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

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Occupational Hazard

Before my son was born I Entry 1 Aims Objectivestaught English to immigrants and asylum seekers at a college. I enjoyed teaching higher levels most, as it afforded me the best opportunities for language geekiness – really getting my teeth into the finer points of grammar and pronunciation, stretching the students’ vocabulary and exploring essay and story writing. My last tutor group, however, was a beginners’ group. I was very nervous at the start of the year, not sure if I would be able to do a good job or whether I’d enjoy it, but I loved it. The students were so lovely and grateful for anything you did for them and teaching-wise it was also extremely enjoyable. You see so much progress in a year with beginners. Also, absolutely anything you do with them will help improve their language and their confidence, so we went on outings to the cafe, the park, the British Museum and the local ecology centre.

What I found essential for communicating with my students and building a good rapport was what us English teachers like to call ‘grading your language’, which basically means choosing words like “trip” instead of “expedition” and trying not to use endlessly long sentences with subclauses and past perfect continuous tenses. It also helps to make eye contact and face your student when talking to them, and trying not to mumble or speak too fast. I can actually think of quite a few walks of life where we could benefit from people grading their language.

These essential skills for teaching I am now finding a bit of a hindrance in speaking to my Toddler. He is not a fifty-five year old Afghani woman who is leaving the house on her own for the first time and already has a native language interfering with the learning of English. He is at the peak of his language learning abilities. He is like a little sponge, soaking up everything he hears. He repeats anything you say to him, as if he is tasting the words. He picks things up when you weren’t even sure he was listening. He is absorbing two different languages at once and sorting them into their appropriate context without any need for formal instruction or homework. The things that will help him learn are not the things that will help a group of nervous, adult beginners.

I know this, yet out of habit I find myself grading my language. I use words that I know he has already mastered and use the same phrases in the same situations. In fact, I find myself worrying about other people ‘confusing him’ by using different expressions to me. When I want the Toddler to ask for something politely, I say: “Can you ask me nicely?” However, other people will say: “What’s the magic word?” or “What do you say?” The evidence suggests that he has absolutely no trouble recognising that all these questions require the same response, but instinctively, I feel I need to limit his language input.

The opposite is true. I need to radically re-wire myself. The Toddler needs more, not less, variety in his language input. Unlike an adult, who has already got all their concepts of the world sorted but needs to learn to map them to a new language, he is learning about life at the same time as learning to speak. Everything in the world is new to him and he wants to know how things work, what they are and how he can talk about them. He knows ‘good’, so now it’s time to learn ‘excellent’, ‘fantastic’, ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’. He knows you can ‘fly’ on a plane, so now he needs to know that you can ‘soar’ and ‘zoom’ and ‘lift off’ and ‘touch down’ and that birds and kites and Superman can do flying as well. Instead of limiting myself to conversational topics that can be expressed in the present tense, I should discuss the past and the future and conditionals and passives and mights and used tos.

Technically, this is still “grading your language”. I just need to grade it up, not down.