Thursday, June 28, 2012

Yes, I can!

One day in ESL 097, we were working on short answers with “Yes, I can” and “No, I can't”. I was going from student to student, asking questions that began with “Can you ...?” to elicit the appropriate answer: “Can you sew a button on a shirt?” “Can you change a tire?”, and so forth.

Now, in this class I had a Russian couple – a husband and wife from the former Soviet Union. They were living with their children and grandchildren here. They had both been doctors in the USSR, but were unable to practice here because of the language and because of the many difficulties in relicensure in health care for those from other countries. She didn't work; he swept up in a barber shop.

I asked Antonina her question, and she answered. Vladimir's question was, “Can you make a paper airplane?” “Yes, I can,” he replied.

I moved on to the next student, who pre-empted me with, “Can YOU make a paper airplane?”
“Yes, I can,” I said, and opened my mouth to ask him his question.

With an impish grin, he said, “Prove it!”

So I marched up to the front of the classroom, and Vladimir and I were off making our paper airplanes. We finished about the same time, and Vladimir launched his first. It had a high start, and then plopped nose first onto the floor.

Mine flew smoothly straight down the aisle, nearly to the end of the classroom, where it made a slight right turn and landed neatly.

In the middle of the ensuing applause, Antonina crowed gleefully, “Amyerican beats Russian!”

Of course, I did have a bit of an advantage in that contest. I learned my paper-airplane-making skills from my father, who had been a quality control inspector for Rockwell International, and before that, North American and Curtiss Wright. Daddy knew a bit about airplanes.

Monday, June 25, 2012


One of the memorable students while I was teaching Spanish was Timmy.

Well, Timmy wasn't his real name, but from the first day of class, that's how I thought of him, because he made me think of an older version of the little boy in the old Lassie TV series.

This was back in the mid-1990s, when the grunge movement was taking its toll on the American appearance, yet Timmy came to class every day smiling and clean-looking, with neatly trimmed red hair and, to top it all off, a sprinkling of freckles. He even sat up straight. The plaid shirts and jeans only added to his charm, as well as to his resemblance to the 1960s TV character.

(A little background for those of you who don't remember the show: Lassie was a beautiful and very smart collie owned by a little boy named Timmy, who lived with his mother and grandfather on a farm. In many episodes, Timmy got into some sort of scrape, and had to send Lassie for help. Lassie would run off to Mom or Grandpa or whoever was needed, and bark, tug at clothes, etc., until the person would say something to the effect of, “What is it, Lassie? Do you want me to follow you? Is Timmy in trouble?” I don't know if the line was ever actually used in the series, but at some point the line, “What is it, Lassie? Did Timmy fall down a well?” became well known among my generation.)

I managed not to ever call him Timmy out loud, although there were a few near misses. This is one of the dangers of allowing oneself to have mental nicknames for one's students.

And then one day Timmy was absent. The next morning he came up to my desk and said, “Ma'am, I'm sorry I was absent yesterday. I --” Before he could continue, my mind finished his sentence with, “-- fell down a well.”

It's hard to turn an unstoppable laugh into a creditable cough, but I think I managed pretty well. After a moment to regain my composure, I listened to the actual excuse, which had to do with setting his alarm wrong after a power outage.

As if this weren't sufficient proof of my teacherly restraint, the Universe gave me a further test when this student's real-life identical twin brother was in my class. At least this one wore sweatshirts and slouched.

Friday, June 8, 2012


One of the topics that provides great fodder for class discussion and writing practice is that of superstitions. In order to avoid running into the question of superstition vs. religion, I limit the discussion to good luck, bad luck or predictions of the future. Some of the most fruitful areas of discussion are the superstitions around major life events, particularly weddings and babies. It's fascinating how many of them are common to very different cultures – and how often the same item will have very different meanings for different cultures.

For example, the notion that if your right foot itches, you will travel or go to a new place was common among Irish, Middle Easterners and Somalis. On the other hand, owls, which for Western Europeans signify wisdom, are a portent of death for many Asian and African cultures. Part of the reason I enjoy the topic so much is how much I've learned from the students.

And then there are the unexpected things...

One student wrote the following in an essay, showing a wonderful disregard for relating pronouns to their antecedents: “My culture, Somalia, has a lot of superstitions. Many of them are about babies. I don't know where they come from.” (But yet he had four children!)

I asked the class if their cultures assigned any meaning to the left or right palm itching. Several students from various parts of the world had the same meaning I had learned in my Scots-Irish upbringing: that if the right palm itched, one would be receiving money, and if the left palm itched, one would be spending or losing money. One student looked very thoughtful and said, “When my palms itch, it means I have dry skin.”

Too much

ESL students frequently have trouble learning about the correct use of "too" as a modifier, using it as a stronger form of "very". This error leads to comments such as the following, which came from a student evaluation:
"I think everything was right for this course. And the teacher was too good for us."
(At least, I hope it was the usual error and not a self-esteem issue.)

But who is she?

From a student paragraph about "an important person in your life":
"A person I have known well since I born. She is very nice perso. She is the best cooker in the wrold. I have so many memoris with her. She is the most beautyful in the Univers. That is the person that I have known well."

Using new idioms

Using new idioms can be a little challenging for ESL students, as in the following examples from a student essay about the actor Will Smith:
"For me he is the jack all knives of show business."
"I apreciate him too because he is from the back side on the track..."

Saturday, April 28, 2012


One of the many wonderful things about teaching ESL is the traditional end-of-term potluck (or, as one of my students called it, “bring-food”). One quarter the four early arrivals helped me set up the tables and then we chatted while we waited for the other students to come in. Solomon (from Ethiopia) and Abdi (from Somalia) asked Panshen (from China) and Tammy (from Thailand) about the use of chopsticks in their cultures. As we had no chopsticks there, I took two pens and made some small balls of scrap paper so the two women could teach Solomon and Abdi how to use them. After a couple of minutes of failed attempts and lots of laughing on all sides, Solomon declared, “I see why you use these! It saves food because no one can ever get enough to eat!”

You wanted a what?

Students who learned British English before coming to the U.S. have a couple of challenges. One is the occasional spelling difference (colour, organise, etc.) and the other is the occasional difference in vocabulary (e.g., lift vs. elevator, lorry vs. truck).

Several years ago one such student admired an interesting eraser that another student had. It was like a mechanical pencil, except that it had a long eraser in it instead of lead. The conversation went something like this:

Bijal:  Where did you get that?
Roza:  At the pharmacy.
Bijal:  I will go to the pharmacy and get this type of rubber.
Me:  (feeling the need to interject)  Eraser, Bijal. In the U.S. it's called an eraser.
Bijal:  Yes, yes. We call it a rubber. I will ask in the pharmacy for this type of rubber.
Me: (sighing)  Maybe you should come out in the hall with me a second, Bijal.

Now, Bijal normally had great big eyes, but when I explained the most likely outcome of asking for a rubber in a pharmacy, her eyes became the size of dinner plates. As we walked back in the room, she repeated several times, “Eraser. Eraser. Eraser. Eraser?”

I nodded.
“Eraser. Eraser. Eraser...”

Monday, April 9, 2012


As I was going through an ESL catalog the other day, two titles for books on speaking skills caught my eye: “Talk-A-Tivities” and “Pronouncercizing”.

No. NO. NO!!

I understand how challenging it must be to come up with catchy titles for textbooks. I also think it’s a very bad idea to confuse students at this level with made-up words that the general population would consider incomprehensible. It does the students no favors.

The difference between the right word and the almost-right word...

Mark Twain was so very right when he said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

From a student essay:

“There is a big difference between childhood and adultery.”

Not fair!

Every term we have the Basic English students complete evaluation forms for their classes. Since the standard College forms are too complex in language and aren’t always relevant to the Basic English curriculum, I created forms that were more responsive to our needs.

One of the questions on the revised form was, “Was your teacher fair?”

Well, that had to be changed after we discovered that some of the students thought that “fair” meant “light in color”.

Next we tried, “Did your teacher treat all the students fairly?”

We’ve now learned that (sigh) we’re going to have to change that as well, as we’re getting too many negative responses, and have finally discovered that the students are looking up “fair” and going with the definition of “not very good”. Just too many possible meanings for one word!

Our next instructor meeting is Thursday. I’m sure if the weather’s fair and we get a fair number of instructors who come to the meeting rather than going to the fair, we’ll have a fair chance of coming up with something that’s ... better.

It kind of bugs me

From a student essay:
“If want to go to walk the pest place is ‘Riverside Dr.’”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Jargon? No, not really...

I was recently on a search committee for a new faculty member in another department. He was attempting to show his use of teaching technology as he said he frequently engaged in “asynchronous CMC” with the students. Well, I wasn’t about to admit in front of my peers that there was some possibly common term I wasn’t aware of, so I was very comforted when one of the faculty members (who is highly tech-savvy) asked, “What’s asynchronous CMC?”

“It’s asynchronous computer-mediated communication,” he replied.

“You mean e-mail?”


Phone messages from students

I get a number of phone messages for the instructors, some of which I can respond to with no problem. Then there are others.

“This is Mohamed. Call me back.” (He might not be aware that we have an amazing number of people named Mohamed, and not leaving a number doesn’t narrow down the possible field.)

“This is Ahmed. Tell my teacher I can’t be there today.” (Again, no number, and when I mentioned the call in an instructor meeting, one of the teachers said that she had three Ahmeds in just one of her sections.)

Don't like 'em

Course evaluations yield some interesting information, including student opinions on grammar. A few students have written that they don’t like the present perfect tense, and this student opined:

“I don’t like a irregular verbs because is some diffucal.”

Friday, February 24, 2012

Watch those referents!

From a commercial about the situation of the economy:
"The value of your pension has collapsed, and so has my house."

Friday, February 17, 2012

From student essays - January 2012

“an opportunity to have a batter future”

“African and Meddle East countries”

“Since the beginning of time, religions around the world have taught us that God created woman from man's odds.”

“ some rural areas, we see the majority of women stacked in their house cooking and taking care of their families.”

“The farmers barely produce enough to feed their families using the hoe and cuttlass.”
(Arrgh, mateys, we have to plow the South 40.)

“All kinds of traditional testy foods are found and served in the country.”