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.”