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Defining Moments

The give and take of ESL tutoring
December 21, 2010

Have you ever tried to define the word “ironic”? It’s pretty ironic how difficult it is to explain, especially to someone whose native tongue isn’t English. Of course there’s always the dictionary. But as a tutor in English as a second language (ESL), I’d rather not go there. After all, I’m trying to model that directive we all heard in grammar school: figure out the word from context.

english practice Dolma Tsering in class with Janet Walzer.

Every Friday morning, I attempt to explain “ironic” and other words to my students—Tseten Chodon, Tsering Mulug-Labrang, Ngawang Shakya, and Dolma Tsering—as part of the MIT Women’s League ESL Program. This all-volunteer effort, launched in May 2009, offers free ESL instruction to custodial and grounds-service employees whose primary languages include Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, and Tibetan.

As anyone who has done ESL work knows, it involves much more than reading and writing. Tutors and students must communicate across cultures. My students are from Tibet; I’m from New Jersey. My students are custodial employees in Facilities; I’m a communications manager in Human Resources. But these differences become irrelevant as we focus on improving their reading comprehension, adding to their vocabulary, and increasing their confidence in their ability to speak and understand English.

When I began volunteering, in the fall of 2009, I tutored one student, Ngawang, whose story is the stuff of novels. More than a decade ago, Ngawang escaped from Tibet, crossing the Himalayas in freezing weather. He made it to India—and ultimately to Boston thanks to the Immigration Act of 1990, which enabled 1,000 displaced Tibetans to settle in the United States.

Ngawang is a model student: always prepared, curious, and serious about improving his skills. During one meeting, I asked him to read aloud from his homework. He had written a line about the sun that read like poetry. I’m not sure he understood my explanation when I said it sounded like haiku, but his creativity with the assignment certainly showed me an aspect of his personality that I hadn’t seen before.

Last winter we were joined by Tseten, a colleague of Ngawang’s. They were comfortable with the arrangement, kidding like a brother and sister. We started to go beyond the workbook curriculum and talk about real-life situations. At one meeting we discussed what typically occurs during a physical exam. I hoped that this discussion would help them ask and answer questions at their next doctor’s visit, an important interaction that can prove challenging when English isn’t your first language. We also started to do some exercises from a high-school equivalency workbook to prepare them for taking the GED.

This fall, Tsering and Dolma joined our class. With four students, I’m reminded of what it’s like to be the person who doesn’t understand the language. During one session, two students started to talk in Tibetan, and soon a spirited discussion was taking place that didn’t include me. Although I asked everyone to switch back to English, it soon became clear that not everything can be translated. It also reminded me of the effort it takes to try. I’m sure it’s exhausting and frustrating at times, although you’d never know it from my students.

Recently, I’ve expanded the curriculum to include articles from The Week, which summarizes U.S. and international news. Together, my students and I are learning a lot about a lot. In my quest for more realistic situations, I’ve pulled out a clothing catalogue and asked questions related to placing an order. I’ve also discussed MIT’s health benefits, which they found especially useful. At the end of every class, without fail, I receive a big thank-you from all of them. They don’t take our time for granted and I’ve come to realize that I don’t either. Maybe this is ironic coming from a communications professional, but I now have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to communicate effectively and, more important, what it means to be understood.

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