With the advent of the digital era and all of the data sharing glories that came with it, many people believe that it has made everyone culturally knowledgeable and globally aware of all countries and their ways. While this is true to a small extent, for example, students in Spanish classes are now able to rattle off every Spanish speaking country in the world and their capitals; for the most part however, many people still lack the degree of knowledge of details in order to fully understand the countries of the world. It is these details that make the largest impact however, it is a common dream of many young Americans to go and live in Paris or Switzerland and live out their days happily gorging on cheese and fine wines, what most of these young people do not know is that keyboards in Europe are all of the AZERTY configuration instead of our QWERTY configuration. While it is a small detail it is far from insignificant and would put any experienced typist back to the equivalent skill level of a second grader, clearly a major snag in any dream of making a living in Europe. Another thing that many people might not know is the fact that in many European countries, reading, writing, and the learning of the alphabet does not begin until 1st grade, unlike in the United States where counting and the alphabet are taught in kindergarten and preschool. Also a rather major snag.
This is usually not detrimental at all and once European children reach second grade, they have the same knowledge any U.S. child has, the only reason this difference in education strategies would ever cause a problem is if they cross; as was the case with my early education. Having lived in Belgium for 4 years and attending preschool and kindergarten there, I had not a trouble in the world and school consisted of seeing friends, playtime, story time, and most importantly: art projects. Art projects were what dominated our day, we looked forward to them when we woke up and couldn’t wait for the next day’s project, our parents were always proud and all in all, life was pretty damn wonderful. But, as with all good European stories, disaster strikes and those good days disappear. Luckily my story didn’t follow the typical European model and my village wasn’t attacked by a dragon nor did I go into the woods and get baked into a pie by a witch, my disaster was more of the 21st century type: I had to move.
At first I was angry and sad and my whole life was in chaos, but let there be light! It was the first day of school. When I realized that there were children in the United States too, children that not only had 2 arms, 2 legs, 2 eyes, and a nose, but also were like the children in Belgium, it was a genesis for my life. The people were friendly and the sun was hot here too, but then one day in class, the teacher brought out the alphabet magnets, I knew from previous experience that they were fun to play with but beyond that they meant nothing to me. Slowly Mrs. Garret, our teacher, filled the whiteboard with a menagerie of colorful sentences and words and all I could think of was how big the cars outside were. Then Mrs. Garret asked the class to say the letters of the words and sentences and try to pronounce the words themselves, those pretty colored strings on the board quickly changed into something frightening. All of the other children saw a meaning behind these shapes but not me, I thought I had just maybe missed something the teacher had said and that we were going to play with the letters. To my utter discontent, it turned out to not be play time and instead the children kept saying words as the teacher rearranged the letters, each one making me feel more and more alienated and foreign. That day, intensive alphabet training began at home and the chalkboard in my room that I had loved so dearly became an object that brought nothing but tears to my eyes. The green letters, my favorites slowly faded as being fun magnets and solidified into the letters “L”, “R”, and “T”. Within a month I had learned the alphabet and could count up to 10.
Many years later and a couple thousand words added to my vocabulary, I think about all of the hundreds of international students that attend the University of Michigan here and think about the challenges they must be facing. Some of them having only a basic understanding of English, trying to follow along in class and understand the concepts. Despite this being a much more drastic case than mine with many other challenges to overcome, I still like to believe that I can associate with them