The English Metamorphosis of ESL Students and Me

By Carly Vogelsang

As a child I would create limited run newspapers with my crayons providing the illustrations and stories depicting the hard hitting news of the day for my readers, like why I cut my Barbie’s hair—she was in the witness protection program after witnessing a pink corvette hit and run.  I handed the newspapers out to my family and even my dog.  I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of a love affair with language; not steamy or seedy but the comforting love felt when your mom puts your favorite blanket in the dryer right before bedtime so it’s warm and inviting.  Language has always been my warm blanket.  When it was time to finally graduate college I searched for an occupation, a trade that would allow me to share my blanket with others.  In my quest, I found teaching English to speakers of other languages.

I’m not sure that I could be labeled a religious person, since I haven’t been to church since I could drive myself out of the parking lot, but I felt a deep awakening upon discovering the TESOL field.  A feeling Joel Olstein or Billy Graham might define as a spiritual calling, directed me to follow a path to TESOL.  With TESOL I could share the language I’ve loved for so long with people who needed it whether they were starting over, like refugees in a new country, or just beginning, like college students studying abroad.

My first teaching experience incorporated the latter, college students studying abroad, but not yet ready to be mainstreamed into the university.  Intensive English Programs never showed up on my radar, until I worked in one where students treat the IEP like a pre-college obstacle course.  But since the schedule reminded me of high school, 9 a.m. to noon five days a week and 1 p.m. to 3.30 four days a week, I empathized as the intense teaching schedule wore me down too. 

Since I’ve started working in an IEP and socializing and networking with other IEP professionals, I’ve learned that many IEP instructors and programs are marginalized by their universities—like the university’s awkward out of state cousin visiting over the summer, who Mom makes you hang out with.  I also learned that most new IEP instructors are given no more training than a semester of classes at the graduate level, a textbook, a teacher’s edition (if I was lucky), and a CD with a pat on the back, a thumbs up, and good luck wishes.

This is how I entered my first class: a two hour, five times a week low-intermediate level speaking and listening class of 18 students, mostly Chinese with a sprinkling of kids from Saudi Arabia and Japan.  They terrified me, and as I spoke so quickly in the beginning, I imagine the feeling was mutual.  My first hurdle was to call roll.  The Chinese students chose American names, but not the names I expected form teenagers and young twenty-somethings like Bella or Brittany or Adam or Matt, but instead antiquated names like Connie, Amos, Rex.  Names as far removed from the students as Pierre or Bambi and at the same time reminding me of an old Saturday morning cartoon with a forced formality.  I wondered if this represented the students’ disassociation with English as it illustrated how far removed they were from the language.  I’ve also wondered if the students felt like they were trading in their identities for an American name.  I wondered: How much are they invested in their name?  How much am I invested in mine?  Does changing their names, names they’ve used all their lives further separate them personally from English?  I never developed an answer, but I was impressed with the students who refused to Americanize their names.  Later when I taught a mainstream composition class I was tempted to encourage my international students going by names like Summer, Sophia, or Tony to take back ownership of their names and identities.  That is until I had to call on Rajeshwori whose name I’m pretty sure I am still butchering, despite my best phonetic efforts.   

My next challenge was stripping my language of idioms—surprisingly impossible.  When I studied French in high school I remembered learning idioms, like appealer un chat un chat or to call a cat a cat, a phrase my teacher equated to calling a spade a spade.  So of course I took this limited experience and used it to define all idioms as sayings that no normal, rational, modern person actually used in conversation.  I thought English idioms only included phrases like “out of sight”, “the bee’s knees”, or “that’s hot.”  Yet in class, in front of sometimes 20 eyes, sometimes 30, occasionally 36 eyes, I found myself looking back at blank canvases, who had no clue what I was attempting to express. 

I discovered this several classes into my teaching experience after a lovely young lady, Marie, arrived to class early one day.  New to teaching, and new to teaching in an IEP, I was not prepared for, nor did I want to accept—at first, the responsibility that accompanies taking control of a class.  I quickly learned sometimes students have questions that don’t relate to class, as Marie came to me one morning with such a question in hand.  Marie was naturally quiet, but worked the hardest to participate in an English voice that almost matched the volume and strength of her Chinese voice—a remarkable and rarely encountered feat.  She came to me and from underneath her perfectly blunt, straight bangs and hipster glasses asked me if I could help her with a problem.  Marie proceeded to tell me about her roommate, a girl with a boyfriend.  A problem because Marie’s room now came with a boy, not part of the American adventure she was wanting to have at that moment.

I listened carefully, another TESOL skill I didn’t know I would need and had to learn quickly, as she described the situation.  Her roommate’s boyfriend spent a lot of time in their room and it made Marie uncomfortable.  She saw things and heard things in her brief orientation to college life that she was not prepared to see or hear.  At first, I was flustered.  I wasn’t sure if Marie was trying to tell me that her roommate was having sex, but I didn’t really want to know either.  I told Marie;

“Having problems with your roommate isn’t a big deal.  It can easily be fixed, no problem.  Actually, it’s very common for students to switch roommates, very American.  I had an issue with my roommate when I was in college and had to switch… trade rooms.” 

I was working very hard to speak clearly, so I could receive those lights of recognition and comprehension from behind her glasses. 

“It’s your room too.  You should be comfortable there.  You should be able to just hang out if you want.”

And I lost them.  I lost those shining pearls of light that become so valuable when teaching English as a Second Language, the lights of understanding signifying language intake.

I went through my carefully crafted spiel again, doing a comprehension check with each part: good, good, good, until “hanging out.”  That’s where I lost her.  That is also when I realized hanging out is an idiom and that I use idioms all the time.  Second nature to my language use, I hadn’t even recognized my use of idioms.  That morning began one of the class’s favorite activities: the idiom board.  When class started, I asked the rest of the students if they had heard or knew the phrase hanging out as in “I’m hanging out with my friends.”  No one raised their hand.  For a second I felt defeated; not because they didn’t understand this one phrase, this one term, but because I feared how many phrases and terms had they not understood over the last few classes.  I had never felt so ignorant, as I looked at my students and realized I may have been talking only to myself every class period.

I swallowed – swallowed my disappointment, and took a deep breath to try and restore my pluckiness.  The English language is always changing.  I would eventually watch my students change as they learned to conquer their new environment through their new language.  And thus I would treat my class and my teaching as a constantly adapting English domain.  I explained the idiom hanging out to my students.  I explained that is was an idiom, so common I hadn’t even recognized it as an idiom.  I scanned their faces, looking for any sign of lost respect, lost authority, or just a state of being lost.  I found nothing, but absorption.  From that class period on, I encouraged students to stop me if I said anything confusing or alien to them.  I would write such phrases on the left side of the chalkboard and before our class break or before class was over, I would address every idiom on our idiom board.

The beautiful thing about the English language blanket is that it will stretch to encompass all who need it, who use it, who ply it to their needs.  Throughout my time working with international students in the IEP I watched them shift both the language and themselves underneath their new language power.  I watched students become more assertive and more comfortable.  I watched a Saudi student pass a written driver’s license exam in English, after a few attempts and a number of interesting conversations with some chatty local police officers.  I watched students grasp the concept and practice of the thesis statement after bewilderment and struggles.  I watched and listened as students asked each other to hang out on the weekends.