Is my son a foreigner?

photocopierSo I am back in the ESOL* classroom after a three year hiatus and it is all coming back to me. Teaching my pre-intermediate group of immigrants is affecting me a little like looking after The Girl did in the early days. Not that they’re ringing me up in the middle of the night demanding food, but I am having a similar slow dawning of recognition: oh yes, this is what newborns/ESOL students do and need. These were the resources I used to use. This is how I solved this problem before.

One example is the mistakes they make. Each student has his or her own typical grammar errors:

“They have catch him,” says the Polish student.

“They are travel on a road,” says the Tamil speaker.

“Yesterday, I write a list and do shopping,” says my Brazilian student.

“It’s in pront of the college” says my Indonesian student.

Oh yes, I think. Pre-intermediate students may be learning about story telling in the past, but that doesn’t mean they have got all their present tenses sorted. Oh yes, I remember. I should pay attention to each student’s pronunciation difficulties and spend some time on that. I diagnose, I make notes, plan lessons. I think of ways to help them learn to use verb tenses correctly and improve their pronunciation of bilabial fricatives (‘f’ and ‘v’ to you).

But why does this all sound so familiar, even after three years’ break?

“Mummy, I need to go to toilet!” the Boy interrupts my lesson planning. I get up to help him. “NO! Mummy not come too. I go by myself.”

I find myself making a mental note: he is not using auxiliary verbs to form negatives.

A shout reaches me downstairs: “Come and see, Mummy. I did a wee wee!”

He earns a sticker for his sticker chart, and by dinner time the stickers have added up to an ice cream for dessert. The Boy is covered head to toe in sticky vanilla goo – he is in heaven.

“I’m love Megan White,” he tells me. I’ve given up trying to get him to say Magnum. The dark ones he calls: Chocolate Megan Whites. But besides this pronunciation issue I am also diagnosing an issue with present simple/present continuous confusion. I compare it in my head to his announcement to strangers before his birthday: “I going be three!” Definitely a bit of a mix up happening there.

Daddy gets home just before bedtime. There are hugs. Daddy also gets covered in ice cream.

“What did you do today?” Daddy wants to know.

“Going children’s centre. And play with Nebecca.”

Past tense, I think to myself. Understanding, yes. Using, no. Also, pronunciation of alveolar approximant.

Slowly it is beginning to dawn on me: my son is a pre-intermediate ESOL student. He would fit right in to my evening class. Have I just stumbled on a point in time where my son’s experience of Child Language Acquisition just happens to intersect the Second Language Acquisition that my students are going through?

Then there are times like this evening, when we play a game before bedtime. “I’m going to choose this one,” he says, picking up a card. “Your turn, Mummy. I can pass it to you.” He startles me then with his beautiful sentences. There may be similarities, there may be an intersection here, but the Boy is 3, not 33. His brain is designed to refine those grammar points and pronunciation issues in record time. He is soaking up idioms and phrases. He hears them once or twice, then puts them to use in real life. He is fearless. Not afraid to make mistakes, never embarrassed, he jumps right in to have a go. None of the inhibitions of an adult immigrant plague him. Before we know it he’ll be eating Magnums, while we grown ups still fondly refer to them as megan whites, clinging on to that endearing pidgin English of the toddler years.

And my students will probably still be saying “I’m like”.

Is my son a foreigner? In a way, yes he is. A fairly new arrival in the adult world, still working out how the game is played. Also, he is half Dutch.

But I think he’d get bored pretty quickly in my evening class.

ice cream

Who could get excited about an evening that does not include desserts??

*ESOL = English for Speakers of Other Languages

5 responses

  1. This is so interesting! I wish I knew as much about language acquisition. It’s fantastic that you have such an insight into your children’s understanding of the world. I’d never considered the similarities between foreign students of English and toddlers before!

    • Well, I am showing off a bit with my fancy phonetics jargon of course.🙂 I have just noticed that WordPress has introduced some ‘related’ links underneath the post, so if you want to look into some more language development you could try those.

      I’d love to collect more ‘data’, so feel free to share some of Little E’s classic sayings & errors. I’d really like to know how common the Boy’s mistakes are. Do all 3 year olds struggle with “am going” or “I like”, or is this because he is learning Dutch at the same time?

  2. Interesting similarities, must be fascinating for you switching between work and home. Love the megan whites! You’re so right – you’ll be referring to them long after the boy has mastered the word magnum!

  3. It must be so interesting to really get the “insider’s view” of language acquisition. I was a teacher of kids with special needs, so I know a bit about language acquisition, but not as much as you. This was a really fascinating post. I enjoyed it immensely.

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