Monday, September 10, 2012

on teaching English...

When people find out that I teach English as a second (or third or fifth) language, the most popular question I get in response is "Really? How many languages do you speak?" The thing is, when a person teaches Spanish or French, people don't ask this question, because they assume if you are teaching Spanish, you can speak... Spanish; if you teach French, then you speak... French. So the logical reasoning that should follow that is, if you teach English, then you speak.... that's right, English!

The fun thing about teaching English is that I tend to pick up some international things - I learn some different phrases in different languages, I learn about cultural sensitivities, and I get to eat some really awesome food. But those are all additional bits of knowledge. My specialty, my forte, is English - speaking it, explaining it, analyzing it, simplifying it, and teaching it. And I absolutely love it.

I did minor in Spanish in college, and it nearly gave me a total mental breakdown more than once. The only reason I managed to get all my credits was because of a lot of prayer, M&Ms, and the pictures and memories I had of Hispanic people I dearly and personally loved - they were my motivation all the way. I do not consider myself fluent in Spanish at all, but I think the whole experience helped me mostly to understand and empathize with other language learners about what a challenge and what a triumph it is to be able to achieve proficiency in another language.

I remember Spanish and Columbian professors teaching - speaking and writing - the entire class in Spanish... I got tremendous headaches and heartburn my first year because I wanted to scream, "I don't understand you! Speak in English so I know what you want me to do!" I would try to ask a question in English and the prof would interrupt me and say, "En Espanol, por favor," and would not answer me until I asked in Spanish... only I didn't have the vocabulary to ask in Spanish! I had three years of Spanish in highschool, and couldn't figure out why college was so much harder. Then I realized that in highschool, the teachers taught Spanish in English. It was comfortable, it was safe, it was theoretical... I knew how to translate a simple sentence on paper and could change a verb into third person, but I could not speak Spanish.

Some people think that a person who is bilingual is naturally someone who should teach ESL. I put this sort of invalid thinking in the same category as assuming a great singer should lead worship, or a really fun and crazy person should be a youth pastor: sometimes the obvious isn't the best. People speak to their family and friends in their native tongue. But a helpful teacher speaks to them in the language they need to learn, and expects the same from the student. And help them be creative - if they can't find the word, find another way to express it, and get a minilesson in vocabulary out of it. It does not help to explain English to a person by speaking another language. That would be like teaching music theory to someone without the use of an instrument. They may understand the concepts of scales and arpeggios, but they will not be able to sit down to a piano and find middle C!

Communication goes far beyond words. I think I really learned this truth for the first time in the summer of 2001, when a tiny boy from Sudan - who spoke no English at all - climbed onto my lap in the middle of a dusty "field," picked up my arms and wrapped them around himself, and fell asleep against my chest. What did he communicate to me? His sad and tired eyes said he needed love and rest, his motions toward me said he would trust me to provide that love and rest, and his peaceful sleep said he found what he was looking for. And in those moments his heart assured me that a girl in a wheelchair, who thought she would be of no help to anyone because of her weak muscles, could be the perfect resting place of love for a child who couldn't understand a word she said. That kid inspired me to serve in cross-cultural missions.

I try not to frustrate my students; I try to ease their anxiety and offer a safe place for them to explore and experiment and make mistakes with language. And I try to communicate through smiles and loving eyes and pictionary and object lessons and lots and lots of cherades! And they are learning... some faster than others, but they are learning, and not giving up, and that's very brave.


  1. I appreciate your thoughts. Isn't it amazing how God uses each one of us even when we feel useless. Praying for you tonight.