To get this language blog going again, I am re-posting this piece from my other blog, GoodEvaning.
Inglês 영어 英語
Last summer, I experienced the greatest moment of my ESL teaching career. I have been teaching English as a second language on and off since 1997. Having taught high school in Japan, winter camp in Korea, junior high and university classes in Mexico, and at several ESL schools in Canada, I always found it was much more fun teaching abroad than in my own country. In my home country, teaching is “just a job”, without the adventure of being in a foreign culture enlivening my daily life. In fact, I have always felt out of place in my own culture. I’m a bit of a weirdo. I don’t drink beer, I don’t play or even watch hockey; if I weren’t so polite and “nice” all the time, no one would ever believe I was Canadian. I only feel comfortable when I am surrounded by a language that is not English. I love English, but I love it more when it is a foreign language that I carry with me in another world.
So what happened this evening that was my best ESL experience ever? The first thing is, it wasn’t a class, with a teacher making students do exercises and repeat phrases; it was the Mega Conversation Club (MCC) at English Lab Toronto. (Let me state for the record, this is not a paid advertisement for the school. I was not asked to write this. I just can’t help writing about such a satisfying event!)
I have studied a lot of languages, and I can communicate in several. What I always say to students, and to people who are reluctant to try to learn a second language, is that learning a language is not—must not be—difficult, boring, or distressing. Communicating is a joy. It is magic. It is powerful. It is addictive. The first time I actually said an original sentence in Korean, (not just repeating something from a lesson), which was understood by a Korean person, it felt like the first time I rode a bike without my dad holding me up, it felt like a homerun, a slam dunk, a shot of soju (소주)! Someone asked me in Korean what I was doing on the weekend and I happened to know all of the vocabulary and grammar to answer without hesitation, “I’m going to a restaurant with my friends.” Slam dunk! That was last year, after completing my second course in basic Korean. I can’t speak Korean yet, but now I know I will be able to learn. I just have to put in the hours. Not hours of lessons, which is helpful but not enough; hours of talking to Koreans in their language, telling each other simple pieces of information. I will do it.
As I was saying, MCC is not a class. It is an organized conversation session with one teacher for every student. Every 20 minutes, the students change teachers. For the final 20 minutes, there is a group discussion or debate. Tonight it was a round-table discussion about the problem of world hunger. There were five students and five teachers. One of the students told me that she didn’t like the topic, because she thought everyone would say the same things.
Even some fairly advanced students are shy at first, and some want to just read out some notes they made in advance. But this time even the shy students seemed relaxed. I told them the person who speaks first will have the easiest job because they can say anything; the person who speaks last will have to say something no one else thought of. One of the quiet Korean students voluntarily spoke first. A Brazilian student, who sometimes tries to avoid saying much, responded. And then he did something that almost never happens. He turned to another student and asked, “What do you think?” He started doing it as a joke and began to act like he was a CEO running a business meeting. He turned to someone else. “Do you think education is [an important part of the solution]?” He didn’t say it perfectly, but that didn’t matter. The way he did it was very funny, but it was also very real, natural, meaningful conversation.
Soon, all five students were giving their opinions, sometimes supporting or challenging what someone else had said. Every one of them spoke clearly, intelligently, without hesitation, and best of all, they all cared about what they were saying and they listened to each other. It was not “English class”; it was a natural and passionate conversation. We all got so into it that the teachers started sharing their thoughts, and they had some significant things to say. A couple of us got choked up (yes, me too) as we talked about the suffering of people, the mistreatment of animals, the heartlessness of corporations, and other flaws in the world food system. If we had been in a restaurant, no one would guess that half of us were teachers and half were students; they would think it was a bunch of Canadians having a lively conversation.
It was a beautiful, beautiful moment and I have never felt prouder of a group of students. Twenty minutes became half an hour, and no one seemed to mind that we stayed a bit late. I can’t wait to go back to work! (I told you I was a weirdo.)