Articles for Teachers

ESL Students Aren't Cute
By:Chris D. Gray <gray_1969@yahoo.com>

The peculiarities of American baseball provide a springboard from which an ESL teacher can dive into numerous pools of useful English vocabulary. We take ranking words from the bases (first, second, third) and words of position from the field (center, in, out, right left). These concepts are not new to the class. The students just don't know how to express them with English words.

As I talked about baseball to my conversation classes in China, I keyed in on the shape of the infield, a diamond. From there I talked about shapes. It seems that everyone was able to identify the round shape as a "circle." A few knew "square." But no one was familiar with "rectangle" or "triangle." As thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds they easily recognized the shapes. They just didn't know what to call them in English.

When I introduced the class to the term "square," I didn't go into the geometric ramifications of it. I didn't draw a parallelogram on the blackboard and explain why it wasn't a square. They already knew that. They were smart kids. All I did was to enable them to communicate their knowledge in a way that I could understand.

In the late 1990's I worked at a boarding home for mentally disabled adults in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One summer Tamaki, a young lady from Japan joined our staff as a volunteer housekeeper. She had just finished an ESL training course in London, and she came to America to practice her newly acquired English skills.

She chose a residential community setting for its conversation-rich environment, but her talents reached far beyond the neatly folded linens spread out on her laundry table. Tamaki was an accomplished concert pianist, as well as a teacher of piano in Japan. Audiences applauded her performance, and proud parents entrusted their dreams into her hands. She was successful, well respected, and a jewel in the Japanese crown. Then she came to America where she was little more than another foreign face overlooked in the crowd.

On her journey through the English-language experience Tamaki often stumbled over words with lost meanings or tangled pronunciations. But somehow my co-workers and I found amusement in her struggle. "She's so cute," we would say in ignorance, as if she were to be pitied for her gradual yet persistent conquest of a challenging second language. We viewed early progress and achievement as incompletion and deficiency.

Speaking a first language is easy. Learning a second is not. For most of us riding a bicycle is second nature, but how often did we have to pick ourselves up off the sidewalk the first few times out? And that wasn't fun.

In ESL class my students saw me as a wise instructor. My Chinese colleagues looked to me as a walking resource book. But with each step away from the classroom I more and more took on the appearance of a “cute”, unintelligent foreigner. Only this time mine weren't the eyes of the beholder.

Article by Chris D. Gray
© 2004





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