Teaching Engish as a Second Language

For a couple of years, I taught an ESL course. The classes were sponsored by the government and  made up of people from many countries. As well as language instruction, they were given classes to assist them to live more easily in Canada.

Two main groups of immigrants were on the campus at that time: people from Poland and immigrants from several countries in South America. My first class had some of each and a few other assorted students. At times, the Poles and South Americans were an explosive mixture but on the whole, they got on together. Just as well as the city where they lived had a high percentage of immigrants in the population.

Since I hadn’t taught ESL before, I had to learn the course along with my students. My background in Latin at boarding school came in handy as I was accustomed to verb tenses and their construction. Each new verb tense was greeted with moans and groans from my class. ‘How many more do we have to learn?’ they asked. I pointed out that Spanish and Polish had verb tenses as well but my logic wasn’t helpful. They were still unhappy at meeting the past perfect of the verb TO BE. One guy said what many have thought over the years. ‘We don’t need verb tenses. We can say today I come and tomorrow I come and last week I come. Everybody knows what we mean and we don’t use any verb tenses.’ He was quite right but I still was required to introduce him to the mysteries of the past perfect of the verb TO BE. Of course, the whole idea of regular and irregular verbs was a nasty concept.

One day, we were discussing school life in our various countries and how it differed from education in Canada. I told the class that in the early school grades  in New Zealand when we wanted to go the toilet, we had to raise our hands for permission and indicate by the number of fingers we put up whether we were going to do NUMBER ONE  or NUMBER TWO, Looking back on this practice, I have no idea why it was required. One guy said that he had a new sign I could have used when I was young. He raised his hand and waved all his fingers at the same time. ‘Diarrhea!’ he declared. We enjoyed his joke.

We stressed speaking English all the time while the students were in class but we still heard the odd mutters in Polish, Arabic or Spanish during the lessons. When I began to teach ESL, an experienced teacher gave a word to use when my Polish students needed to be quiet. She said, ‘Just say CICHO.’  Well, I tried it out and they became quiet at once. Then I heard one student murmur to another, ‘She speaks Polish.’ I laughed and confessed that was my only word in their language. I also told them I was one eighth Polish through my great-grandfather. I hadn’t had my DNA tested in those days and didn’t know that he was actually German. But never mind, I believed it was correct. The information gave me a small connection with my Polish students.

I think I need a new topic so will write about something different next week.