On Talking To A Non-Native English Speaker

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September 10, 2015
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Interacting with Americans can be intimidating for some visitors and immigrants to the United States. Americans can be pushy, entitled, loud, and impatient; not a good first impression if you ask me. On the other hand, there are some compassionate Americans who use empathy when encountering non-native English speakers.

“It’s important to show you want to understand [the students] as badly as they want to be understood, otherwise, they become self-conscious and stop trying as hard.”

I recently spoke with a colleague who interacts with immigrants on a daily basis as an ESOL teacher at the Fort Washington Library in Harlem. Karen goes out of her way to understand what her students have to say because she knows how hard they are working to perfect their English. “It’s important to show you want to understand [the students] as badly as they want to be understood,” Karen says, “Otherwise, they become self-conscious and stop trying as hard.”

Karen also makes a point of encouraging her students to use hand gestures when they cannot find the right words to express themselves. “If one of my students suddenly stops speaking in order to think about the next word, I shout- ‘Use Your Hands,” her students’ hands go up in the background. “This forces them to think differently about the idea they’re trying to convey. It also makes for some hilarious hand gestures.”

Karen has her students get into pairs for a ten-minute conversation before the end of each class. Instead of participating, Karen walks around giving helpful tips to aide in each conversation. There is a hushed din in the room as each pair tries to hold a conversation as long as possible without stopping. Nevertheless, every 30 seconds Karen suddenly shouts “Use Your Hands!” and a pair of hands shoot up involuntarily.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about speaking English, it’s about communication.”

Her methods may be unorthodox, but Karen’s passionate work with her students helps them build the confidence they need to speak and be understood outside of the classroom.

I asked Karen during the interview, “What do you experience when you have a conversation with a non-native English speaker?” Karen smiled and said, “I want them to succeed! When one of my students has a story or a strong opinion about something and they can’t find the words to express themselves in English, you can see the built up frustration rippling through them. I always find myself rooting for them to find a way to get it out. That’s why I always say ‘Use Your Hands’! Your body knows what you’re trying to say. Sometimes you just have to let it do the work.” Karen looks at her students, “At the end of the day, it’s not about speaking English, it’s about communication; fulfilling that instinctual need to connect with another human being. That’s what I’m teaching these students.”

 

English is sometimes referred to as a difficult language to learn, but don’t let that intimidate you.  Check out “US ACCENT COACH” to get started!

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