Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Advice to a Young Iranian English Teacher

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

AzarGrammar.com received a letter from a young English teacher in Iran who asked for advice on how to continue his English and teaching studies in a native-English speaking country such as the US. Below is my response to him (the name has been changed).

Dear Ibrahim,

This letter is in response to your email to the AzarGrammar.com site that asks about studying abroad, particularly in the US, to become a better English teacher.

There are two main styles of writing in American English: One that starts at the beginning and works logically towards the end, and one that starts with the conclusion and then fills in the background explanation. This answer will follow the latter style.

No, I’m sorry to say, I don’t have any good advice for you on how to get to the U.S. Even if the entire question of finances—air ticket, rent for an apartment, food, utilities, books, tuition, and so on—were not an issue, a visa is. This is not an easy time for people from your country to travel to mine, any more than it is for people from my country to travel to yours. In particular, it is difficult, if not downright impossible, for young, single men from many countries to get non-immigrant visas to the US. It’s beyond the scope of this letter for me to argue whether that is right or wrong, although I will say that I remember to this day the frustration I felt when my fiancé was not allowed into the US on a tourist visa so that we could marry here (instead, we married abroad).

At the same time, though, I do have a more hopeful answer for you, which is that it absolutely is possible to be an excellent user of English and an excellent teacher of English without ever visiting the US or England or any other native English-speaking country. Two of my favorite authors, Joseph Conrad from Poland and Ved Mehta from India, learned English as adults, and largely before they ever visited another country.

I’ve personally met enthusiastic and talented groups of teachers in countries such as Ukraine, Libya, and Algeria who had excellent English language skills, as well as excellent teaching skills, who had never left their own country before or met a native speaker of English before me. As a non-native speaker, in fact, you are a powerful and inspiring model for your students. You might be interested in the story of one of the AzarGrammar.com bloggers, who is a non-native speaker of English from Poland, but teaches English at a U.S. university. 

Developing strong English and teaching skills is easier than it has ever been, thanks to improved mail services and, of course, the Internet, which makes it possible not only to read and write in English but to listen extensively to radio shows, news programs, and songs. Groups of English teachers communicate all over the world through sites such as the ones below. You can read articles about the English language and about specific classroom teaching issues. You can ask questions of other teachers and answer their questions, discuss topics, and share classroom stories and teaching techniques. You can download free resources to use in class. You can match your students to keypals or more traditional penpals in other countries so that they can practice their English as well. You can find individual teachers with whom you feel a personal connection and develop an email relationship.

Here are a few of my favorite sites: 

  • Dave’s ESL Cafe One of the classics. Active message boards and free resources. Check out the teacher forums.   
  • ELT News  This is a Japanese site (don’t worry, written all in English!). Even though Japan is not Iran, the issues that teachers face have a lot in common, and I think the site has interesting articles, interviews, reviews, and discussions. Participants from other countries are more than welcome.  
  • One Stop English  This site is run by a publisher in the UK, Macmillan, but has a lot of interesting articles and resources for both students and teachers.  
  • On Facebook, check out the page of my friends Chuck Sandy and Curtis Kelly. They raise a lot of interesting questions about the nature of teaching and learning, and there are active discussions among teachers there.  
  • and, of course, this site, AzarGrammar.com. You can comment, for instance, on any of the blogs posted here, and quite possibly get a personal response from the author of the blog.   
  • < /http:>Also check out the Grammar Q&A; Newsgroup on the Azar Grammar Exchange where Rachel Spack Koch and Richard Firsten answer questions about English grammar and usage.  

Actually, it turns out that I’m going to use a blended genre here for the organization of my letter. While I started with an answer to your question, I’m going to end with a more important conclusion.

As I noted, this is not an easy time between our two countries; and in fact, it’s not an easy time for many countries in the world. Now, more than ever before, it’s crucial for people to study languages other than their own. Would Americans be less afraid of Iranians if more of us studied Farsi in school? I believe so. Language is an essential clue to how people think and experience the world and express their thoughts and emotions. It’s not a question of adapting to another culture, or being overcome by a different system, but of understanding other ways.

I know it’s frustrating to sit in your home or your classroom and feel overwhelmed by world events that it seems you can’t control or even question. However, I really believe that there is nothing better that you, Ibrahim, can do to promote world peace than to teach your classes with sincerity and love. You could do this in a math, science, or history class too, but language touches on our contemporary world and lives in such deep and wide ways that I think you will have even more impact in this way.

You have a tremendous power to affect and change lives. Please see each obstacle that you face as a challenge and not a barrier. And welcome to the world of language teachers. We are so glad to have you!

Best wishes,
Dorothy Zemach


    Comment from Ismael Tohari
    October 27, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    "although I will say that I remember to this day the frustration I felt when my fiancé was not allowed into the US on a tourist visa so that we could marry here (instead, we married abroad)."

    May I ask what your fiance's nationality is?

    Comment from Dorothy Zemach
    October 29, 2009 at 8:13 am

    He was (and still is) Australian. Married 19 years now, so I'm glad the visa thing didn't make him give up on me.

    Comment from Ismael Tohari
    October 29, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Do you mean that Australians aren't allowed to enter the U.S?

    Comment from Dorothy Zemach
    October 29, 2009 at 9:47 am

    At least at the time we tried (1991), Australians needed a tourist visa to enter. I don't know if that has changed. When visas are required, it's at the discretion of the consular officer sitting in front of you at the embassy. I can't think of any reason my husband would have been denied, especially with an offer of full financial guaranty and an onward ticket from my father, but… so it goes.

    I've just come back from Libya, where I was asked many times why it isn't easier for Libyans to get visas to the US. However, Libyans CAN (and do) get tourist and student visas to the US, whereas Americans cannot get tourist or student visas to Libya. And from a few days ago, Canadians were no longer allowed to enter Libya. It's complicated all over the world.

    Comment from Ismael Tohari
    October 30, 2009 at 4:31 am

    "At least at the time we tried (1991), Australians needed a tourist visa to enter."

    1. Do you mean that Australians needed no tourist visas at all before? What visas would they use to enter the US then?

    2. What is/are the reason(s) behind not allowing Australians to enter the US?

    Comment from Dorothy Zemach
    October 30, 2009 at 7:19 am

    I only know the law at the time we tried. Australians are certainly allowed to enter the US. But any time a visa is required, whether that visa is issued is determined by the consular office that issues visas.

    If you have more questions about this, you should contact the American Embassy or Consulate nearest you. I'm not a consular employee, so I'm no expert on the rules; and laws change all the time as the two countries in question change their agreements.

    Comment from Ismael Tohari
    October 30, 2009 at 10:21 am


    But I still have this question:

    Why wasn't your fiancé allowed into the US on a tourist visa?

    Comment from Anonymous
    October 31, 2009 at 8:25 am

    I think it is more than just showing a way of help, in deed ,it is a political reply…could be more positive and objective…

    Comment from Peggy Bangham
    October 31, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Dorothy, what a wonderful letter to a new English teacher. I, too, have met great teachers and English speakers who have never traveled to a land where the language is spoken. I agree, also, with your statement about learning languages as a way to understand other cultures. There are SO many conflicts in the world that are caused by simply not understanding another person's point of view. If everyone learned another language and culture, I know the world would be a better place. Keep it up, girl, you are doing a fantastic job out there.

    PS Funny story about Australians and visas. I lived in Tonga for a couple of years – and Australia was very close. I traveled there at least 3 or 4 times, and each time was just issued a one visit tourist visa for a limited number of days. My mother came to visit once from Washington DC area, and she got a one year multiple entry visa that she only used the one time. Go figure. Glad you and your hubby worked it out anyway.

    Comment from monica
    January 21, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Nice and informative article. Thanks for sharing it.



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