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Being an English Language Instructor

by Blake Hritz, Literacy NRV ESL Program Coordinator

No, you don’t need to know a foreign language to teach English! Sure it helps, but it’s not essential. While most of our students’ first language is Spanish, we have a variety of English learners. For example, I was the lead instructor for a Literacy NRV class in Fall, 2023 which had eight first languages: Arabic, Persian, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese. With all those languages, we had to use English in class.

Teaching English is an enlightening and humbling experience. There are so many tiny, unnoticed patterns native English speakers use that burst into awareness as we interact with language learners. All of the idioms and slang that naturally fill our conversations suddenly need an explanation. As you teach the language, you become more aware of it. 

How do we use these words? What is the actual purpose of this phrase? What’s the deal with contractions? Why do we pronounce it this way instead of the way the word is written? What does “in for a penny, in for a pound” even mean? Who categorized all these grammar rules anyway? For me, teaching English to adults is an exercise in mindfulness. It forces me to interact with my language more consciously. Because when I understand how I use my language, I can be a better instructor.

The wonderful part about working with adult English learners is their knowledge. They have broad life experiences that can be applied to the simplest lesson. For anyone learning a foreign language, you remember studying the basics: simple pronouns like I and you, colors, basic verbs, identifying family. With adults, there is a family to name. Husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents. They’ve lived and have a history. Your English learners will love to share their stories with you. But it starts with giving them the language. Favorite colors have a reason: the blue and white of the river in their hometown, or a daughter needing to wear pink everyday.

Of course, working with language learners requires patience. For those stories to come out, a person needs the vocabulary. Studies indicate that a person needs to use a word at least ten times in context to begin incorporating it into their vocabulary. That means repetition. Pointing and saying. Listening and repeating. Acting out a verb. Making sure the pronunciation is correct. It’s all important and it all takes time. 

Or there are more advanced learners who just want to have a conversation. They know their English (and probably understand the grammar rules better than you). What they want is to learn the expressions, soften their accent, advance their vocabulary. Patience and respect are still essential. They still need the time to access the word they’re trying to use. 

Here’s a common experience. You’re having a conversation and they’re explaining their idea. You’re following their thoughts until they pause and look up, searching their brain for the word. You know the word they need to use and you want to help them along. But then you remember you know the language and they’re still learning. You remind yourself to respect their intelligence and let them get there. It’s weird getting used to those long pauses. But you need to get comfortable with them.

I work with a lot of volunteers at Literacy NRV. Everyone finds their own reward in helping others. Our English language learners need practical help to improve their lives. A volunteer’s time is useful. For new volunteers, it will be easy to engage and participate in our community. Our appreciation of English grows. Teaching English improves the quality of life of others. And it’s so easy to start.

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