Teaching More Than ESL in Honduras
I am a primary school teacher by profession and fell into Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) by chance. My love of languages and the desire to share this wonderful world with children guided me to become an elementary ESL Specialist in Québec. I recently spent two years with my young family in Honduras, which I wrote about in my blog (https://adiplomatswifeblog.com/). Not surprisingly, my language teaching skills became a hot commodity in our predominantly Spanish speaking host country. Here I share some of my observations from tutoring languages while overseas.
I got my first gig teaching French as a third language to a three- and five-year-old brother and sister in our gated community. As my youngest was just 6 months old at the time, we had many sleepless nights, and I appreciated the break in routine. To these lessons I brought along easy games to learn numbers, colors, and shapes in French. We also sang action songs and read picture books. Listening to books on tape as we turned the pages of the physical book was a great hit. This promoted fluency and scaffolded their understanding of the language. After a short maternity leave, I started to dust off the cobwebs covering the ‘teacher’ part of my brain.
My second contract was at the Canadian Embassy in Tegucigalpa. Believe it or not, I had to sign an agreement with the “representative of the Queen in Canada.” I taught intermediate level ESL to an employee of the Canadian consulate mission. She had a strong grasp of vocabulary but needed help with minor grammar details, as well as conversation practice. Those tricky English phrasal verbs such as “break up” or “come down with” gave us lots to talk about.
During that time, I also taught French as a Second Language (FSL) to a different pair of students at the Embassy. We covered not only vocabulary, grammar rules, and verbs, but also a sample of popular culture. I had prepared a lesson on a song called “Mon petit fais ton dodo” (based on a story by Félix Leclerc.) The music had a nice rhythm to it and simple vocabulary words, but the context was not as easy to translate, as it describes the cold winter and snow. Even though my students were worldly and educated in their own first language, there was no way they could empathize fully with the concept of freezing cold snowy winters. I believe that learning about how ‘the other’ lives is also part of language learning.
When I am giving private lessons, I listen attentively and observe my students so I can prepare personalized activities using authentic materials I have brought from Canada, such as newspapers, magazines, workbooks, games, and children’s picture books. This leads to interesting discussions on cultural differences and similarities. For example, when playing a bingo game about fruits and vegetables, my students did not recognize the picture of a kiwi or a blueberry (to be fair, I had never seen them for sale, even in the upscale supermarket in Tegucigalpa). This led me to the realization that mass-market ESL materials are not always culturally sensitive. Too often, teaching materials contain ingrained cultural assumptions that might be difficult for learners from non-North American contexts to relate to.
To overcome this obstacle, I decided to turn the tables during a French lesson with an adult student. Usually, we read and discuss newspapers articles on issues facing Canada (which I find online). This time, I asked her to describe the Honduran customs and traditions to me in French. Together we read recipes from Canadian Living and then I asked her to write down typical recipes her grandmother would bake for Christmas in Honduras. We did a lesson on maps and giving directions, after which I asked her to write a mini-brochure for the downtown area of Tegucigalpa. Not only did this type of activity foster a sense of pride in her native country but it also gave me a glimpse into the authentic Honduran way of life.
In conclusion, don’t be shy to integrate elements into your language lessons that pertain to your students’ home cultures. Think of the cultural iceberg - some aspects of your students’ cultures are obvious (such as language, clothes, and food), while others may not be clearly visible to you. Asking your students about these deeper cultural elements can be a great way to build rapport. In your lessons you can use authentic materials such as games, stories, songs, and even children’s literature in the students’ native language. A good grasp of the vocabulary, as well as someone to help navigate the unwritten cultural practices of the target language, can make all the difference when teaching in new contexts.