Suddenly, the Spotlight’s on Me

Wei-Liang Lin learned to overcome the jitters arising from an assignment as a nonnative-English-speaking teacher of a diverse class of adults in the United States. See Ulla Connor’s Out of the Box article, "Fear and Loathing on the Convention Stage," Essential Teacher, December 2006, pp. 22-25.

As a former elementary school English teacher in my native Taiwan, I had never before faced a class like my first one at International House in the United States. With intermediate-level adult students from Japan, Brazil, mainland China, France, Italy, Mexico, Taiwan, and Thailand, the class resembled a small United Nations.

The students had come to the United States for various purposes: to learn the latest technology in their profession, to rejoin family members, or to work as au pairs or study at U.S. universities. With this class, I learned the true meaning of "We are the world," and all in English. The students and I talked, worked, and played games together.The teacher-to-student relationship gradually became a friend-to-friend relationship. The teacher-fronted setting somehow naturally evolved into a collaborative learning experience. All of us, including me, the teacher, came together to learn English.

First-Day Jitters

I had a restless night before the first class as thousands of questions swirled in my mind: Was I really qualified for the class? What would the adult students think of me as a nonnative-English-speaking teacher? Would they beat me up or insult me if I could not answer their questions about English, or would they be easygoing? Fear built within me nearly to the point of absolute panic.

On the first day of class, despite having rehearsed what to say multiple times the night before, I had no idea what I was talking about. My previous students had been nine- to twelve-year-olds; my current students were adults. Adding to my stress was the fact that, for the first time, I needed to use English, my own target language, to teach the class.

As it turned out, my first class went better than I had expected even though I made innumerable blunders in expressing myself and through unconscious actions caused by nervousness. I found that my adult students were very tolerant of me as a nonnative-English-speaking teacher, and their motivation to learn English was so strong that they were highly attentive and well prepared for class. I quickly understood that English was not merely interesting to them but that, here in the United States, it was alive and vital to their daily lives.

Tough Questions

Since the students were diverse in age, motivation for learning English, and cultural background, the challenges in teaching them were quite different from those I had faced in Taiwan. For example, although the students were very nice and cooperative, I had trouble answering their questions about daily life in the United States, especially those associated with culture.

Once a student asked why his American friends knocked on the table after making a comment. The dictionary I consulted was no help, and I discovered the answer only after I asked a native speaker I had observed doing something similar. In another instance, my first language took over unconsciously: I used Chinese characters to count off groups of five instead of using the Arabic counting system. I learned that I was expected to teach not only a foreign language completely different from my native tongue, but also an alien culture that I, too, was having trouble coming to grips with.

Before class, one female student liked to ask me about the many examples of informal English she heard on TV or from her native colleagues. This informal language, including slang, idioms, and colloquial expressions, is especially difficult for second language learners despite the linguistic simplicity of its constituents. I always had a dictionary with me to consult, but often the students and I ended up learning this idiomatic English together. In fact, in order to satisfy my students' need to learn more colloquial English, I studied relevant materials every day--more intensively than I did the material for the graduate courses I was enrolled in.

English in Real Time

The focus of the class was not simply on discrete linguistic issues, such as intonation, accent, and pronunciation; instead, the emphasis was on understanding one another. The communicative function of English was central. To help us reach our goal, we often went out together after class to learn English, surrounded by soft music and slightly yet pleasantly intoxicating surroundings. In this way, the students and I helped each other move toward our shared goal: learning the language and learning it well.

Wei-Liang Lin (weiliang@dolphin.upenn.edu) is working on a master's in TESOL at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States.

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