Mohammed: Age 5, Language Learner

Students in Emma’s Salfeet class concentrate on coloring in between the lines.

Infants are born with an innate language faculty and incredible brain plasticity (the amount the brain can be modified due to the environment); with age, these astonishing language-learning capacities diminish considerably as brain circuitry becomes 'hard-wired' and less dynamic, making a child’s early educational opportunities fundamental to his or her future success.  TYO strives to address this critical period of early childhood development, thus improving children’s overall success and wellbeing through the Core Child Program.

At birth, infants have the ability to perceive all languages, but just after the first year of life, infants become culture bound listeners; as we mature and become more proficient in our native language, we rapidly lose the ability to easily learn different languages.  Brain connections that form our way of thinking are activity dependent, which means that studying multiple languages early on in life makes people better able to learn new languages as adults.  There are incredible, lifelong benefits to being bilingual, and we are thrilled, as native English speakers, to introduce young children of Salfeet to both the English language and our American culture.

As the only American non-profit organization in the northern West Bank, TYO has a profound impact in this community. One of the main focuses of TYO is in early childhood education, specifically the growth and development of a child’s identity. Bilingualism can positively influence a child’s identity because they are able to communicate with people from different cultures, thus enhancing their knowledge of the world as well as confidence in their own identity. The United States Consulate General in Jerusalem, a partner of TYO, has established four American Corners throughout the West Bank and Gaza, including one located in the public library of Salfeet, a village located about 30 minutes outside of Nablus. The American Corner serves the purpose of not only educating the community about American culture and the English language, but also allows the United States to form a relationship with the people of Palestine.

The students we teach in Salfeet are preschool aged (about four to six years old) and are so excited about being in the American Corner and learning English. English is a global language of communication, and parents recognize the lifelong benefits of beginning to learn English at a young age.

We were amazed to learn that many of our students already knew some of the alphabet, numbers, and a few simple phrases like “My name is...” and “How are you?” without formal study. Even without a translator or a common language, we have been able to communicate with our students surprisingly well. In just two weeks, our students have practiced writing and learned colors, animals (and their respective sounds!), and body parts. We can only imagine what the children will have learned by the end of our time together.

Ala’a learns to write the first letter of her name in Jenna’s class!

As we entered the American Corner on our first day of class, we were met by a group of excited students and parents. Amidst the hoard of laughing and chattering children stood a little boy clutching his miniature navy backpack and crying silent tears. Mohammed’s mother had brought him to the American Corner in Salfeet in order for him to learn English from native speakers, and he was very nervous for his first day of English class. Mohammed, age five, knows approximately ¾ of the English alphabet and some basic greetings. He is a shy child, hesitant to speak but very curious about everything. Mohammed’s dark brown eyes were still swimming with tears as he continued to pull tissues from his little backpack as we began the lesson. Armed with a handful of crayons and my helpers Tom and Jerry, I brought myself down to his height and placed a crayon in Mohammed’s tiny hand. An avid fan of coloring, he pointed at his work, smiled and continued to color. Eager to encourage him, I gave him a thumbs up and a high five. Mohammed chuckled softly when I pretended to fall over from the strength of his high five.

As we began the alphabet, Mohammed was alert and repeated the letters for the rest of the class. When he forgot his backpack, I swam through the sea of children again to find Mohammed. Again he stood listlessly in the middle of the mass but this time he held his coloring page close to his chest, apparently saving it to present to his mother when they found each other. I bent down and handed him his backpack, to which he uttered an unsure “thank you?” Mohammed may be attending English courses at the American Corner to achieve English fluency, but we hope that he will take much more from the experience than numbers, shapes and animals vocabulary. We look forward to seeing the transformation of students like Mohammed as we work together every week.

Mohammed practices writing the letters on his second day of English class!