TEACHING ESL By Pierre Beemans (Article)

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Pierre Beemans

One of the things about living overseas is that you are able to see your country through slightly different lenses when you return – sometimes more depth of field, sometimes more peripheral vision, and some times with less (or perhaps just different) distortion. In our case, when we returned from India after a couple of years away, I was struck by how much the demography of Ottawa had changed.

Well, actually, not so much that it had changed while we were away as that I hadn’t really noticed the changes before. I had lived and worked – and thought about Canada – for the previous 30 years in a world of people who for the most part looked just like me, even though CIDA and IDRC were probably among the more multicultural agencies in government. When Teresa and I spoke on the street in her Spanish mother tongue, we assumed that no one overhearing was likely to understand. Of course I knew that Canada was an immigrant country (my own father had come from Belgium), but like most people of my generation I though of immigration in European terms.

Back in Ottawa, retired and free to move around the city during other people’s working hours, it now seemed that I was hearing as much Tamil, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish, Farsi and Urdu as I was English and French. Downtown streets which used to be vacant outside lunch hour bustled with East Africans, Central Americans and South Asians. The buses were half-filled with serious young Chinese and cheerful Caribbeans. Blue-jeaned hijabi-ed young girls chattered outside the doors of high schools, and we heard every conceivable accent of Spanish when we walked through the malls. The coin finally dropped: multiculturalism was no longer a public policy issue or a topic for media pundits on windy CBC programs – it was the new face of Canada, it was an increasingly non-European face, and I didn’t understand it – let alone feel part of it.

At that point, I seemed to have two alternatives: retreat into a social cocoon and grumble about (or at best, ignore) the fact that Canada was no longer the country I had grown up in and never would be again, or find some way to learn more about these new communities, to connect with them and to feel a positive part of the new Canada that is emerging.

I had taught high school in Montreal for a few years back in the 1960s before getting into international work, and I loved the dynamics of a classroom. I also loved the English language, so simple yet complex, elegant yet rowdy. It occurred to me that if we were to minimize the stresses of ‘growing a new Canadian culture’, one of the key factors would be the ability of new immigrant communities to communicate effectively with the already established ones. Whence the importance of helping new arrivals to master English (or French) as quickly as possible, and to learn as much as possible about the society and culture they have chosen to join. It seemed to me that teaching English to newcomers was the window I was looking for. It took decades for the Irish to feel like ‘real Canadians’ and to be accepted as such by the English of Upper Ontario when the first massive waves of immigration began in the mid-1800's. Similarly for the Ukrainians at the beginning of the 20th century, the Italians, Greeks and Portuguese later on, etc. With each new group, the notion of what it is to be a Canadian and what is our way of life shifted: new spices were added to the bland English stew, new morsels and herbs.

From the personal experience of having an immigrant father and of hearing from friends about the less picturesque sides of the immigrant Italian, Jewish, Greek and East European enclaves of Montreal in the 1950's and 60's, I knew that it was never a painless process. The ‘established’ Canadians of the day often felt confused by and superior to the newcomers, who felt equally confused and alienated. There was discrimination, of course – some of it unpleasant enough to qualify as racism. We shouldn’t forget the anti-Jewish riot at the Christie Pits in Toronto in 1940 and the ‘Paki-bashing’ episodes of the 1970's.

I remember some of my friends’ parents telling me that sometimes the loneliness and alienation were even worse: The mother who couldn’t speak English because she lived in an Italian enclave and spent all day looking after her family, but her teen-age children couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to her in her native Sicilian because ‘they were Canadians now’. The humiliation of skilled workers and professionals turned down for job after job because “I’m sorry, but your English isn’t good enough....” Eventually almost all of them picked up English, on their own, at work, or from their children, and the next generations went on from there. But there was a human and social cost in terms of lives and opportunities, and newcomers to Canada in the 21st century shouldn’t have to spend those ‘wasted decades’ learning enough English to feel fully part of their new country.

What’s Out There?

Fortunately, there is now in place a multitude of language training programs supported by federal and provincial governments, and delivered by schools boards, universities and colleges, churches, community centres, community organizations and commercial language schools, with a special infrastructure to assist both new arrivals and longer-term residents in Canada who want to learn or improve their English. English as a Second Language (ESL) has become a thriving business and Teaching ESL (TESL) is now a recognized professional field.

ESL programs seem to fall into one of four basic categories: 

1. Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC): This is a federally funded initiative for people in their first year or so as landed immigrants or refugees, aimed at providing them with functional language skills and familiarity with living in their new country. The basic language skills (reading, writing, listening/speaking and grammar) are built around a series of themes relating to life in Canada (e.g., health, education, housing, government, shopping and banking, finding a job, etc.). The program has been carefully constructed by the government and has five levels, with benchmarks that have to be met in order to move up to the next level. In Level 1 people will have no English whatsover, by the time they finish the fifth, they should have strong enough language skills to get by in day-to-day living. During their first year in Canada, newcomers qualify for federal grants: as LINC is a full-time program, most students aren’t able to hold down a regular job. Federal funding administration varies by province: in Ontario it is administered by the provincial government, which in turn contract agencies (school boards, colleges, NGOs, commercial schools, etc.) to deliver the programs. There is strong competition among agencies for LINC contracts and close monitoring by the province, factors which tend to ensure that quality remains high..

2. ‘Institutional’ ESL courses: This is my catch-all title for programs that are designed and operated by school boards, universities and colleges, commercial schools, etc.. with regular curricula, progression through levels, tests and reports, etc. and, generally, a more subject-oriented structure than LINC. Students may range from school age (within the school board framework) to adults, and may be recent arrivals, landed immigrants, or Canadian citizens who have been here for 10-15 years but have never mastered English.. ESL students in post-secondary institutions may also qualify for financial assistance through various channels (notably the Ontario Student Bursary program), but many students are self-financed, or paid for by employers. In primary and secondary schools, of course, there is no cost to students as the financing is absorbed by the school boards.

At Algonquin College, where I taught, there are eight levels in the ‘regular’ ESL program. By the end of the eighth, students are considered competent to proceed into any of Algonquin’s professional diploma programs or to university studies. (Most universities, however, will insist that non-native speakers pass a Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or an equivalent English-proficiency test to qualify for admission, unless the student has graduated from one of their own ESL programs.)

3. ‘International’ programs: These cater to fee-paying persons who come to Canada specifically to learn English, usually for 3-12 months under student visas, because of the benefits of being in an English-speaking environment. They are generally young – sometimes high school graduates sent by their families to get their English up to the level of the TOEFL exam they will need to pass to get into college in the States or Canada, sometimes people who need stronger English skills to get ahead in their jobs back home. The curriculum generally follows the lines of ‘regular’ ESL programs, perhaps with greater emphasis on speaking and writing, especially for those who are going to pursue their studies in English.

Fees for international students are generally higher, so they are a lucrative source for any language school. Some schools set up home-stay programs for students who want to live in Canadian families, universities and colleges will use them to fill up residences during the summer months, and most schools will include visits to popular tourist sites. Big sources of international students include China, Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela, Some institutions have gone further and have set up ESL operations overseas, especially in China and the Middle East.

4. Volunteer programs: Most of these tend to be small community-based activities carried out by generous people from civic-minded church groups and NGOs. Their fees, if any, are minimal – enough to cover the cost of a few teaching supplies or the rent of a room in the church basement or community centre a couple of evenings a week or a Saturday morning.. Courses are not formally structured, but often tailored to meet the needs and interests of the students – frequently for conversational English practice. These may range from newcomers to Canada supplementing their courses in formal language schools to stay-at-home mothers who can only muster a few hours a week to slip away from family responsibilities, to elderly people who have been in Canada for decades but never got around to learning English. The teachers are volunteers who don’t get paid, but feel more than amply rewarded by the warmth and appreciation of their students.

Teaching ESL

So, you say, nothing to it. Sounds interesting, I’ve got some free time on my hands, and I speak English. All I have to do is stand up and teach it to people who don’t.

Well, not quite. To begin with, even if you were a teacher at some point in your past, teaching English to non-native speakers, especially adults, is a whole other business than teaching it to high school kids who have grown up in the language. Take it from me, I’ve done both. There are pros and cons.

To begin with, adult learners are infinitely more motivated than teen-agers: they know how important this new language is to them, they want to master it, and they are mature enough to focus their energies and attention. They also don’t have the hormonal and attitudinal problems of highschoolers. They are often well-educated and fluent in several other languages, but even if they are not, they are mature, experienced, patient and sociable. It makes them great people to work with and to learn from.

On the other hand, the older a person is, the harder it usually is to learn a new language. The mind gets fixed in the grammatical structures, sound patterns, and cultural framework of the mother tongue. Adults are often accustomed to a different, more formal style of classroom learning and relating to a teacher than the interactive, interpersonal approach that most ESL schools use. Some won’t ever ask questions, for example, because they don’t want to appear ignorant or, where they come from, it is seen as impertinent to ‘challenge’ a teacher. Some think that if they can just memorize enough vocabulary and grammatical rules, they will have mastered the language (for those of my generation, think of the way we were taught Latin). Others are obsessed by marks and mistakes: they are so mortified by the prospect of getting low marks on an assignment or ‘failing a test’ that they have their children do their exercises for them, or copy out the answers from the back of the book (so much so that in LINC, we don’t give marks on papers, merely corrections and comments).

Adults carry different personal baggage than adolescents, as we all know: family responsibilities that may include elderly parents as well as children, perhaps traumatic experiences in getting to Canada, the stresses of being a stranger in a strange land unfamiliar with the formal and informal rules of daily life, loneliness – often spouses (usually husbands) are still back in the home country, and always, always, the anxiety of learning English well enough to be able to find a job quickly – especially one related to the skills and position one had in one’s homeland. Grammar, which most native English speakers detest (and which Canadian students today barely seem exposed to), is commonly the preferred subject of ESL learners. They often were taught their own language in the grammar-based rote-learning approach that was discarded in Canada a generation or two ago. Faced with the seeming chaos of spoken English, they draw hope from the clarity and regularity of grammatical rules for the formation and use of verb tenses, articles, gerunds and participles, prepositions and conjunctions. If only speaking and writing were as straightforward as those nice grammar exercises at the end of each unit! Yet it is speaking and writing that they all want most to master: the keys to getting a job, university admission, connecting with ordinary Canadians, and feeling part of their new country and its culture.

Getting to the front of the classroom is not as easy as it used to be. The days when having been a teacher, or even just having a B.A., were enough to qualify one for a job teaching ESL are pretty well gone – at least in Canada. There are professional certifications, professional journals, professional associations, professional conferences – TESL is a profession in every respect (except perhaps the salaries). A friendly one, too: the worldwide web is filled with sites put up by ESL teachers offering their colleagues around the world advice, information, teaching aids, exercises – all for free. The major publishing houses have extensive collections of textbooks, workbooks, teaching aids, CD-ROMs, and they are very generous with their catalogues.

The first step for all of this is getting some sort of professional qualification. There are some places that offer two-week or 30-day TESL training programs, but those are mainly oriented to young college graduates looking for jobs in overseas markets that are less demanding (so far) regarding certification. I opted in September 2001 for the full-time two-semester TESL Certificate program offered by the Algonquin College Language Institute to persons who already have a university degree. It consists of 25 hours a week focusing on an introduction to the cultural and linguistic aspects of second-language learning, methodological techniques for effective teaching, and pedagogical approaches to the four language skills. Carleton U also has a TESL program, and Ottawa U offers an M.A. in TESL. Algonquin’s attractions were that the fees are far lower, and student teachers get to spend upwards of 50 hours in ‘practicums’ – hands-on apprenticeships in real ESL classes. Algonquin has well over 1,000 students at any one time in its own LINC, regular and international ESL programs, a pool of experienced and cooperative teachers, and a superb language lab with the latest in computer-assisted learning software, so it’s a great place to study TESL.

It was an enjoyable experience being back in a classroom, arguing with teachers and getting to know a delightful mix of recent college graduates, teachers making a mid-career change, ESL teachers from China, Korea and Afghanistan come to get a professional diploma from an English speaking country, and a few other clapped-out public service retirees like myself getting a new lease on life.

One of the really fascinating experiences was a week spent learning Japanese! In order to have ESL teachers know what their students are going through as they try to grapple with a new language, Algonquin brought in a fantastic Japanese teacher who didn’t speak a word of English to us for five days. By the end of the week, she had coaxed and inspired us to acquire a recognition vocabulary of 150-odd words, to learn several dozen basic phrases and verb conjugations in Japanese, to count, and to recognize and write a few words in the three most common scripts. It was a great learning experience for neophyte teachers, even if most of us forgot the Japanese part by the end of the semester.

With the diploma in hand, the next step was joining the professional association: the Ottawa branch of TESLO - the Association of Teachers of ESL in Ontario. It organizes annual conferences for the Eastern Ontario region which are great occasions to meet colleagues, pick up tips and techniques, exchange ideas, scout for jobs, and vacuum up catalogues and samples from the publishing houses.

The big employers in Ottawa are the two school boards (public and separate), the Algonquin College Language Institute, and a handful of commercial schools (see the database posted elsewhere in Just Ottawa). Permanent and full-time positions are hard to come by: most schools hire teachers on a part-time contract basis, depending on enrolment. I have been fortunate enough to be offered part-time contracts with Algonquin, teaching one or two mornings a week . I worked mainly with intermediate and advanced level students in the ‘regular’ and LINC programs, teaching one or another of the language skills.

I mentioned above in passing that there is an overseas market for ESL teachers. In dozens of countries in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe the is a great demand for native English speaking teachers. In some countries public schools want them as ‘assistant teachers’ to work alongside the national teachers, businesses want them as tutors to their managerial staff, and private language schools want them in order to attract fee-paying clients. These commercial schools can range from large, established, well-run institutions with excellent curricula and highly qualified national or international staff, to fly-by-night operations that cater to lower-income families desperate to give their children some greater advantage in finding a job or qualifying for an immigration visa. Salaries can vary just as widely, with Korea and Japan being among the best-paid.

There is a whole sub-culture around the world of itinerant Americans, Brits, Australians and Canadians who meet this demand – sometimes fresh college grads who do a year or two in order to pick up some money for their grad studies, sometimes people who have been moving from country to country for years, and sometimes first-class career professionals. The really good (and well-paying) institutions overseas are increasingly demanding the same qualifications as Canadian university and college language schools. For the rest, there are dozens of ESL placement agencies to be found on the internet or in the yellow pages, some of which have contracts with foreign schools and institutions to provide teachers and will look after all of the visa and travel arrangements.

A Two-Way Street

Teaching is not an easy job, and teaching ESL is no exception. For each hour in the classroom, at least another couple of hours are needed to prepare lesson plans, research material for exercises and handouts, correct homework and, not least, pore through grammar books to figure out for yourself the inner logic of modal verbs or count and non-count nouns before you have to teach it to your students. Standing and delivering for a couple of hours in front of 15-25 adults can be stressful, as well, if only because they have such high hopes and expectations. Doing it on a full-time basis, 20-25 hours a week, is exhausting.

For a retiree, however, part-time work teaching ESL in Ottawa is ideal: it keeps you intellectually active, it gets you out of the house and into the dynamic environment of a school, and most of all, it enables you to get to know really fine people from all over the world, some of whom may become family friends. I am constantly impressed not only by how much they want to learn English, but by how much they want to be Canadian, to feel part of their new country. In fact, one of the few criticisms I have of the ESL programs for immigrants is that they don’t build more Canadian history and current Canadian culture into their courses. When I bring in to my students material on native peoples, Laura Secord, the building of the CPR, the Stanley Cup, etc. their enthusiasm is overwhelming.

In their exercises, students often speak and write about the lives they lived ‘back home’ and their experiences settling into Canada, or simply stay after class to confide in the teacher and seek advice or encouragement. It is a humbling and heart-warming experience for a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-level former public servant to be invited to share part of the lives of Somalis, Iranians, Colombians, Chinese and Russians as they struggle through their first months and years in Canada. Almost without exception, my students are generous and open, talented, hard-working and optimistic. Even the most homesick are determined to make a go of it, the frequent refrain being, “for our children”. For most of them, ‘making a go of it’ will take some time and it certainly won’t be easy, but with their determination and energy – and a decent command of English – they will certainly make it happen.

Pierre Beemans


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