Education Shock: Explaining Magic

Education shock: noun- a derivative of culture shock;  a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual teacher or student who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural education.

Subject: Magic, Magical Creatures

Dinosaurs were an easy topic compared to this.  Giant lizards leave skeletons, Google images of bones and fossils, scientific data.

But elves, gnomes and ogres?  What evidence do they leave behind for a non-English speaker?  “Magical dust” does not count; especially when even the idea of “magic” is unfamiliar.  Though I’m sure the Karenni-Burmese culture has some element of this in its folklore, my students and I were unable to communicate the possibility.

Instead, consulting the Burmese dictionary, one student told the class that magic was a special power.  “Exactly.  A power to do things you could not do in real life.  For example, humans cannot fly.  But, if I had magic, I could fly.”

Then I realized, we were about to open up a fairytale of terms and ideas that only existed in the imagination.  And my drawing skills would most definitely not convey them on the marker board.

“Where does it come from?” another girl asked. A star wand or a wizard’s fingertips…

“How you fly from it?”  Either I’m put under a spell, or grow glittery wings…

“Magic gives you more?”  A pet unicorn and the ability to cook…

“It is good?”  Depends on whether you got it from a sacred charm bracelet or a poisoned apple…

toomutchforwords, "Explaining Magic"- Unicorn

“Lives in America?”  My students found it hard to believe that this image, taken from a search, was not a real picture of a unicorn.

Teaching reminds me that language is dependent on culture; one does not exist without the other, and thus the education of English requires an education of our background- including our children’s stories and mythical creatures.  I wish my students could relate their own folk tales, introduce me to a few new imaginary characters.  As it was, they are now stuck with the sketch of a centaur, which will surely turn them away from horses for the rest of their life.

Ever had to convey a difficult concept to a non-native speaker?  What topics do you find impossible to describe in English?

2 responses to “Education Shock: Explaining Magic

  1. One of my students (11 years old) asked how to spell “night,” I asked which one she meant- which was very confusing to her. I asked if she meant the person or the time of day. She replied “When you sleep,” so I showed her the spelling, but knew she was still confused and curious. So, I decided to try to explain what a knight is. Armor, swords, castles, story book princesses, horses, dragons… I think she finally understood, but I told her to not think about it and “night” is spelled without a “k”.

  2. I was teaching the maori myth of Lake Wakatipu last week and was pleasantly surprised by the Chilean and Fijian understanding of a legend.

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