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
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: