Last Wednesday was my first tutoring session with a Cameroonian woman who has been in the country for 3 months. She did not come through Refugee & Immigrant Services (RIS, my organization), but was referred to us for ESL by the Department of Social Services. I’d spoken to her husband, who’s been in America for longer, on Sunday and set up the schedule; he and my supervisor both told me she understood very little English, so I was more than a little jittery on the half-hour drive through downtown morning traffic.

Two hours later, I left their house with a full stomach and a fuller heart.

I think a lot of this first meeting spoke to the power of language. Cameroonian is part anglophone and part francophone; this family is francophone. Because I speak French (I just finished my seventh year, and I major in it at W&L), they welcomed me the instant I walked in their door. Because the woman and I already have one language in common, we started off able to communicate. So I did ESL intake, which is just a couple of forms, and a pre-test to establish how much English she already understood. There’s an oral one that uses pictures, so you don’t need to be literate in English. After we did that, I was chatting some with her and started to take my leave when she said, “would you like some eggs?”

I really was quite full from breakfast two hours before, but I could tell she wanted to cook for me, so before I knew it I was in the kitchen helping her cook up fried eggs and plantains. We were laughing and chatting: she told me about Cameroonian cooking while I translated things into English and explained the gerund. Conveniently, le gérondif is one my favorite tenses in French. And the food was good, although chili pepper made the eggs so spicy! She showed me how to take a bite of each at the same time, and the flavors mixed together nicely. The whole process ended with her feeling comfortable enough to open up and tell me about how hard it is being away from so much of her family. “We have a whole life back in Africa,” she told me, tears running down her face. She was the third oldest of ten children, with a degree in social work, a husband who wrote for the newspaper and pastored a church, four children of her own and an incredibly close family. She and her little brother, who is also in America but they’ve only spoken on the phone, now don’t know where their mother is. “Here, I don’t have a life,” she said. There were so many difficulties she’d encountered in America, and “je veux parler anglais comme tu parles français,” she told me. (“I want to speak English like you speak French.”) She hoped that, once she knew English, everything would be easier.

For her sake, I hope it will be.