it.

One of the best things about Palms is that it encourages a mutual exchange of skills. In this case, I teach Davinho English and Davinho teaches me about the value of education and the incredible fortitude of students who want to learn.

You can support Davinho and his classmates in Timor Leste by making a donation to Anjelica’s role of English and Communications/Marketing Mentor in Balibo-Timor Leste.