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?
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?