Monday, May 2, 2011

The Immigrant’s Speech

The following post was sent to us  by a local volunteer teacher.  I’m sure all of us who are ELT professionals have at one time or another done one-on-one tutoring.  I’m sure any feedback or suggestions we can give volunteer teachers on our site will be much appreciated.   -Betty Azar

The Immigrant’s Speech

By Skip Demuth
Volunteer English Tutor
Whidbey Island, Washington

About three months ago a man I know in the neighborhood named Joe called me because he’d heard I was an English tutor, or ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.  Not true, but some truth attaches to that rumor.

In 2004, on a whim, my partner and I enrolled in a one-month ESL training class in Ban Phe, Thailand, a couple hours southeast of Bangkok.  Based on the British Oxford system of “teaching English as a foreign language,” or TEFL, this course put us through a rigorous set of lessons and drills, practice teaching in the Thai public schools, watching video of our performances, completing reams of paper work, and sitting for lectures.  An intensive overview.

At the end of the course, we returned to Whidbey Island with Thai government certificates and resumed our lives.  I tried some classes in a church annex for Mexican immigrants I’d met, but they didn’t last.  I volunteered at the middle school, working with two students, a Columbian and a Thai who basically needed fine-tuning in pronunciation and, I guess, you would call it “cadence,” or accent.  I liked working with these fellows, and they responded. We mostly studied the Gettysburg Address, the brief but elegant eulogy for dead soldiers, tied-in to their history class.

Joe called me because his wife Kefen needed some English tutoring. A Mandarin speaker, she’d arrived nine months earlier from Nanning, in the subtropical  southern area of China.   With only rudimentary English study in China, Kefen was struggling to communicate in her new life.

Waspy Whidbey Island sorely lacks cultural diversity.  Kefen experiences a kaleidoscopic world of fast talk, slang, dropped consonants, contractions, bullshitters and mumblers.

Now I teach Kefen English once a week, building on her vocabulary, working mostly on pronunciation.  We meet at “The Commons,” a co-op coffee shop, and put up with noise and bustle because we like the ambience.  Amazingly, it works for us.

Our little class, by its nature, is difficult and intense.  But Kefen, who is in her late 30’s, is a fierce student, unintimidated by the brutal complexities of English (snake, snack, smack?).    During our hour together, we’re fully engaged, and I speak slowly, and she repeats, writing down each new word, so we can wrestle with the double and triple and ambiguous meanings wrapped in tortuous English pronunciation.

Some “consonant clusters” like Th, for example, are especially difficult for the Mandarin or Cantonese speakers, and require focus on the placement of the tongue, teeth, and lips to make sounds understandable.   With no real training, we practice this anyway, as she isolates the movements in her mouth—air releases, puffs, whiffs, and clicks.

I’m heartened that Kefen hasn’t missed a class, and never fidgets early—she clearly wants to learn, and she knows one-on-one is critical.  When I went on vacation, we found a substitute tutor.  I support her interest in DVDs of movies and music, so she will hear the vernacular the way people really talk—fast, sloppy, and almost incomprehensible to a newcomer.  Immigrants do learn this, and although children seem to learn most easily, I think she has a chance, not from my efforts, but from hers.

Last week, for fun, we studied the lyrics of Don McLean’s American Pie, and watched him sing it on YouTube.   I thought if Kefen could understand this a little bit, we’d be on the right track.  We parsed the lines……

Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm & blues

……every line with a contraction or slang or foreign concept.  But we broke it down word by word, and then listened and watched him sing it on YouTube, and when he sings the parts we studied, she starts to mouth the words, then smiles and moves her foot in time.

We’ll work on it some more next week.  Her speech and understanding are improving, and she and Joe and I are very happy about this.


Republished with author’s permission
Skip Demuth: The Immigrant’s Speech:


Comment from Ariel
May 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm

I am a trained ESL professional and have been teaching in China for more than three years. I have lots of experience in working with Chinese students to improve their pronunciation. In my Master’s program in TESOL at Michigan State University, I took an Articulatory Phonetics class which has been very helpful.

On the th sound, it is very helpful for students to understand there are two different th sounds, a light th and a heavy th. And they are formed differently in the mouth. The light th sound is not a sound made in the throat, but simply a sound made by blowing air through the front crack in the upper teeth. Yes, the tip of the tongue is lifted against the back of the upper teeth when you do this, but only very lightly. A good way to get a student to practice this sound is to go through the ordinal numbers that we use for dates of the month… fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh.

The hard th sound which we use in words such as the and this and that is voiced in the throat and is made with a quick flap of the tongue against the back of the upper teeth with more of a push against the teeth and is a fuller sound, not the sound of hissing air.

Usually when Chinese students are taught this distinction, they no longer have any problem with the th sound.

Whidbey Island is a beautiful place. I congratulate the ESL volunteer on all of the wonderful activities with her student, which I would also do.

Comment from Richard Firsten
May 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I commend you very highly for the volunteer tutoring you’ve been doing, Mr. Demuth. Good for you!

One thing that wasn’t discussed in Kefen’s story was whether or not she works on the Island. If she stays “sequestered,” that’s not a good thing. She should be out in the community, preferably working, even if just part time, to expose herself to native speakers and real-life situations. It’s through experiencing how language is used in real-life situations that most immigrants learn what they basically need to understand and communicate in their new language. In fact, by using the situations that would take place at Kefen’s job, you could create realistic scenarios to teach her vocabulary, pronunciation, and intonation.

Teaching language with songs and poems and such is useful, but nothing can substitute for real-life situations and meaningful give-and-take language in those situations.

Good luck to you and good luck to Kefen! : )

Comment from Skip Demuth
May 14, 2011 at 7:02 am

Thanks for your insights and comments, Richard.  Actually, Kefen was working so much with 
her contractor husband on a remodel that she couldn’t make it to class anymore.  I need to check in
With her.  I am now working with a Guatemalen youth who wants to read and write English.
This should be a challenge.

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