Imagine you parachute into the middle of Tokyo – a Tokyo where nobody speaks English and you speak nary a word of Japanese – and your primary goal is to find some way, any way, to understand enough to communicate with those around you.
That was the test of a number of volunteers taking part in “A Taste of Literacy,” part of a March 25 online fund-raising and public-awareness effort of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia.
The initiative was a chance for participants to “have us walk in the shoes of English-language learners,” said Xavier Muñoz, associate director of teaching of learning for the non-profit social-safety-net organization.
Muñoz for 20 minutes led the volunteers – Ashley King, Wafa Misellati, Jeff DiMeglio, Ruba Afzal and Will Canas, among others – in a full-immersion, no-English-allowed, trial-and-error foray in Japanese.
“It’s very challenging,” Muñoz promised the participants, who gamely struggled in front of a Zoom audience.
And that was the point – to show the trials gone through by those who do not have English-language skills and have to learn from scratch using the services of the Literacy Council.
“They learn vocabulary, grammar, culture and more,” said Roopal Saran, the organization’s executive director. “Think of the pride that you feel when your English has progressed.”
The gathering, which quickly approached its fund-raising goal of $50,000, also featured U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th).
“I’m just so impressed with the people who commit not just to teaching but to learning,” Beyer said.
He noted that, while serving a four-year stint as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein – never leave out Liechtenstein – he would practice speaking German every day, and even when people would respond to him in English, he would carry forward using German in order to hone his skills.
Like nearly every safety-net organization, the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia was forced to pivot like an overly stimulated disco dancer to meet the challenges of the COVID pandemic, which hit just over a year ago.
“Our students have been the most vulnerable,” both from a societal and economic standpoint, Saran said.
Many, she said, ended up feeling “lost and hopeless,” but by moving to online classes, the Literacy Council was able to throw a lifeline to them.
The organization serves about 1,500 adult clients, whose level of English proficiency is at sixth grade or below. They come from 90 countries and are native speakers of 50 different languages.
“Seeing the ways our students support one another has been beautiful to witness,” said Dian Parrotta, an instructor in the program.