Volume VII - 2002-03

Language Learning through Lies and Fantasies
     by Aixa Perez-Prado

     Aixa Perez-Prado is an Assistant Professor of TESOL program at Florida International University. She has taught English to non-native speakers and worked in teacher preparation both within the United States and in Central America and North Africa. She is currently working on putting university TESOL courses fully and partially online as well as on developing partnerships with bilingual educational programs.

     I don 't remember the first time I heard English, but I do remember the smell. It was the smell of cinnamon and maple syrup.
Smells I wasn't used to and didn't appreciate. Equally disturbing was the lack of smells that typically surrounded me, the bus fumes, the leather, my grandmother 's face cream. English came to me in a place I didn 't know, and had no interest in knowing. It came to me in loud words and strange sounds. Sounds I 'd never heard people make. Trapped in this unfamiliar place without the ability to go home, I began to rely on my imagination for comfort and direction. Little by little, the power to pretend, to fantasize, to create my own world allowed me to accept the one I now lived in. My imagination helped me to grasp the language around me, to negotiate this culture with its hollow sounding words and to make those words my own.

     Despite a rather shaky beginning, at the end of three months time I was apparently speaking like a native. At least according to the teacher that my mother spoke to in the fall shortly after I started my first official year of school. I had spent long hot weeks in all-English summer camp before then. This new teacher couldn 't understand why my mother was concerned about whether I understood what was going on and whether I could communicate effectively. The teacher hadn 't realized that I was a non-native speaker, and had only been in the United States since May.

     How could this be true? How could I have passed myself off as a native speaker after so little time had passed? I hadn 't wanted to learn the language; I wasn 't motivated to learn the language. I wanted to go home. Instead I was immersed in an all-English environment for approximately ten hours a day. Thousands of miles from the country I knew, powerless to change my actual circumstances, and all of four years old.

     Eventually I majored in English in college, studied TESOL in graduate school, taught EFL abroad and ESL in the United States. English became my dominant language and a language I learned to love. But during those first few months of immersion something more significant than studying a language occurred. I learned to play in English, to sing in English, and to exercise my imagination in the language.

Remembering Anger

     When I think back on those early days in English, I mostly remember anger. I remember the resentment of having to be in a strange new place with strange new people who didn 't love me and who I didn 't love. But I also remember lying. I remember lying to myself and eventually to others. Living in a fantasy world that I created through language, first the language in my head and then the language all around me. Of course I hadn 't become perfectly fluent in just four months, but I had learned to fake it in English. As it turned out faking it in English, that is relying heavily on my ability to pretend I was fully communicative when I really wasn 't, would be a big step in my language acquisition process.

     At the age of four, I felt certain that my father could never have intentionally left me to this linguistic fate. He would never have left me at all, I thought, only death could have kept him away. And so I imagined him dead, and myself an orphan. Or at least half an orphan since my mother was still around. I should explain here that my mother had been in the States for a year already, they were separated, and I hardly had any memory of her. So she was, in effect, a stranger to me. A stranger that my father had left me with so that he could die. I imagined his death at sea. He was caught in a storm and though he battled bravely through the night in shark-infested waters, calling out my name, it was all in vain for he perished anyway. Either that or he was on a remote island somewhere a castaway, building a house of twigs and thinking of me. Writing me stories in the sand that would disappear with the wind and the waves every day only to be rewritten again. I don 't think I shared this information with anyone: the rest of the world just thought my father had left. After all, I didn 't have the language to express this truth for the language to be understood was English here and my mind worked only in Spanish. I do know I told my mother he was dead, much to her dismay, but I didn 't let her in on the shark-infested waters bit.

     Later I imagined many other things, like fake sisters and brothers. Being an only child, I had nobody to share my righteous indignation with. Nobody was there to fully sympathize with the gross affront of being left in an English world when my soul
belonged to Spanish. So I made these brothers and sisters up, giving them names and ages that tended to change depending on the day, the situation, and who I was pretending to talk to. Soon these imaginary companions were the partners in my first combination Spanish/English interactions. I complained to them and they agreed with me, understanding everything I said. They were the best of listeners.

Daisies, Daisies

     After some time, I started to imagine things less fantastic, more contextual, perhaps because I was starting to learn the
vocabulary for these things. One of the first things I imagined in English was that the song A Bicycle Built for Two had been written expressly for me, and so I made a big effort to memorize this song. “Daisies, daisies, give me your answer true, I 'll go crazy over the love of you …” I don 't know if these are the actual words of the song as it was written, but this is how we sang it in school. I suppose I understood some of it, though not much. After all for the longest time I thought the song was about daisies
because in school we called it Daisies, Daisies , and I knew that word from the he loves me, he love 's me not ritual I saw on the playground every day.

     I remember the day that I mustered up the courage to ask for that song during circle time. I had never requested a song before, in fact I have no memory of having uttered a single word in the English language out loud before this time. But I so wanted to hear Daisies, Daisies!I raised my hand and saw the teacher 's eyes meet mine. I remember her smile and her question, though I couldn 't understand the words of it. I stood up from my kneeling position and made my way around the circle of children to the front bench where she sat with her guitar and wavy hair. I got close to her ear and cupped my hand around my mouth to hide my face, and very quietly whispered, “Daisies, Daisies ” to her. . I don 't remember if she responded to me, but I know that even as I made my way back to my spot on the juice-stained rug, I heard the opening chords of my favorite song and felt like the most powerful person on earth. I had spoken in English and I had been understood. It seemed the whole world was singing a song of praise about me and my victory, and the song began with my first word, daisies.

     Soon after I began to imagine myself talking and playing with the other children rather than watching silently or crying in a corner. I could hear my voice telling the other kids how to play a game I knew, teaching them with words they understood. I went back to my house at the end of the long school day and practiced this in the mirror. I made faces like the ones I saw at school, I laughed at my own jokes and asked myself if I would be my best friend. I imagined the one girl in school whose smile always met my eyes asking me over to her house, sharing secrets with me, pretending to be my sister. This little girl, Avian, was black and I imagined myself getting darker each day in order to match her skin with mine.

     It seems clear to me that my imagination had a lot to do with my language learning. After all, I had to imagine myself doing and saying all sorts of new things with new words before I was able to actually do or say them. I used my fake English when I was pretending before my real English kicked in. When I was teaching English overseas and here in the U. S. , I was constantly asking my students to imagine themselves in situations, roles, and predicaments that demanded the use of English. I used simulations and role-plays, journal writing and jigsaw activities. I asked my students to imagine that they were in restaurants, post offices, grocery stores and bars (or playgrounds, depending on their ages). I asked them to imagine that they had won a million dollars, lost their car keys, had to decide which person on a waiting list was most worthy of a donor heart. I asked them to create fantasy worlds in which they could experiment with language without getting hurt, worlds in which their imaginations were the signposts that told them where to go.


     Now that I teach teachers to teach English, a job that always seems difficult to explain to persons outside the profession, I continue to ask my students to use their imaginations. I ask them to imagine that they are the English language learners. I ask them to feel how tiring it is to hear a different language all day, to feel how hot their cheeks get when someone corrects their grammar in a rude or mocking way. I ask my students to imagine their students, current and future. To create learning scenarios for their classes, to imagine difficulties that might arise using certain activities and assessments. I ask my students to take themselves out of our teaching classroom and textbooks and to enter English language learning classrooms in their minds. I ask them to imagine following their students throughout the day, and to wonder what happens to their students when they leave the class. Will they get to practice what they learned? Will what they learned in class make any sense the outside world?

     Lately I 've given my students ' imaginations a toy to play with, the Internet. The use of technology in teaching and learning has done nothing to limit our use of the imagination. The virtual world demands a certain creativity, a willingness to succumb to fantasy and to actively construct a learning context. By teaching online, I have had to imagine the faces of my students, imagine the reactions to what I say and write and ask them to think about. This is no easy task, and has been exercise for my own imagination. I need to anticipate their needs as learners, their questions, their looks of confusion and frustration when they don 't know what to do.

     As a language learner, my imagination allowed me to navigate a new culture and language, allowed me to make sense of the world through a whole different set of phonemes. As a language teacher my imagination assisted me in guiding my students through a new world, in creating contexts of communication in which they could refine and delight in their newfound skills. As a teacher of teachers my imagination continues to be active, to work in virtual and real time, allowing me to give my students the power to trust and utilize their own imaginations to teach and learn and live in a world of language.

back to content page