How a Chemist Gets a Reaction From a Class of English Learners
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. This week on our program, we talk about learning English.
We are listening to a class of English language learners. For this exercise they have to repeat a series of words beginning with the letter T. Some laugh as they struggle with the words. They are trying to say "The tip of the tongue to the teeth."
TEACHER AND STUDENTS: "The tip of the tongue to the teeth. The tip of the tongue to the teeth."
STUDENTS: "The tip of the tongue to the teeth."
TEACHER: "Uh-huh, it's also a bit of a tongue twister."
The teacher, David Bennett, speaks slowly and clearly. He has a doctorate in chemistry. He retired from teaching science at a private boys school in Washington, D.C. Now he teaches this English class two times each week at a church in nearby Bethesda, Maryland.
Not all of the exercises are tongue twisters -- a mouthful like "she sells seashells by the seashore."
DAVID BENNETT: "Wake."
STUDENTS: "Wake. Wake."
Here, David Bennett leads the class in pronouncing words that begin with W.
DAVID BENNETT: "So I can wake in the morning, or I wake up. Wake. Wall."
DAVID BENNETT: "Wall, yes. What’s the next one?"
DAVID BENNETT: "Walk, yes walk."
ONE STUDENT: "Walk."
DAVID BENNETT: "Walk. There’s no L sound in it at all. It’s just walk. OK."
ONE STUDENT: "Warm."
ALL: " Warm"
DAVID BENNETT: "The room’s warm. Warm. Warm. A duck has feet that are, that have, a web. Or a spider makes a web."
In class on this autumn day are seven women from six countries: Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, France, Japan and Slovakia. Some are in the United States because of their husband's work. Others are here to work in child care as au pairs.
The women have already studied beginning English. They are taking the class because they want to learn more American English. They want to be able to understand common expressions like "beating around the bush." That means to avoid answering a question or saying something directly.
David Bennett points out that another expression -- "beating the drum" -- has two meanings. It could simply mean playing the musical instrument, a drum. Or it could mean leading a campaign, like beating the drum for political change.
Learning a language can be a chance to learn about a culture as well. Recently the students read a story from the Internet about the history of the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
Pencils and pens flew over copies of the story as the students marked words they did not understand, so they could ask the meaning.
As each student read a part of the story to the class, the teacher would repeat any word they did not say correctly. Then the speaker would repeat the word after him.
The teacher also asked the women about festivals or holidays in their own countries. A young au pair from Bolivia talked about a fish festival at Lake Titicaca. As she talked her words started to come with greater ease.
Another woman described a grape festival in Slovakia. Others talked about wine and film festivals. Their teacher listened carefully and repeated words that were hard for them to say.
Yet even words that might be easy to say can still lead to misunderstandings, at least in spoken English. David Bennett talks about the word "week." Spelled W-E-E-K it means a period of time. There are seven days in a week. But "weak," spelled W-E-A-K, has a very different meaning. It means the opposite of strong.
The students in the class practice what they learn among themselves. The program centers not just on writing, but also speaking and understanding English.
There are different ways to teach a language. These days, English teachers are taught that the best method is the communicative approach. The goal is for students to be able to communicate in their new language. This means teaching the language used in real-life situations -- like getting a job or completing medical forms or speaking to a child's teacher.
Language schools can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. But some programs, like the one in Bethesda, cost only the price of the workbooks. Many religious groups organize classes like this. Classes are also offered through public schools and community colleges.
English lessons are in strong demand in the United States, and people may have to wait for an opening.
English learners and teachers can find many free resources on the Internet, including at sites like manythings.org and eslcafe.org. Two other resources that might also be of interest to teachers are TESOL and TESL-L.
TESL-L is an international discussion list for teachers of English as a second or foreign language. They represent all levels of experience and training. There is no cost to subscribe to this independent online list. The easiest way to find it is to do an Internet search for T-E-S-L-dash-L.
T-E-S-O-L is TESOL, short for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. About fourteen thousand members belong to this organization. TESOL is also connected with other education groups throughout the world. For more information, the Web site is tesol.org.
Kelly Lopez is an American citizen who was born in Honduras. Spanish was her first language. Her advice for English learners is to think in English instead of just translating. She also suggests trying to find people who were born in the United States and practice with them.
Maria Neves of Recife, Brazil, was in the United States several years ago to attend a dance program in New York. She keeps English fresh in her mind by writing letters to American friends. She also suggests that language learners record their voice, then listen and try to correct mistakes. And, she says, "Never miss an American movie."
Reading English subtitles or closed captioning can also be helpful when watching DVDs or television shows.
Movies, TV shows and songs have helped millions of people learn languages. But there are other useful resources that adult learners might not think of -- like children's books and comic books.
Adults can do a good job of learning languages, but children are just naturally better while their brains are still forming. Nine-year-old Ukyeon Kim from South Korea is a good example. He attends the fourth grade at a public school in Fairfax County, Virginia.
The family has decided to return to South Korea. But people who know Ukyeon say he learned English very fast. He thinks his mother had something to do with that. She read books to him in English before the family came to the United States.
SooJee Han is in the United States through a cooperative program at the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. She is from Seoul where she studied international relations at the Graduate School of International Studies.
She learned to read and write English in school in South Korea. But mostly she learned the grammar and structure of the language. More recently, she discovered Special English programs, like this one. She says they have helped her improve her English skills.
SOOJEE HAN: "A good thing is, several years ago, I was lucky to find VOA English on the Internet. And I was so glad they have Special English. The broadcasters read news with slow speech so I can follow their accurate pronunciations."
SooJee Han likes to download MP3 files from voaspecialenglish.com and listen to them on her iPod while walking or riding the train. In fact, she even asked for, and received, an internship in the Special English office.
Special English does not teach English the way a foreign language program would. But many people find it highly useful as a way to improve their American English.
Transcripts of programs -- including this one -- can be downloaded along with MP3 files at voaspecialenglish.com. And there are links to other resources for people who want to learn the world's most widely taught foreign language.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Shirley Griffith. Listen again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.
Correction: Nine-year-old Ukyeon Cho was misidentified in this story as Ukyeon Kim.