Read My Lips: A Profile of One Very Special ESL Student at Bridge

Learning the English language is no easy task.

It can be downright frustrating even. As a teacher, the comment I hear most from students is that listening is the most difficult part of learning English. Students tell me that even though speaking is obviously a challenge especially at the beginner level, they are still able to express certain ideas or ask simple questions and get their point across. The problem, however, comes when the person they are talking to responds, especially when it is a native English speaker. The learner finds himself wide-eyed and dumbfounded looking at the person who just responded with a glazed-over look of confusion because, unlike English teachers who are accustomed to speaking slowly and modulating their words, most native English speakers speak, well, really, really fast, just like our foreign counterparts of any country. We cut our words short and blend them all together so that sometimes they just sound like one, big word. It can be embarrassing for the learner because he or she must ask the question again fearing that the response will be of the same velocity leaving him answer-less and more confused than before.

Having lived in a foreign country myself where the natives were notorious for speaking ridiculously fast, I can completely relate. There were days when I didn’t want to leave my house because that meant that I would have to speak to people and they inevitably would respond to me, and I inevitably wouldn’t understand anything they said, leaving me frustrated and embarrassed. Even though I spoke the language very proficiently, learning to listen and understand was definitely the most challenging, and it still is.

Meet Orlando Müller – a dedicated English student

So if listening is the most difficult part of learning a new language, imagine now that you are hearing impaired. How would that work in learning a new language? How could someone possibly learn a foreign language when they can barely hear their own language? You might be thinking that it would be impossible, and that is exactly what I thought until I met Orlando Müller. Orlando is a student at Bridge Denver. He is from Santiago, Chile and he was born five and a half months premature, which caused him to develop hypoacusis or partial hearing loss. At the time of his birth he only weighed nineteen ounces and his chances of survival were very slim. But he persevered as an infant and now is persevering as a student at Bridge with challenges most of us never even think about.

Hypoacusis is not complete deafness. Orlando does wear a headset and while he can hear to a certain degree when the headset is turned on, his hearing is still greatly impaired as is his speech although he can and does speak. What’s even more impressive is that he didn’t start speaking until he was five years old and at that time the only word he could say was, “papa.” He relies mostly on reading lips accompanied with the sounds that he is able to hear. He can fully read lips in Spanish and if you can believe it, he can also read lips, at a lower level, in English. During class he is focused almost one hundred percent on the movement of the teacher’s mouth and when the teacher is faced towards the white board or away from Orlando, he is unable to decipher what the teacher is saying at that particular moment. You would think that that would be incredibly frustrating not being able to hear everything in class, not being able to do the listening exercises when the teacher puts on the CD, having to really focus throughout the whole class without taking the short “daydreaming” breaks that we all have done in school. Let’s face it. Even the most astute learner’s mind wonders from time to time. The brain can take in only so much information, but the hearing person is still able to passively learn.

But Orlando never displays any frustration. He is calm, focused and always willing to participate and speak as much as possible. He almost always gets perfect scores on his tests and on his written exercises and his level is improving every day at a fast rate. The other students and teachers alike think Orlando is like some sort of a superhero. He has this amazing ability to learn English while not being able to fully hear it. His classmates always lend a hand to him when they can see that he needs one, however, Orlando rarely asks for help. Perhaps that is because he has grown used to people turning the other way when they realize he has a disability. He told me that the most difficult part of being hearing impaired is forming relationships with people. He says that many people just don’t want to make the effort to get to know him or speak to him. But at Bridge, he says, he feels totally comfortable, that his classes are wonderful and the teachers are great.

No challenge is too difficult if you’re commited

Another challenge he faces is with his host family. Anyone living with a host family faces obvious communication challenges especially if they don’t speak English at a high level. With a hearing impairment, it would make it doubly challenging but Orlando says that he is one hundred percent committed to learning English and that he speaks with his host family as much as possible and takes full advantage of living with native English speakers.

So why is he so committed to learning English? His job as an administrative assistant at his family’s furniture store in Santiago doesn’t warrant having to learn English. “English is important in life. You never know what opportunities are going to present themselves. With English I can get a better job, meet more people and gain more opportunities. I would like to someday be a photographer for big events and knowing English would expand my opportunities in this, or any other career.”

Orlando is always positive and walks through the halls of Bridge smiling and greeting his classmates and teachers. He is looking forward to returning to Chile with his improved English speaking skills and is grateful for having had this opportunity to come to the United States and study English at Bridge.

All in all he has had a great time and learned a lot here in Denver. But I think the staff and students at Bridge who have gotten a chance to know him have also learned a valuable lesson; that no matter how hard we think learning a new language is and no matter how frustrated or impatient we get with ourselves or others, our challenges seem almost trivial compared to someone like Orlando, and that is a lesson worth learning.