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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Go Hungry for a Change

I am a Christian living in an Islamic country. It would have been totally ignorant of me to enter Saudi Arabia and not read up on the basics of what Saudi Muslims believe. Without personally knowing a single Muslim, I had to find my information in the most random of places. I browsed blogs, camped-out in Barnes and Nobles, FaceBooked public Saudi profiles. These attempts were made mainly because I try not to offend, if I can help it.. Of course there will be slip-ups; like crossing my legs with the soles of my shoes up, or mentioning how much I’d love a piece of bacon.. but I try to be respectful with the knowledge I’ve acquired so far.

I’ve come to find so much love for two fabulous ladies in this country. One happens to be Muslim and the other Atheist. We make a VERY interesting trio, to say the least .. We all exchange our beliefs and why, but we never end in a heated conversation; always in respect, and often cracking a slight joke in the end. Although none of us will probably ever convert to the other, we are friends who’ve offered and listened to sound opinions, great entertainment, and a have been a shoulder for homesickness. They’re good people, in my book!

Last week was the ending of the Islamic month of Ramadan. I’ve heard of it, but honestly only knew that I’d be vacationing during that time. So, to gain a little understanding on what a good percentage of the world was doing, I interviewed my friend, Amaal, about this time of the year.

1) So what exactly is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a period in which all Muslim adults ‘fast’, or abstain from certain activities. It is one of the five basic tenets/pillars of Islam. It lasts for 30 days, and each day we fast from sunrise to sunset. It’s the month of mercy, blessings and forgiveness. During this time, Muslims are completely immersed in their connection with God. They persevere in doing righteous deeds, pray often and read the Quran (Muslim’s holy book) as much as they can.

2) What must you refrain from?
Food, drink and sexual activity

3) Does it last only certain hours of the day?
Yes, it lasts for a range of hours depending on which country you’re in and what time the sun rises and sets.

4) What is your favorite Ramadan memory?
Ramadan is a beautiful way of bringing family together. I love breaking fast with my family, sitting down all together to eat. I also love going to night prayers. These are special prayers that occur only during Ramadan. You go to the mosque and pray for about an hour, and read chapters of the Quran. This is truly a spiritual booster.

 5) How is Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, in comparison to your home country?
Well I come from England and that is extremely different. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and therefore it abides by Islamic law. I’ve been in a Muslim Country 3 times for Ramadan and every time it always feels like it’s Ramadan. People are all doing the same thing. They are unified in their worship and acts. People are extremely charitable, they give each other goods, they pay for the needy to be fed in Ramadan, and they share whatever they have. Whilst in Riyadh, what I’ve witnessed consistently is the constant giving of food and water to anyone and everyone. One time I was in a car and we were just about to break fast and people came around to our car window and gave us water and dates. This moved me. I’ve been taught that nothing is free in this world so to be given free food is shocking. But these acts aren’t even one of a kind; they happen constantly throughout the Muslim world.

6) How do you celebrate the breaking of fast?

At the end of the day, we actually mourn the end of fasting because it signifies the end of our spiritual detox. A good Muslim’s heart longs for the next Ramadan to come quickly and prays to see the next one.

At the end of the 30 days, however, we have a celebration called Eid. This is where all families come together, get dressed in their new attire and have a good day out or within their own houses. On the morning of Eid, we go to mosque to pray the ‘Eid prayer’. People exchange greetings and children are given sweets and money. Communities come together and celebrate. We also pay a charitable sum of money on that day. This goes towards feeding the poor and needy.

7) How is the environment around you during fasting and non-fasting hours?
Riyadh is quiet because during fasting hours not much is open. Food outlets in Saudi are usually closed, people stay in their homes and wait for the break of fast. They use their time to involve themselves in acts of worship. The beauty of Ramadan is that it pushes you away from the worldly things that often distract you from worshiping God. So during fasting hours, Muslims are meant to use that time to be productive. Non-fasting hours in Saudi is when everything and everyone ‘wakes up’, so to speak. Shops and restaurants are open, people come out and the city comes to life again.

8) How has normal daily tasks been affected?
Well, people can still go out and shop and go with their daily tasks, the only thing they aren’t allowed to do in a Muslim country is eat in a public place. Pretty much anything else can be done during the day.

9) How are non-Muslims handling it? Have they changed their activity hours?
I’m sure they are finding it hard. They aren’t allowed to eat in a public place, so I guess the less tolerant of them are annoyed. Most non-Muslims are very respectful, though. In fact many are happy because their hours of work are reduced during Ramadan.
10) Now that Ramadan is coming to an end, how do you feel?
In all honesty, I’m upset. This month is like a beloved friend that departs from your house and you must wait another 11 months for its goodness to return. Many think fasting hard and draining but it’s the opposite for a practicing Muslim. Knowing that every deed you are doing is exclusively for God can only make it an easy endeavor. I almost cried at the last sunset, signifying the end of Ramadan. But the celebrations of Eid somewhat eased the pain.

 

 

**I wrote this post, not only to be educational. But also so that different religions can learn to be more  tolerant of others. Many religions practice and find importance in fasting. By knowing the of similarities that we have, perhaps individuals wouldn’t be as quick to judge. With that being said, any disrespectful comments/responses against any religion will be deleted**