Thursday, October 13, 2011

#85... Help someone who is learning English

We don't need to be English teachers to follow this Simple Suggestion. People learn by doing, so all that needs to happen is dialogue. And most of us are pretty good at that.

A hundred years ago, my university minor was TESL, or Teaching English as a Second Language. Since those far off university days, North Americans seem to have realized that many of the people who migrate to this continent are learning English as a third, fourth, fifth, or nth language. The presumption of calling it ESL has turned into an argument about just what to call it. English as a Foreign Language? Additional Language? Alternate? Not that it matters. What matters is conversation.

I had an amazing instructor in my ESL education module, a lady named Olenka Bilash. I understand she is now Dr. Bilash, but I'm betting that everybody still calls her Olenka. Olenka had our class come up with practical ideas of how to engage new language learners in conversations that would be so enjoyable, they would forget that they didn't know English. She brought in an ESL class, and I'll never forget presenting a lesson where I played a recording that I'd made of water running, doors closing, the flicking of a light switch, someone clapping hands, a toilet flushing, etc., and the fun everyone had in trying to explain the noise and what made it. One of my classmates brought pictures of animals, and we laughed a lot as we compared the names, descriptions, and sounds of those animals with the same group of students.

Can you name any of these in another language?
How about the noises they make?

There were cooking lessons and sports discussions and skits about families and more ideas than I can remember -- the point being that as much as our ESL students learned from us, we had more to learn from them. It was a wonderful, simple, multicultural experience of sharing in language learning.

If you've ever been a stranger in a strange land, you probably know what it's like to try to understand and make yourself understood, and how there are always people willing to help. In my early twenties, I lived in Belgium for a month with a girl from Quebec and a guy from Wisconsin, and we had the most hilarious times having French/English/Flemish conversations with the wonderful people we stayed with. That experience helped me to appreciate what new Canadians go through, and gave me a deeper appreciation of my own language.

Today's suggestion is simply to take the time to talk with someone whose first language may not be English, to smile and make them feel welcome, to share a laugh or a joke if you can, just because language is best learned when it's shared. And if you learn a few foreign words yourself, I'd love to hear them. Kwaheri!

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

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