Learning by Teaching: What Happens When a Non-Native Speaker Teaches ESL

It’s a busy season for college students – March, when half of the semester is gone and there’s still half of it to go. It’s a busy time because midterms, the biggest exams next to finals, start soon. It’s a busy season for those in student organizations since big events are coming up. And it’s particularly busy for me because, in addition to those two factors, we add a job (not VOA’s internship but a real campus job), which I just started two weeks ago.

I am working now as a student assistant in the AEC (Applied English Center) of the University of Kansas. I will be helping teachers in class by taking small groups of students and helping them with their homework, doing group activities, having personal tutorials, and other responsibilities. For what subject? Well, as the name of the institution says, we are teaching English.

Yes, that’s me; a non-native English speaker will be trying to teach the language (oral and grammar) to other international students that are just getting to the country.

The AEC provides international students help with the language so they have a high understanding – college level – of English; and it also helps them in their general adjustment to a totally different country and culture. But for me, this is also a learning opportunity. For all AEC staff this is an opportunity to learn about other cultures, and for international students like me who work there, it’s a chance to build up their English by learning about grammar rules or just perfecting the pronunciation through teaching it to others.

Many universities across America offer ESL (English as a Second Language) programs to encourage international students to come to America, which increases those colleges’ diversity. Here at KU, the number of international students has been growing over the past five years. This fact has more to do with economic factors than the AEC program, but it is actually the AEC office and classes that feel that growth of international students the most. In this program most of our students come from either China or Saudi Arabia, others come from South Korea or Japan, and a smaller group come from countries in South America (I personally met a girl from Colombia).

Another interesting fact is that this year we had five new students coming from Tibet. This last group is really special since there is a really complex conflict between China (where most of the students come from) and Tibet. Luckily, all the differences they might have are faded in the classroom while they are all the same, English students.

With such a diverse group of people it would be hard for the staff in the AEC not to be caught up in the melting pot of cultures and absorb as much information from them as they do from us. For example, in the first class I “taught,” it took me just a couple of minutes to learn that it’s not only Americans who have problems pronouncing some names, like the Arab names Abdul-Aziz or Almutairi, or differentiating Xia from Xu or Xao. Not only that, but just from looking at them you can see the different fashion styles and trends in their home countries. For example, it is easy to pick out a Japanese guy from other East Asians from the types of pants they usually wear.

Even deeper, talking to the students in small group activities I saw the similarities and differences of how people from China or Saudi Arabia approach the cultural adjustment compared to each other, and compared to how I have approached it. I was surprised to hear how we all felt the immediate cultural shock when talking about food, how different they felt about the climate change (even though the difference was just as big for them), and how uneven was the reaction was from different people, even people coming from the same country, about Americans and how, after more time, we all came to pretty much the same conclusion – they’re nice people in general.

As an international student I always did, and I keep doing, my best to share my culture and experiences to help enrich the university; and I also learn a lot in the process. But I must say that it wasn’t until now that I really realized how all international students give the real taste of their countries of origin, helping Americans – and other internationals – understand their culture and customs.

And this is just my first week working here. I still have lots to teach, and definitively lots and lots to learn.

3 comments

  1. I reckon finding a decent one from the wide range of CNA schools out there is probably the hardest part of it. Other than that, stick with it and you will see the light at the end soon enough. It is hard work though, and not for the feint hearted!

  2. I can relate to what you mention Sebastian. I live in the MEX/USA border and I attended our local university a long time ago. We had a COLLEGE professor (physics) whose English wasn’t very good

    Yet, he wasn’t the only case in campus. In my opinion they must be native speaking, or at least they need to be orally tested by some type of committee and meet a standard.

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