Rike Orion – Adventures in ESL

Just because you can do something, does that mean you can teach it? Ever had a professor who you knew was brilliant, but was nevertheless feebly inarticulate when it came to helping you understand why the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality was so freaking important?

Doing is one skill, and teaching is another, and the intersection of the two is disappointingly rare.

Happily, my friend Alan Kennedy, who has written here before about his adventures in the music industry, is talented at both doing and explaining. He’s here this week to talk about his fascinating new window on the world. He generally steers clear of the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality, but you just might learn something useful about Jennifer Aniston.


Rike Orion — Adventures in ESL

by Alan Kennedy

When I tell people that my job is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults, I often get one of two follow-up questions. One is fair, and one gets my hackles up.

  1. Do you have to speak students’ native language, whatever it is, in order to teach them? (fair enough, and no.)
  2. That can’t be too hard – if you speak English, then you can teach someone else to speak it, right? (no! NO! wrong!)

For the first, I explain that in my instruction I use only English, and that works fine – and is in fact necessary for classes like the ones I teach, filled with people from different language backgrounds. I am basically building from what they already know about using English. (The exception is Spanish – which I do speak – and I will use this with Spanish speaking students one-on-one, but not in a class with students from other backgrounds.)

For the second, I explain that any good ESL teacher needs to understand the patterns of English grammar, pronunciation and lexicon (such as they are). As much as possible, English learners want to reduce the feeling that they’re making a stab in the dark every time they open their mouths. They want to know why we say things the way we do. After all, they’d rather learn to fish (verb!) than get a fish (noun!). Why, for example, do we say “so many apples” but “so much fruit” ? “I have few friends” is a lament, but “I have a few friends” is a statement of fact. Think about learning English for the first time – wouldn’t that be confusing? Why is “although she works hard, she’s poor” O.K., but not “although her hard work, she’s poor”? What are the rules? In this job, you gotta know.

So…how did I get here? The truth is, after 13 years in the music industry (see my previous post here on Star Chamber) I needed to do something new professionally. A few months of volunteer work practicing English with immigrants and foreign visitors sent me in this new direction. Last year I decided to get my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) Certificate from Columbia University. My life became a blur of Noam Chomsky theories, unstressed syllables with the schwa sound, modal perfects, and non-restrictive adjective clauses. Having completed that taxing but genuinely rewarding process, I now find myself a New York State-certified language teacher. These days I teach at a private school for adult students in New York City, and also do private tutoring.

Cultural differences are often put under the microscope in this work – which is actually a side of it I love – yielding professional close calls as often as funny anecdotes.

Israelis are known for a no-nonsense style, and I had a tutoring student from Israel whose manner took real getting used to. When I would ask her standard ESL teacher questions like “do you know how to pronounce this?” or “do you know what this word means” she would shoot back “of course!” in a testy, almost offended way. I wanted to protest “you asked me, and pay me, to improve your English! What’s with the attitude?”. More than 50% of the time she was wrong, too. At first I was really taken aback by this until I realized that I just needed to translate “of course! (brusquely)” into “yes I think so”, culturally converting it to my American sensibility. This worked, actually, and the truth is she was a lovely woman. (Her biggest challenge: making the “H” sound.)

Once during an in-class discussion about inventions I innocently mentioned the invention of the airplane by the Wright Brothers. “Oh no!” shouted a Brazilian student from the back of the class. “A Brazilian invented the airplane! Santos-Dumont! Americans always pretending was the Wright Brothers, but your President Cleenton finally he admeet was Santos Dumont when he come to Brazil!” she said, triumphantly. It was a true point of pride with her, and I had no idea what she was talking about. Turns out this little historical debate, not commonly known by most Americans, is known to all Brazilians. Who knew?

I had a student from Yemen who called me “meester” and could not bring himself to call me “Alan”, even though I reminded him that this was the custom in my class and I found “mister” overly formal. “I cannot call you that, meester” he finally said. “It is too formal for you but feels just right for me, so please.” At that I let it go, feeling somewhat chastened.

I once asked if anyone could explain the phrase “survival of the fittest”, and a Muslim student from Turkey explained Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as well as he could, adding “but this is not true and I do not believe it” at the end. I had two Japanese students in the front of the class, and I watched their jaws drop in unison at this last statement – they looked to me to comment or express surprise, which I was reluctant to do. My view is that I am a language teacher and it is not my role to grandstand, however much I may want to. The point is to teach language, not disseminate my personal worldview. Instead, I used this timeworn tactic:

“Does anyone in the class have a different opinion?”

And with that, one of the Japanese students was off. As politely as he could, he used every shred of his English skills to bring up “science”, “proof”, “the Galapagos”, and my favorite part – “how you think giraffe have long head?”

Although I teach the full gamut – grammar, vocabulary, idiomatic speech, and listening/speaking/reading/writing skills – I am most interested in pronunciation and accent issues. At Columbia, the point was made from time to time that having a foreign accent in itself is not necessarily a problem. The only problem, say progressive ESL educators, is intelligibility. If a Japanese student is trying to say “arrive” and I hear “alive”, this is confusing. If a Mexican student is trying to say “I live here” and I hear “I leave here”, it could cause a misunderstanding. But a Russian student saying “nuthink” instead of “nothing” will not cause intelligibility problems and this does not necessarily need to be “fixed”. These same educators sometimes prefer terms like accent modification to the more traditional accent reduction. I therefore try to focus on intelligibility with the lower-level speakers, as a necessary first step. More advanced students often tell me they want less of an accent, and so I try to help them as well.

I have learned to expect certain pronunciation difficulties from different language- speaker groups, and, I hope, how to help students attempt to get past them. All stereotypes aside, many Asian language speakers have real trouble with our “L” and “R”. In Japanese and Korean, for example, there is one consonant which falls somewhere in between these two sounds and it is only that sound with their mouths have been “used to” since childhood. I worked with a Japanese woman whose misfortune it was to work at a hair salon called “Barry and Valerie”. She said she dreaded being asked where she worked, because she knew she was in for painstaking few minutes of frustration and misunderstanding. I felt very “Henry Higgins” as I worked with her over and over to touch the top of the inside of the roof of her widened mouth with her tongue for “LLLLL”, and then keep the tongue off the top and round the mouth for “RRRRR” (“like a lion”, I would say. “Rike Orion” she would respond, solemnly.). After a few weeks she was much better, but she always needed to take a beat to psych herself up for it before going full throttle with “Bar-r-r-y and Val-l-l-er-r-rie!”

Many Korean speakers add an extra syllable to words that end in the “j” sound, so that “language” becomes “language-y”; judge is “judge-y” and so on. I have even (I think) coined a name for this – the “Korean Extra Syllable”, and I use this term with my students as if I got it out of a book, and they accept it as such. It is so common with my Korean students that I wince when they are reading aloud and I see one of these words coming – almost like oncoming traffic. If we get to “courage”, or “garbage” or “pledge” and I don’t hear the extra syllable, I am relieved, and happy for the student. Tiny, seemingly inconsequential dramas like this have become my new professional life.

Very often, Spanish speakers will apply the rapid, regular rhythms of Spanish to their English, giving it the sort of propulsive, staccato feel which is familiar to many Americans. Spanish is a syllable-timed language – each syllable gets the same “beat” unlike English, in which some syllables are stressed a lot, some stressed less, and some “reduced” (a stress-timed language). A consequence of this is that when Latin American students speak in class, I and the fellow Latinoamericanos understand them, but the others do not. This yields a somewhat comical pattern:

  1. Student A says something very fast and with a Spanish rhythm, i.e. “eye-theenk-ees-goood-toe-haff-ang-oh-peeng-yon-aboudees”
  2. Every other student turns to look at me, beseechingly.
  3. I reply to Student A: “you think it’s good to have an opinion about this?”
  4. “Jays” says Student A.
  5. Other students nod in understanding.

Sometimes I am learning as much as the students are – to wit an exercise on idioms using color words. I had to explain “a black eye” to a class, at which point each student in turn told me that in their language they said “a blue eye”, “a grey eye”, “a purple eye”, etc. for the same phenomenon.

During a speaking exercise about cities, towns and villages, a woman from Mali told me “these are not just English words, these are English ideas. You would not call the capital of my country a city, because it has no tall buildings, but to me it is like a city. Sometimes, for Africa, the English words don’t match the ideas.” This really gave me and the rest of the class pause, we all knew what she meant. It was a simple insight, but an important one.
I asked one student from India what her native language was. “Telugu” she replied. Privately, dismissively, I imagined this to be some small dialect of Hindi spoken by her and her family. A quick check on the web revealed it to be one of the world’s top 20 most spoken languages, with about 70 million speakers. Suddenly, I was the provincial.

For me, the funniest anecdotes from my work are often the instances for which no training prepares you. One day we came across the idiom “All-American girl” in one of our readings. The students weren’t familiar with that one, so I asked them to guess the meaning. One guess was “white”. Another was “patriotic”. I explained that it was more the idea of a wholesome, attractive “girl-next-door” type (another idiom requiring explanation).

“Like Jennifer Aniston?” posited a female student from Korea, wanting a concrete example.

“Well, yes. I guess she could be a sort of all-American girl, sure” I replied.

The student’s hand flew up with a follow-up question. She intoned slowly, emphasizing her accent, eyes dead serious. “Why did Brad Pitt break up with Jennifer Aniston?”.

Suddenly I had the attention of the whole class, as, pens poised, they awaited teacher’s wisdom. I struggled for an adequate answer. (“I have no idea!” and “this is a language class!” both came to mind.) What I settled on was “Um…I think it had something to do with Angelina Jolie?”

“Mmm…Angelina Jolie” wafted up from the back of the class as two male students high-fived each other. The Korean student having nodded her acceptance of this answer, we resumed to business of American English idioms.

And this, for now, is my job. The bottom line (idiom) about my teaching (gerund), to sum it up (phrasal verb), honestly (don’t pronounce the “h”!), is that it’s a good gig (metaphor), and it’s nice work if you can get it (saying).

9 thoughts on “Rike Orion – Adventures in ESL”

  1. As a foreign student (Swedish) at Greenwich High School at the beginning of the 80s, I am proud to say that I was one of Alan’s first teaching subjects. Alan, who was one of my best friends in high school, struggled relentlessly with my “accent reduction”. For a Swedish native, this primarily concern knowing when the s is sibilant and to pronounce certain vowels, like a, more broadly than others and — above all — learning to suppress the singsong Scandinavian diction to the English monotone. Alan was fantastic at this already in his teens.

    He has now written a wonderfully impassionate and funny piece about his new profession. I feel that Alan has finally — after a 20 year detour — found his calling. Alan: keep up the good work and hopefully a full-length book will eventually come out of this!

    Stockholm 24 February 2006

    Carl Svernlov

  2. I really enjoyed this story. A friend of mine forwarded this link becasue I spent many years overseas as a technical trainer, and have many stories like the ones Alan tells. Language always used to seem like a boring school subject, but articles like this show us a glimpse into how language is related to so many big cultural and social issues. I’d love to see a book on this.

  3. Most people who are at least bilingual can nod and smile, knowing ourselves well the perils of another language, of mistranslating, or of using words which are the same but mean drastically different things (occasionally, even completely oppposite). Why use this word, when this other ones makes more sense? Because that is the expression, you can’t change it. Allright, where does it come from, what is its history? Blank look. The history of expressions is intrically linked to many parts of world history and cultures, clashes and conquests, rivalries and friendships. English, like any other language, is indeed Tough Stuff, but ultimately rewarding as you learn more and more languages and your mind just broadens with different ways of thinking.

  4. I too am utterly fascinated and amazed by English’s inefficiencies, and how easily meaning can slip between linguistic cracks as cultures intermingle. I recall a Chinese student of mine who was genuinely upset that we could travel “on a train”, “in a train”, or simply “by train”. Chinese simply does away with those pesky prepositions altogether.

    Of course it’s no suprise that the author and I share a passion for language. We share some DNA as well. So I’ll refrain from expressing how wonderfully insightful and engaging his piece is. (there’s some’praeteritio’ for you…!)

  5. I once worked with a guy from Taiwan who kept trying to convince me how simple Chinese was. Not just prepositions, but gender and tense can magically vanish… I kept trying to point out how hopelessly complicated it was from my point of view, what with the multitude of characters and tones. There seems to be a “conservation of complexity” in languages. English has crazy prepositions, but at least it doesn’t have tones. Is there a language out there that’s complicated in a every dimension at once?

  6. It is natural to wonder why the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality is so “freaking important,” and a good answer took me 300 pretty careful pages to explain. Still, if you want it in a nutshell, my belief after about 25 years of contemplation is that it is important because it is the simplest result that “tells us something that may not be trivial about an expectation of a product.” Naturally, to explain that might take me — say — 299 pages. Cheers.

  7. Great piece! I wish more of my colleagues in journalism observed language and life with this kind of acuity, and had the same knack for spinning a yarn.

    On a more personal note, I now understand how seemingly disparate qualities, such as Alan’s encyclopaedic memory of Bruce Springteen lyrics and his dead-on impressions of each and every one of our college friends, were vocational building blocks. Studying Noam Chomsky is all well and good, but that kind of ear is irreplaceable.

    How about that book that another reader suggests above?

  8. Teaching is a seperate skill in itself. I think some of the best teachers are the ones who have mastered a skill with no natural talent. These are the people who can relate the best to beginners.

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