Monday, January 29, 2007

ESL--English as a Second Language

I am in Sicily teaching English. Many people here and at home think I'm on vacation.

While I'm having a good time and meeting many old friends, I wouldn't call this a vaction. I teach every morning (except Sunday) in the local middle schools. (Hello to the students from Tisia D'Imera and Paolo Balsimo.) I start at 8:15 and go to 1:15.

Twice a week in the afternoon I go to one of the schools for a two-hour "conversation" with some of the more advanced students.

Three nights a week, from 9:30 to 11:00, (yes, that's in the evening) I teach a class for adults. The students range from people who know virtually no English to teachers of English and Greek. (This makes preaching to a diverse group on Sundays seem easy.)

In addition, I am giving a few private lessons.

As you might guess, I'm not getting much sleep. But I can sleep when I get home.

My reason for this post is not to complain about how hard I'm working. I came here to teach. I enjoy it, and some of the students seem to be benefitting from it.

But some of the students have no interest in learning English. Their parents don't speak English. Their friends don't speak English. They see no reason to invest the time and effort to do something as difficult as learning another language.

There also seems to be an attitude generated by the French teachers that English is not an important language. I've tried to combat this idea by explaining how many opportunities that English speakers have around the world which others don't.

One way I've tried to do this is by saying the following over and over again until someone figures it out or until I run out of time:
In my hand, I have a 1-Euro coin. The first person who comes to me and asks for the coin, in English, can have it.

When this is successful (about half the time), it usually takes at least 15-20 minutes. Some of these students are the equivalent of 8th-graders. They've been "studying" English for three or four years. Yet they cannot understand simple, slowly-spoken English.

Not only is the cultural environment unfriendly to learning English, but the classrooms are also hostile (to most any kind of learning).

The teachers try hard to teach, but they spend more than half their time trying to maintain order.

The rooms are constructed exclusively of hard materials (concrete and tile). The desks and chairs have metal legs. They make an annoyingly-loud noise when they are moved (even carefully). And the desks are tables for two. Two students sit shoulder to shoulder at the same desk. It doesn't take much imagination to see the potential for distractions.

And they never stop talking, at least not for long.

It reminds me of a Monty Python skit. The students make noise. The teacher trys to quiet them (sometimes by making an even louder noise). A few students yell, "Silenzio!" Evenutally there is quiet for a few moments.

Then the teacher resumes the lesson only for the process to repeat itself in a couple of minutes.

Some of the students are clearly bored. Some of them think that it is too hard to learn English, so they joke around and try to be "cool." Some of them have given up on learning at all.

But there are a few students that are truly interested in learning English. Unfortunately, they often get lost in the chaos.

So what's my point?

The world is filled with people who have no interest in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They invite people to commit the "unpardonable sin." They make fun of Christians who are hypocritical. They publish diatribes about the foolishness of believing in something you can't prove.

And many Christians spend their time and energy trying to answer these critics.

Of course, this needs to be done. But we must not focus our time and energy on these people. (I'm not advocating that we "write off" anyone.)

Instead, we must focus on the "good soil, those who are hungry for the truth. God is at work in the hearts of many people. (See 1 Kings 19.) We must be on the lookout for them, not the vocal critics. We must allow the Holy Spirit to use us to communicate God's love and grace to those who are desperate for it.

An intersting thing happens when the interested students start getting most of the attention. Some of the other students begin to develop an interest in learning themselves.

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


Rainer said...

"They've been "studying" English for three or four years. Yet they cannot understand simple, slowly-spoken English."

We have found the same situation with students, and even some English teachers, here in Ukraine. My wife teaches English to several groups of kids every week. All kids study English in school here, but very few know how to say more than "hello" in English, and they don't understand a thing.

Many people do want to learn English (or other languages), but many others simply have no idea why they should speak anything but Russian (or maybe Ukrainian).

Pastor Rod said...


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I've also noticed problems with some of the teachers, but I didn't want to say too much about that. Most of them give it their best, but they don't have many opportunities to refine their spoken English.


daniel the smith said...

Wow, and I thought this was only a problem with Americans (not wanting to learn another language, that is)...

Rainer said...


In Ukraine, there is the additional factor that many of the older teachers learned their English in a closed Soviet system, with little opportunity or possibility to communicate with English speaking people from "outside the system".

As you said, some of the teachers try their best, but if they can't speak English themselves, it's difficult to teach others.

The inability to understand or easily communicate in anything but Russian seems to maintain an artificial barrier in this country (or at least this part of the country) towards the understanding of what is really happening in the rest of the world. In communist times, people were isolated from the rest of the world. Now, with easily available news media and the internet you would think that people would be better informed than they are - but the isolation is still partially maintained by the language barrier.

I've found that local people who understand English tend to have a very different understanding of what's happening in the rest of the world than people who don't understand English.

English, in many ways, is a stupid language (my opinion anyway). With the lack of consistency in the rules of the language, it can be very frustrating for others to learn. Still, whether we like it or not, English is the International language, in business and otherwise.

Pastor Rod said...


Many of my students also think that English doesn't make much sense. But the truth is that it only seems that way because it is so complex. Each of the unusual spellings and pronounciations has historical reasons (because of the language from which the word was borrowed, for example).

I find that the more deeply I understand English the more sense it makes. I think there is a parallel with theology. Some people expect religion to be simple. But, as C. S. Lewis says, Christianity should be complicated because it deals with the real world which is also complicated (quantum physics for example).

God Bless,