Teaching in Their Language

September 10, 2012
By Sam Borrus BRONZE, Brattleboro, Vermont
Sam Borrus BRONZE, Brattleboro, Vermont
4 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Working as a flying trapeze coach at a performing arts summer camp that has campers from all over the world, it would be remarkable if I didn’t run into a few interesting, challenging situations, even excluding the normal range of issues that arise from trying to police 12 young boys living together in the same bunk for three weeks.

One of these more circus-specific challenges occurred just a few days ago, during the evening activity. That night, the activity was flying trapeze. This rather impressive apparatus, normally open only to the five girls who were chosen to train it for the circus show, consists of three pairs of poles, each connected at the top and arranged in the likeness of an incredibly easy croquet course, in which the wickets are 35 feet high and strangely rectangular. Each of these giant arches has a separate piece hanging from it, suspended above a large safety net stretching under all three. One holds a small trapeze with padded cables, a “catchtrap” used for “catching” trapeze artists (my specialty, but not in demand for this particular night). The middle one holds the flying trapeze itself (aka a “flybar”), a two and a half foot wide metal bar wrapped in athletic tape and attached to two long cables that allow it to swing in the
dramatic arcs that the act is known for in circuses. The third arch supports a platform, about a foot wide and five feet long. This is known as the “board”, and serves as the takeoff point for the trapeze artist (flyer), and when instructing beginners, it is often here that most of the difficulties occur.

Tonight was no different, in that respect. My friend and I were up on the board, attaching safety lines, giving last-minute instructions, and otherwise prepping each new and terrified flyer. It had been going smoothly enough (performing arts campers, while not terribly athletic, tend to listen very well, as they are accustomed to having directors, conductors, and choreographers poking, prodding, advising, and sometimes flat-out screaming at them). We’d giggled at the few screamers that inevitably pop up in any group of first-time flyers and nodded approvingly at the skills of the few who’d done it before and could do more advanced tricks. And then, Martin came up.

Martin is not a troublesome child; on the contrary, he is actually a model of good behavior in his bunk, which is full of beastly little children who have to be threatened with expulsion from the camp in order to get them quiet at night. The issue with Martin is that he does not speak much English, only French.

At first, we didn’t quite realize the challenge that was climbing up the ladder towards us. We were aware of the language barrier, as he had come to the circus auditions and tried out a few of the classes before. We felt prepared, as I had studied French in high school and had a pretty good grasp of the language. He came up onto the board and was maneuvered into place, clipped into the safety lines, and handed the flybar with some simple directions in French and some general gestures that are used almost regardless of language. It wasn’t until he was standing, holding the bar, ready to jump off of the board, and we asked him if he wanted to do a trick, that we hit upon a snag.

If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you have noticed that I’ve been using a set of very trapeze-specific vocabulary, most of which I’ve made sure to define for you. There is a similarly specific set of vocabulary that exists to name acrobatic tricks, such as “penny-drop”, “forward-over”, and, in this case, “knee-hang”. This last one is rather self explanatory; it is the first skill that we teach to beginners, and consists of a flyer lifting his legs under and around the flybar, then taking his hands off the bar and to hang by his knees. Unfortunately, we realized as Martin was dangling out into space, suspended by my grip on his safety belt, that neither of us knew the word for “knee-hang” in French. Immediately, a flurry of amateur French came rushing out of my mouth, trying to communicate the idea, and a look of bewilderment simultaneously spread across Martin’s face. After watching this for a few seconds, my friend came to the rescue in an amazing example of instant, almost completely nonverbal communication.

First, he crouched down and tapped Martin on the back of the knees a few times, drawing his attention away from my desperate linguistic floundering and towards the body parts he would actually be using. Next, he stood back up and grabbed the flybar repeatedly, showing the action of holding. Finally, he spoke a brilliantly simple sentence: “oui ou non?” Martin immediately understood, answered with a heavily accented “yes”, and performed the trick beautifully.

What had just taken place is truly amazing. A specific, unusual (and therefore, a bit complicated) motion had been reduced to a few quick gestures and completely understood. This teaching took place totally nonverbally; I don’t believe that the question at the end actually added to his understanding at all, it just informed him that he had a choice. The language barrier was bypassed, and a completely new skill was learned, all in about ten seconds.

When teaching, words are usually the first tool when it comes to explaining, and they can be very effective. However, they can also complicate what is being taught, totally unnecessarily. In this case, words were shown to be ineffective in describing a new motion in another language, which seems like a completely idiotic approach in retrospect. But the problem here isn’t just the language. My method was attempting to translate an idea not only from one language to another (English to French), but also from one sense to another (feeling to hearing). It was altogether too complicated to explain one medium in terms of another, almost like going from a square to a cube. By simply staying in the relevant realm of perception, my friend was better able to communicate the idea in question than I would have been even if I were totally fluent in French. This is a principle that can be applied across education, and should not be ignored. A foreign language should be heard, the process of DNA replication should be seen, and, of course, a new trick on the flying trapeze should be felt.

The author's comments:
I wrote this over the summer the day after it happened. I'm always fascinated by communication, hopefully some of you will be too.

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