I’m worried about my grammar…

I just started a new job tutoring ESL students at UR International. It’s been an awesome experience so far. I really love it.

Students come in with assignments or presentations that they need to work on, or sometimes they just want to chat. You would be surprised how often the students that I’ve seen just want someone to talk to, someone to speak English with. Sometimes it’s because they’re lonely, but usually it’s because their English is “bad.” They tell me this in words I understand and can even explain to me why they think it’s bad. They communicate why they feel they can’t communicate.

This is what bothers me: Isn’t the purpose of language to communicate? Don’t we use language to express ourselves, convey ideas and build relationships? So, if these students are doing that with me, then what about it makes their language bad?

Because there’s a standard, right? But who makes the standard? And who, then, does the standard marginalize? Well, everyone else that isn’t speaking that standard. Am I wrong?

In the last two days I’ve had two separate students ask me, “what is the right way to speak English? How can I speak that way?”

What am I supposed to say? “You should speak like me.  I’m a native English speaker, I speak it the right way”?

I have a  problem with that.

Anna, who commented on my “Language & Power” post wrote:

People tell me I am pretty good, but how good exactly is pretty good? It just does not happen that I write something without being conscious of the fact that it may sound awkward and different. I don’t speak without later on replaying what I just said and thinking – did I pronounce that word correctly? or: I think I screwed up the grammar there… (pardon my Latin). Even writing this I am thinking – do I sound awkward to ‘them’ (as in Canadian students)? Have I made any mistake? Would they want to see me for coffee and talk to me, or would that be difficult for them to understand me?
It took me a long time after coming to Canada (even though I spoke fluent English) to get a proper job. Two years almost. Was that the language? Was that the fact that I am not Canadian? I seriously don’t know…

And, my student today said, “I don’t speak in my class because of my self-esteem. I know I don’t speak the way I am supposed to.”

“the way I am supposed to…”  Says who? And why?

I understand the importance of having a standard. Actually, I change my mind. I don’t know if I do right now. Maybe I do, but I’m just really frustrated. What’s the point? Isn’t the point of language to communicate? Why do we create barriers? Why do language learners feel they can’t speak in their class? Why are they so fearful of being wrong? Why do we value certain variants of language over others? What gives language value in the first place?

Anna asked me, and now I ask you:

How many students like this will you have in your classroom? How can you help them to be flexible with their language?
No, wait!
Maybe I am just asking the wrong questions? Maybe the question is how to make ALL of your students aware of the differences and make them ‘unlearn’ ostracism?

Are we asking the right questions? What are the right questions? What are the solutions? Are there solutions? What do you think about this?


13 thoughts on “I’m worried about my grammar…

  1. Hmm it appears like your blog ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so
    I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying
    your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any points for novice blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  2. Pingback: ECS 100–> An ESL Experience « Emily's Blog

  3. I really liked this post.


    I think it’s the job of a good teacher (not educator or deliverer of curriculum) to make his/her students feel safe enough to grow. Within the field of second/third/twentieth languages this is especially important.
    Some might argue that language is a kind of abstraction that is governed by those that use it; however, this abstraction is governed by those language users (making it more concrete and less abstract). You, as a native speaker, do have wisdom on how this abstraction works. Therefore, your job as a teacher is to a) make your students feel safe and comfortable b) share the wisdom that you have as a native speaker.
    Also, remember learning is messy… Sometimes a little painful too. Be kind and listen to them, but remind them that a lot of things that are worth learning are both difficult and confusing.

  4. Hi Kailee:
    I really enjoyed reading your post. My experience with ELL students in primary grades taught me that as with all students, you have to meet them where “they are at” and try to work with them from there. I had students in grade one who could only say “washroom” and “Bart Simpson”. Of course they were very shy as it is definitely a comfort level thing. Not only is the language different, but the culture is very different as well. I have taught First Nations students in Grade one who’s first language is Ojibway and although they were born in Canada – in our local area – the are still an “outsider” because of the culture of the school and the language. In all cases, their parents want what’s best for their child within the choices that are locally available. It’s a tough fit!
    I’m on the flip side of this situation at the moment – I’m doing a teaching exchange in Australia and although Australia is an English speaking nation – culturally, there are some very real differences. We have been here nearly a year (we go home to Canada in 47 days) BUT we are still “token” Canadians. People are very welcoming and very friendly and are excited to let you experience their culture but you ARE still an outsider. I may look like any other Aussie – but as soon as I open my mouth, I am “caught out”. I don’t understand all of the dialect (although I am better now) and I appreciate the lovely culture here but I still feel like the outsider.
    It’s awkward when you don’t know the routines for gatherings etc… These errors single you out or make you FEEL like everyone’s watching. I remember we were at a party and there were sausages and coleslaw and other foods. I got a sausage (in bread – not a bun) and then put coleslaw on my plate as the salad. I went to get a fork and didn’t see any. I thought they were all gone so I asked the host, who then asked me why I wanted a fork. As all heads turned, everyone could see that the coleslaw was on my plate – not on the sausage.
    This may seem like a tiny error, but it is something that everyone else knows and it makes you feel like the one who isn’t in on the joke. For me it is easy, I am a visitor and I will return home very soon to where I know all the ins and outs of the language and the culture. This has been an amazing experience and I would never trade it for the world – but I get to snuggle back into my born and bread “Canadian-ness” soon. For new Canadians who are trying to make a life – this constant bombardment of new language and new culture and feeling like the outsider is inevitable. I think part of it is just having a stiff upper lip and a friendly smile and let your wonderful self shine through. If you are proud of who you are – not afraid of being different, you will be welcomed. . I think we, as Canadians, have to be explicit about our culture and we need to be more willing to step outside of the ease of our lives to be welcoming to our ELL’s who are trying to “be Canadian” and embrace them for who THEY are. Try learning about their culture and language. Isn’t that what we are all about?

  5. I believe it’s important for all learned of all languages to have standards. The aforementioned example of scientific language is a perfect example. In the case of the English language, it’s important for teachers to model appropriate and proper use. Since we think in language, we must be able to communicate those thoughts appropriately. Native English speakers often employ vernacular and popular language which can be confusing for ELLs, care must be taken in the classroom to ameliorate their effect on new speakers. Since English has been adopted as an international language, it’s important (again) that native speakers (especially teachers) model proper use. I also thInk that your students should try to practice their English language as much as possible in the safety of your classroom to build those skills and increase their comfort levels in communicating in a new language. Good, thought-provoking post.

  6. You should aim at developing their communication skills first.This includes trans-cultural communication. Let’s face it, English is an international language. There will always be room for correction and developing accuracy but if they have perfect grammar yet cannot communicate with a native speaker, it’s useless. Help them understand that. As an English teacher, I believe that’s crucial and your program should also reflect that. Making them aware of cultural connections is paramount. Good luck!

  7. Hey! I loved this post! As a second year teacher, I’ve been going over the same types of things in my head constantly, but related to Math/Sci. Do I teach what I teach because I value the information or because an external standard requires it be done a certain way? Often in Math we expect kids to think very procedurally. First do this, then apply the following… Maybe it’s more efficient, but are we looking for efficiency or understanding? Do we want productivity or creativity? Are we teaching calculating or math? Are we teaching language or communication? Here’s a cool video I came across related to communication barriers we often fail to recognize or account for in the classroom http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7odhYT8yzUM&feature=player_embedded It would be interesting to have your perspective on whether or not his approach could apply to Humanities. My favorite part of the video was his comment that if we give them a passion for discovery, they’ll find a way to communicate it naturally… Thanks so much for writing! Is fantastic to know we’re not alone in asking these questions:-)

  8. In light of the projection that in 2010 our province’s population will be 30 % immigrants, you raise some great questions. As a nursing faculty, I see ESL students struggle not only with English, but then the whole other language of “medicalese”, which is required to provide safe care in this English speaking culture. I don’t have any answers, but you pose provacative questions.

  9. Effective communication is all about getting across exactly what you intend to. That’s why, in my mind, it’s important for there to be “a standard”. Coming from a science background, I always find in incredibly important for students to learn and use scientific language properly so that their thoughts and ideas are clearly transmitted. What good is it for one scientist to do something and no one else understand it? I think the same goes for any language. But the idea of what constitutes “good enough” is complicated. Perhaps simply being able to function within a society that uses that language is an acceptable yard-marker. It’s an interesting idea that I think I’m going to have to grapple with further.

  10. Thank you for that post, Kailee. It actually means a lot to me, and I guess other ESL students too, to know that ‘mainstream’ Canadians see that and acknowledge this problem.
    I think there is a huge gap between being a multicultural nation and actually be inclusive of the newcomers. I mean – Canadians are really nice to me. Super kind people. But at the smallest mention of grabbing a coffee or meeting to study, they have a lot of other things to do. I was lucky to meet some fantastic Canadians (most of them above 45) who are inclusive. It is rare for me to hang out with people my age who are not second generation Canadians.
    If that is a problem for me, a person who speaks fairly decent English, what happens with people who have thick accents or make more obvious grammar/vocab mistakes? For them being with and talking to people speaking standard English is the only way t actually get better. If they don’t get better they don’t have an access to mainstream culture. If they don’t have access to mainstream culture, they don’t speak better English. Vicious circle…?
    I guess there are things you can do. Like making people more aware of this phenomenon. Or starting a campaign: invite a newcomer to coffee. Just to talk.

    I read a very good book for one of my courses that I can recommend in this topic. And it’s short 🙂 And it’s available in our library:
    Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. Toronto: Longman.

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