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ESL Follies

 One of the many things I do in RL is run a class in English as a 2nd language for our post-docs, graduate students and (occasionally) new staff at the research institute where I am on the faculty.  The class had its very first meeting today, and it was pretty amusing.  I have seven 'students', 5 Chinese (from 4 different areas of China), one Indian from Bengal and one Georgian (the former Soviet Republic, not our southern State).  ::gratuitous cracks about how they don't speak English there either will be dealt with by the loss of House Points and detention with Flich::  :-)   I am to help them with their comprehension and pronunciation, and help them delve the mysteries of English grammar.  In order to be able to attend, their spoken English must be judged as 'poor' by their P.I. or the Office of Education.  Keep in mind that these people all passed their TOEFL exam.

And how did I end up doing this, well you may ask, as I am (to paraphrase Dr. McCoy) dammit Jim, a scientist, not an English professor?   No good deed goes unpunished, apparently.  I'm chair of our departmental post-doc seminar committee (that sounds impressive, but it's one of those jobs that gets given to the jr. staff because it's a pain), and I have made a habit of having a debriefing after each person's talk, going over what worked, what didn't and how the presentation could be improved.  I've also been known to do the same for post-docs about to go out and give a job seminar.  For foreign post-docs (which, sadly, now comprise the majority), this includes help with their English.  News of this filtered up the food chain, and the Institute Chair (who happens to have someone in his lab who is now taking the course)  thought it would be a grand idea to offer help with English to the wider Institute community, and, since I was already doing this (sort of) for my department, and since I'm not teaching this year otherwise (having been given a sabbatical because of my illness),  wouldn't I consider doing this while they decide whether it would be a good idea to hire an actual teacher of English (and oh, BTW isn't it time for your mid-term review soon)?  Yep, that's right: blackmail.  Academia - what's not to like?  ::snort::

So here are these poor people, expecting someone who actually knows how to teach English and getting someone who has a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject, but no clue how to start.  I spent a lot of time going over ESL websites, combing the library for ideas and working feverishly to try to put something together that seems coherent and won't be a waste of anyone's time, but still feels as if it's been thrown together from five feet away.  Ugh.  Class seemed to go OK today, but then the Georgian student threw me for a loop (note to self: add 'threw me for a loop' to list of idiomatic expressions).  "Something I am confused over," he said.  "If plural of mouse is mice and plural of louse is lice, why is not plural of house hice?"  Ideas, anyone?


Sep. 30th, 2010 05:17 am (UTC)
I can't add much to Delphi's and Rexluscus's answers -- "because English is a hybrid language with many competing influences that lead to all sorts of inconsistencies" is pretty much it.

My partner started her professional life as a licensed architect and then switched careers when she realized that an architect working in someone else's office spends much more time fighting with contractors than doing actual design work. She retrained as an ESL teacher, and I know what a demanding job it is. That you're doing it as an "extra" assignment when it's not even your field. . .wow. I'm seriously impressed, and I want to smack your Chair upside the head (to use an expression from that non-Russian Georgia) for asking you. I think you're being taken advantage of, but I'm sure the students are grateful. (Sadly, passing TOEFL doesn't always mean much.)

Having attended one of the few graduate English programs that still required two semesters of Anglo-Saxon, I can attest to its complications. But I really enjoyed it. Reading Old English poems in the original was worth the trouble (not that I remember much of it now, of course; Victorianists don't often have to brush up their Old English.)
Sep. 30th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
I want to smack your Chair upside the head (to use an expression from that non-Russian Georgia) for asking you. I think you're being taken advantage of, but I'm sure the students are grateful.

You might have to wait in line! :-D As annoyed as I was (and I really felt as if I couldn't say no), my department chair was livid. His bragging about our seminar program is, he thinks, what got this started, so he feels guilty. "I wish you'd told him to come to me," he said. "I'd have told him to bugger off." Now, imagine a tall, distinguished-looking 60-something Indian gentleman saying "bugger off" in Oxford-inflected Hindi-accented English, and you'll probably be tempted to do what I nearly did, which was giggle out loud in a most unprofessional manner. ::ggg::
The worst part of this is that I suspect that the Institute Chair would never have had the idea to do this if he hadn't had someone in his own lab who has difficulties with English.

She retrained as an ESL teacher, and I know what a demanding job it is.

She has my deep and abiding respect, let me tell you. My main concern is serving the students well, when I am *clearly* unqualified to do this, and the students have such widely disparate needs. The one who has the best command of English is my Bengali student, but while her written English is extremely good (better than most of our native speakers, I am sad to say), her spoken English, while grammatically correct, is quite difficult to understand because of her accent and the speed at which she speaks. One of my Chinese students is similar (she comes from Shanghai, and a Chinese colleague tells me that most Chinese don't understand *Chinese* when spoken in the Shanghai dialect). The others are at varying places when it comes to their understanding of English, and need help mostly through practice, imo, except for one of the Chinese students who really needs a lot more help than I will be able to give him (I am suspecting that he either crammed and then forgot everything when he took his TOEFL or hired someone to take it for him). He really is lost and has a very difficult time even forming sentences on paper. I think I'm going to ask our Education Department to refer him to a formal ESL course at the University we're affiliated with.

They certainly all seem enthusiastic and ready to learn, and that makes any teacher's task easier. I don't mind the work, just the sneaking feeling that I'm cheating them. They deserve a teacher who knows what s/he's doing, so I'm hoping that next term they'll hire a certified ESL teacher. That's certainly what I intend to recommend to our Institute Council.

Edited at 2010-09-30 03:59 pm (UTC)