I have been tutoring adults in ESL for awhile now and every time I sit down with a woman or man from Ethiopia or Burma or Cambodia, I am in awe.
Not only did they make their way to Wisconsin to escape whatever hardships they were facing in their homeland (war, poverty, lack of education), they know little or no English at all – zip, zero, zilch.
What would it be like if I flew to Cambodia and couldn’t speak the language? I’d be in freakout mode, I’m quite sure. Talk about having to rely on the kindness of strangers. I’ve had to do this on a number of occasions in foreign cities and not only is it humbling, it’s scary.
So I’m discovering how little I know about working with nonnative speakers and how far I need to go to make myself useful. For instance, how to teach someone to pronounce the “th” sound as in “thing” or “thought”? Not easy – a lot of head shaking and throat sounds at these times!
Or, how about the “ssss” sound at the end of the word “class”? Doesn’t come naturally for many students. Then, there is the challenge of explaining the difference between pronouncing October twelve and October twelfth and why it’s pronounced two different ways. I can’t even begin to start.
The students come Monday nights. They are mostly young women, but several men as well and I have read some of their stories on the wall of the basement room where I volunteer. Most of them are grateful to be here, many need/want jobs and all of them are so thankful for the real teachers who help them learn English so that they can get on with their lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and beyond.
I have only barely begun to understand their struggle to not only learn a new language but to adapt to a new culture. It’s humbling to me and at the same time exhilarating to be part of the process.
It has awakened in me my love for language and connecting with others and opened my eyes to the possibilities of tutoring and teaching more people to read, write and speak English.
I think of all the doors this can and will open for them and myself.
Connecting is what it’s all about.