Opinion
Teaching Opinion

Being the Only Person Who Doesn’t Speak the Native Language, a Reflection

By Starr Sackstein — November 08, 2018 3 min read
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As I boarded the plane to South Korea, I had really little idea what to expect. Just a month before I went to Dubai for the first time and aside from that, the farthest and most exotic place I had traveled was France after studying French for more than eight years in middle school through college.

Although anxiety existed, my excitement for this new adventure overcame it, and when I got off the plane at my final destination of Daegu (more than a whole day later with the time change), I eagerly looked around, taking in each new sight, seeking out my new friend with whom I’d corresponded for months now.

Fortunately, he spotted me first. Not too hard to do actually, as I have purple hair and I don’t look like the native people from that area.

“Starr Sackstein?” he asked, almost certain he was right.

“Yes, that’s me. How did you know it was me?” I asked.

“I just had a hunch.” He smiled warmly and offered to carry my bags, but I was fine as we walked to his car.

The weather in South Korea is a lot like it is in New York this time of year. Jason explained to me that the weather had just turned colder, and I shared that the same thing happened in New York. It was sunny out though, and the colors of autumn were all around us.

We eagerly chatted our way to breakfast in a place that he had never been to. I was nervous because my stomach doesn’t always respond well to new foods, but I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. The food was OK, and interacting with my Korean guide and friend was interesting. I asked him dozens of questions about the cultural norms. Trying not to seem so surprised by what I was learning, I took it all in.

One on one, it was easy to be with Jason. His English is very good, and he went out of his way to be a great host. It was at this time that he told me he wouldn’t be at the reception that night and that his colleague would pick me up and take me instead.

That first night after a long travel, I went to a lovely reception for the various important people attending the conference. I was the only American in the room and the only non-Korean speaker.

While I enjoyed dinner and the company of those around me, and several of the guests went out of their way to make me feel welcomed, I felt a little isolated. They all shared a culture, a language, and experiences as college professors that I couldn’t relate to.

While sitting at that table and then at various other times throughout the weekend, I couldn’t help but think about our English-language-learner students who are new to our country, some who don’t know the language or the cultural norms. This was the first time in my life that I felt like an outsider in this way. In my youth, and sometimes in my adult life, I’ve felt different, but not unable to communicate. If anything, my ability to communicate who I am and what I stand for has always been a strong characteristic of mine, so I can’t honestly say that being without words was easy.

Being in this position has made me acutely aware of how isolating not being able to understand a language is. The people I was with were extremely accommodating, so it wasn’t about that; it was about my own frustration for not being able to communicate in the language of everyone around me who seemed to understand each other in a way I couldn’t.

As I returned home from this new experience, I was left with some questions that need pondering in our situations at home:


  • How do we engage students who are new to our country?
  • Even if we are polite and welcoming, what do we do to help them feel less isolated?
  • In what ways can we help them integrate without diminishing the importance of where they come from?
  • How can we be more mindful of how we speak around them?
  • Is our normal side banter more isolating if we do it around students who struggle to understand what we mean?
  • What can we do to combat the loneliness of these students and improve their time in school?

As educators, we have an obligation to make school a safe place for all students. Children should know they can trust us and should never feel like it is OK to be isolated in any way.

The experience has profoundly impacted my views for any marginalized group at school. One of our basic human needs is to feel like we fit somewhere, and if we don’t feel safe in this way, the learning can never happen.

How can we engage our ELLs in our communities to help them adjust to a life so potentially different from their own? Please share.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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