TRIAL: Learning a new language is exhausting
Learning in a new language is exhausting. Remember this.
I teach English language learners. Here is what they taught me.
This essay by Shelly McClanahan appeared on Chalkbeat.org on October 21, 2021.
I stood at the board, speechless.
“Yes! She taught me to write all the bad words,” the student told me. “She” was Mrs. Hall, the most respected English teacher at the school I taught outside. from Chattanooga The student was a girl from China who remembered her best teachers before graduation.
“Are you sure she taught you swear words, Mei?” I asked.
She walked over to the board and wrote her name in beautiful cursive handwriting.
As I smiled and explained the difference between swear words and swear words, I also made sure that she hadn’t told anyone else that Mrs Hall had taught her profanity. It was one of those moments of working with English learners that reminds you of how interesting work can be – and how much work you weren’t taught in college.
Here are some things I learned from listening, observing and working with my students.
1. Students can have huge learning gaps. I am responsible for completing them.
I once taught two eighth grade boys who had basic reading problems in their mother tongue. They had not yet learned to speak English, which made it difficult to learn a lot in their classes.
Thanks to an understanding director, I was able to reserve a period of class each day to work with them on sight words, vocabulary and writing in English. In March, they were reading sentences they had written to the headmistress as she cheered them on. In schools with large classes, it may be next to impossible to find time to work with these students on missing skills. But we have to make room for it when student success is at stake.
2. Friendship does not need a common ground.
When I was teaching in the first grade, a few boys ran to the teachers’ bench. One was an English speaking student from China. The other had just arrived from Mexico and had learned to say hello. The student from China announced, “We are best friends! I don’t know what he is saying, but we are best friends! Then they fled to the monkey bars. Likewise, a sixth grade girl from Russia who loved unicorns and a girl from Argentina who was obsessed with football became friends, helping each other with homework and laughing together in my class.
Focusing on what they have in common, I observe students from across the world, of different religions, who do not speak the other’s language, often become close friends. This is an example for the rest of the school for students and adults.
3. Slang is important.
Recently one of my students jumped into the classroom and greeted me with “Hey, bruh!” He immediately asked, “What does bruh mean?”
English learners hear other students use slang, and they want to use it too. It helps them connect with their peers and feel like they belong. I have even had students come to me boldly proclaiming blasphemy and then asking me the meaning of the word. In my class, these questions are OK. Although I usually don’t have time to teach slang, I use these questions as learning moments, pointing out a new language that they can use with friends.
4. Students want to talk to teachers in their home country… unless they don’t.
When I was teaching Venn Diagrams, I would ask students to compare their school in their home country to their school in the United States. After realizing that some students did not go to school in their home country, I gave up on this subject. Engaging students with their culture of origin gives them a place where they can connect deeply, but sometimes they don’t want to talk about where they’re from. It can hurt to think about the people they have lost, or to bring up difficult or even traumatic situations that they do not want to see again.
Knowing how and when to express curiosity about a student’s home country can be tricky. In my experience, letting the student lead the conversation works best. If they mention their country of origin, following up on a positive issue is both polite and can be engaging. If they stop there, don’t push.
5. Being and becoming bilingual can be exhausting.
Early in my career, I worked in Albania teaching the children of foreign aid workers. It broadened my teaching skills and satisfied a desire to travel. There I worked with an amazing Albanian teacher who was fluent in English. However, talking about it eight hours a day sometimes gave him headaches. It was a reminder that living in a second language can be tiring.
It puts a strain on the brain, especially when you are just beginning to recognize the sounds and tones of a language. I try to remember that when I see a struggling student, especially at the end of the school day, it’s time to give them a little slack. Their brains are probably tired.
By noticing what students are doing and saying in class, then thinking about how you react, you are building a classroom for English learners that is focused on their needs. Every year my students teach me new lessons.
Shelly McClanahan teaches English as a Second Language at college near Nashville. She has been the coordinator of ESL programs in the United States and at international schools in Albania, South Korea and England.