April 1, 2014 Groundwood Books

The story of Norman Speaks [Guest Post by Caroline Adderson]

Norman, Speak!Four years ago my friend Bob gave me a present.  Actually, he passed along a present.

Because we both had new puppies in our lives, we met up at the dog park for a canine play-date. While the dogs were chasing each other, we two humans stood around chatting. This was when Bob gave me the present.

He pointed across the field to where a Rottweiler was fetching a ball. “See that dog?” he said. “That dog speaks Chinese.”

"Ding Dongs" by Steve Teo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Ding Dongs” by Steve Teo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I said, “Pardon me?”

To a writer, the best present can’t be wrapped and tied with a bow or exchanged for a different size. The best present is a story. Bob gave me one that day. He’d heard it from the man throwing the ball, the Rottweiler’s owner.

A few weeks earlier, Bob had met the man and his dog and, noticing something unusual about them, he struck up a conversation. The owner, a Caucasian man, was calling out commands in what sounded like Chinese. Bob asked why.

And he gave the story to Bob, who gave it to me.

The Rottweiler was a rescue dog. The man had tried to train him, to no avail.  The dog seemed incapable of learning commands. Sit? Stay? Come? Nope. The Rottweiler just stood there. So his owner concluded that his new dog wasn’t very smart. He kept on believing this until one day he took the Rottweiler to the park and met a Chinese man calling out commands to his dog. The Rottweiler ran right over and did everything the man said. In Chinese!

So it wasn’t that the Rottweiler lacked intelligence. He’d simply been trained in another language. The easiest thing for Rottweiler’s owner to do would be to learn a little Chinese himself.

I worked for twelve years as an ESL teacher, so I know firsthand how difficult it can be to learn a new language. Philosophy professors, doctors, engineers and teachers have been among my students. These people immigrated to Canada from all over the world bringing with them their many accomplishments. But without English language skills, no one knew how accomplished they were. Also, they no longer felt accomplished.

“I feel stupid,” many used to tell me.

That day in the dog park, I knew Bob had given me a wonderful present — a story worth telling yet again. A story that would resonate for children learning a new language — ESL kids and immersion kids — as well as kids who have new language leaners in their classroom who perhaps have a hard time keeping up at the beginning. Learning a new language is hard, no matter how smart you are.

So Xièxie, Bob.

And Xièxie, Qin Leng who illustrated Norman, Speak! She took the story I gave her (three times a present now!) and made it her own. You’ll notice that Norman looks quite different that the real-life Norman. I love him just the same.

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