The Challenges of ESL in a Foreign Country

Teaching ESL, or English as a Second Language, is a great starter career for those holding a Bachelors degree… in anything! This is why you’ll often come across everyone from Art to Science majors travelling to the far ends of the Earth, with little to no experience. I started out as a Forensics and French major, teaching in Korea. No relation whatsoever!  But these years of travelling and soul searching, not only makes you stand out a little on paper, but also narrows down the careers that you don’t want to do, what luxuries you prefer not to give up, and what stresses you can and cannot handle long-term.

Depending on the country, ESL can get you a pretty lucrative salary or make you go broke. It can open your eyes to vibrant cultures, or make you hide for cover. The biggest impact of teaching English overseas, for me at least, is its ability to make you incredibly descriptive and creative with words… but at the same time makes you second think everything.  So, below, I listed my rules to getting through your teaching year without losing yourself.

 

1)   “Prepare” to get caught off guard

At one point of your year, you will have a student who questions everything! They will hit you with a grammar question that you won’t know the answer to. I get flustered easily with these. So what I do is applaud her for such a “great” question, and “since it’s more complex, and we’re low on time, I’ll answer that tomorrow.”  So to at least get me 24 hours to find a grammar wiz who knows. And as ambiguous as English is, sometimes there is no answer. Spelling “their”, “beautiful” and “guard” are the three words that I sometimes have to give second thought. I’ve seen the students spell these wrong so many times, that it starts to look right. So last month’s lesson was teaching them to use a paper dictionary, instead of asking me.

 

2)   Try not to question yourself too much

Because of these grammar questions, you may find yourself questioning everything you say. “Do I run quick? Or quickly?.. If I run quickly, then why can’t I run fastly, instead of fast?”. You can imagine how these thoughts can interrupt the ease of your conversations as well. When on Skype with family at friends at home, they often catch my grammar mistakes. The longer that I teach English at an elementary level, the more frequent I make these slip-ups.

 

3)   Don’t get caught up in the accent arguments

Living and working with every type of English accent on the planet, there are often debates on correct usage of words. I am adamant on retraining my British-taught students to pronounce “Z” like “zee” instead of “zed”. Amongst us, the teachers go back and forth mocking the Queens English versus American accent. Aubergine vs. Eggplant. “At the weekend” vs. “On the weekend”. I also think I should be able to hear the difference between “walk” and “work”.  From imitations, apparently all Americans sound like a “valley girl” or a “Redneck”. I’ve learned to laugh at these differences and stereotypes. Ultimately, we end up taking some of these, once awkward, phrases home with us.

 

4)   If all else fails, play Charades, Pictionary or Taboo.

I am often in situations where a picture or actions are the only way that I can get my point across.  When explaining the different consistencies of water to my students, I pointed to someone’s bottle of water, drew a snowman, and then pretended to slip on patch of ice.  A few of us teachers were curious about the location of the infamous “Chop Chop Square”, where executions take place. No amount of English could convey what we wanted to a nearby shopkeeper. But with the simple gesture of hand (signifying a sword) passing throat, we were pointed in the right direction.

 

5)   Don’t talk like your students

My students speak in very broken sentences. Instead of “Teacher, did you mark me late?”, they normally say, “Teacher, late?”. The easy way to get everyone’s understanding is to say, “Class, 7:30. 7:40, late.” However, this easy way out does not teach them proper sentence structure, and probably contributes to #2’s blunders. Just as, only doing baby talk to your toddler, probably wouldn’t help with their speech growth either.

 

Being an ESL instructor will give you great appreciation for the patience it takes to teach it. Many valuable experiences have come from talking to a local with little English. However, having a girls’ night of normal conversation has helped to keep my sanity. Another big help, is to keep reading. And write! It’ll reassure you that you have some intelligence left.

 

 

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Who should choose your “freedom”? Saudi Arabia vs. Democracy

Should Democracy Be Forced on Saudi Arabia?

            Someone, outside of Saudi, asked me this question yesterday. If I were just arriving in this country, I would think this a common sense answer! I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a democracy, right?? Who wouldn’t want the freedoms of religion, speech, church and state, and the right to bear arms? Americans ability to basically do as we please seems to make the general public happy. And what works for us should work for everyone else…

In comes Saudi Arabia.  This country, I must say, is unlike any other. Saudi is an absolute monarchy that has been heavily portrayed in media to be a trap, a desolate place for its women, and lacking of freedoms that “everyone” enjoys. Women can’t drive, its laws restrict most women from working (although this is changing), drugs and alcohol are prohibited in the country, it is gender-segregated, it is illegal to protest or say anything negative about the person in power, and women must cover in abayas.

The only thing that many people outside of Saudi don’t get the chance to see is that many Saudis may find the freedoms of democracy as detrimental. They love their country, how its run, and don’t want all of the changes. Democracy and Saudi don’t quite go together. And weirdly, I kinda agree.

You can’t separate church and state here. Saudi is 99.9% Muslim. Religion runs every part of everyone’s day, even if you’re non-Muslim. It is ruled by Sharia law (Islamic law) that has interpretations based on Saudi’s culture. Religious police are given the duty to enforce a dress-code standard. And shops shut 5 times a day, for 30 min-1 hr each, for prayer that blasts on loudspeakers across the country.  As a Christian, I don’t get a free pass to forgo all of these rules. To me, yes, it can be a headache. Especially when I want to go straight from work to buy bread at 3pm, but I must wait outside the shop till 4pm which postpones my nap, my workout, and dinner… However, for the other 99%, this is a constant reminder to keep God first, no matter what you have on your schedule. And I’m sure that whatever religion you (my readers) follow, you can appreciate that.

Freedom of religion for Saudi would not only start some uproar within the country, but possibly from Muslims outside. Saudi is like the ‘Holy Land’ for Muslims around the world. Islam hasn’t gotten the best rap after extremist acts from Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. And consequently, even Muslims who believe in peace (the majority) have received a lot of hatred and assaults. Like the Saudi women, many foreign Muslims don’t see the cover-up as an obligation, but a preference. Saudi is an escape for many of these individuals; a place where they can wear their hijab (scarf) and/or niqab (face covering) without harassment. And just as Christians may cherish the journey to Jerusalem and would like for it to stay a Christian site, every Muslim hopes to keep Mecca and Medina of Saudi Arabia.

Driving only seems like a freedom/luxury to western minds, depending on whom you ask. I personally enjoy wandering aimlessly around town, with the windows down, blasting whatever I want. However, there are those who see driving as a chore. It’s thought to be a luxury if you can afford your own personal driver, being able to sit in the back and take a nap until you reach your destination. That’s how many Saudi women see it. They don’t have to worry about pumping gas, following directions, insurance, tune-ups. Plus, in this country of only male drivers, you can imagine the impatience and swerving of the speed-demons behind the wheel. I wouldn’t want to drive in this country either!

Same thing with working.. How many women in the U.S. wouldn’t mind being able to have a life as a housewife, especially if you are given a nanny and a maid? Your time is basically freed up of all responsibility. Once again, I’d probably more enjoy a life working a purposeful job. But in the near future, these Saudi women will be able to work because they want to, not because they have to.

When you first step off the plane into Saudi, there’s a sign that says, “Drug trafficking equals death”.  Alcohol is not publicly sold in the country either. Now, there are many days when this country does me in, and I feel like need a drink. But, I will applaud the government for being able to keep a handle on its country by applying these rules. Let’s be honest, drugs and alcohol is the start of many confrontations, accidents, and abuses. To attempt to eliminate the access of these into a country was a smart move. Saudi Arabia is basically run by expats, people who aren’t used to these restrictions. So you may not want alcohol involved, or they’d quickly start voicing their democratic opinions (and get kicked out of the country or jailed).

Lastly, there’s the gender segregation. If I was single, this one would be quite hard for me; but only because in the West, we are in constant interaction with men. Men give a nice balance in point of views. I could always go to my female friends if I want a little gossip and emotion; the men if I need a more logical opinion, less feelings involved. Call that statement slightly sexist if you want. But, more often than not, that’s how it goes.. If I have something heavy to lift, I don’t need to lift a finger. It’s pleasant to have something sexy to look at, and not be ashamed to actually look. Plus, they smell nice… For single expat women, this seems to be one of their biggest complaints. However, for a Saudi woman who has spent her whole life segregated, she can’t really miss something she’s never had. I can imagine that these male-female interactions, for them, would be quite awkward and intimidating. I don’t know the statistics, but in comparison to blended-gender societies, I would believe that Saudi’s percentages of rapes (date and stranger) are significantly less.

Now although I studied Diplomacy, I’m not a huge political person. I wrote all this to say that democracy is just not for everyone. Perhaps one day, Saudi would pick certain features to adopt, but to make any democracy work; you would need the general public’s consensus. Without their participation, you are bound to have a few riots on your hands. Despite how it looks from the outside, I believe the majority of Saudis citizens are quite proud of their country and would be fine without change.