Early preparation will help you feel more informed and appear more relaxed and comfortable with the adult learners you will be meeting. When you think about it, you have spent your whole life learning how to communicate with others. Now you need to consider the perspective of others, sharpen the skills you have, and learn about the system of instruction for adults learning English.
Understanding the perspective of adults learning English
Chances are you have some personal experience in learning another language and struggling to understand and to be understood. Use it for all it’s worth! Remember how you felt, what helped, and what made you feel worse. Empathy goes a long way. If adult learners realize that you understand how they feel, they’ll be more willing to trust you.
In addition to learning a new language, adult learners are also dealing with cultural shock: the many challenges of adapting to our culture. Generally, people start with a honeymoon phase, followed in a few months or year by frustration. The frustration resolves over a few years into recovery and acceptance. For more information see https://www.princeton.edu/oip/practical-matters/Cultural-Adjustment.pdf
So, when you meet newcomers, don’t be surprised if some of them are not as enthusiastic about their new life as you might expect. They are simply trying to cope with conflicting, confusing, and often painful emotions. They need time and understanding. In addition, the endless grind of learning another language for months and years takes a toll. Imagine being “wrong” day after day and having to continuously “fix” your grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation when you know you are perfectly competent in your own language! You would likely feel depressed, “stupid,” diminished, no longer yourself. The resulting frustration or anger is often hidden, but if it bubbles up, it probably isn’t directed at you as a person trying to help: it’s just “there!”
Immigrants and refugees may also have different perspectives on their new life in Canada. Immigrants chose to come, for a variety of reasons. Refugees, by definition, had no choice but to leave their home country and may dream of going back some day when conditions improve; they may have mixed feelings about Canada: they are here because they can’t be where they really want to be. In any case, they (like immigrants) already have a culture they know and love, with its language, history, traditions, way of thinking, cuisine, art and natural beauty, and now they have to adapt to Canadian culture, which, at first glance, may seem poor in comparison. It takes years to get to know and truly appreciate another culture. So, they may find it hard to be very enthusiastic about their new life. For a perspective on how refugees feel about our expectations of gratitude from them, you might listen to a CBC radio edition of The Current from May 3, 2017 at: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-may-3-2017-1.4095703/expecting-gratitude-from-refugees-can-be-toxic-says-author-1.4095737
When dealing with adults learning English, never forget that they probably are very experienced adults. Behind the uncomprehending stares, the stumbling pronunciation and the lousy grammar are hidden professionals, respectable citizens, wise parents, and creative and knowledgeable people. The language barrier is preventing them from expressing themselves fully, so they appear temporarily diminished.
Observe Body Language of Instructors and Adults Learning English
When you are working with the public, especially children and youth and those from another culture, what you do and how you interact becomes magnified. Non-verbal communication or body language is especially important in these situations. Body language can be an effective aid in communicating but it can also inhibit the formation of a trusting and respectful relationship if it is inappropriate or unprofessional. To start, observe the body language of instructors in the classroom so you can identify what seems to work well and attempt to follow that behaviour.
To get a clearer idea of what body language involves, think of situations where you have met a new person and quickly realize that the person is confused, angry, or needs help even when they haven’t said anything. Also think of how a person has responded to you when you have tried to explain something. They may have verbally agreed with you, but you can tell that they don’t or don’t yet understand. Your observations, of course, come from your knowledge of body language displayed by the people around you and that you likely take for granted. However, body language varies by culture and areas and families within a culture. You still need to use your observation skills but could need to ask for assistance in interpreting reactions, if the reactions are unexpected.
A search on the Internet using ‘body language’ will provide a list of tips or rules to follow. However, often these rules are relevant only for Western cultures and can be considered racist or ethnocentric. For example, the rules state that you are to maintain eye contact, while eye contact is avoided in some Asian and aboriginal cultures. As well, different situations call for different body language. The most responsible advice is to observe how people interact including the distance they maintain from each other, amount of eye contact, and body posture and compare it to what you do. Then you can adjust your posture to try to mirror that of others. In a classroom, the teacher will be your first role model.
The following 2009 tutorial ‘Hidden Aspects of Communication’ by Dr. Dennis O’Neil from the Behavioural Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marcos, California explains how to consider non-verbal factors in western and some international situations: http://anthro.palomar.edu/language/language_6.htm
- Observe your family, friends and people you know. Identify how they display happiness, uncertainty, and tension or other emotions. Check with them to see if your interpretation of their body language is correct. Ask them for feedback on your body language. For example, ask them about your facial expression or how you hold your body when you are happy, sad, or tense.
- Another simple activity to try with adults learning English, especially in a group representing a wide range of cultures, is to ask people to count to ten on their fingers. Do they all do it the same way? Or ask them how they signal to a waiter in their culture? How do they show that something is really good? Going beyond body language, ask them what sound various animals make (dogs, cats, chickens, etc.). Since, presumably, animals make exactly the same sounds the world over, the differences in our human interpretation of them demonstrate how we filter reality through our respective cultures.
Culture and Religion
As we grow up, we absorb ways to think and behave from the people around us. If we stayed in the same location all our lives, usually that would mean that we have a limited perspective of how people in different towns, areas, or countries might think or act or what religious beliefs they might have. However, the Internet now provides the means to at least understand that the world includes many different ways of thinking, acting and believing. Although we might have that knowledge, we won’t have an understanding of how those differences would change how we would need to think and act when working with people from different countries and belief systems. However, those who have been fortunate enough to have lived in a different culture or learn a new language to survive will definitely have more understanding of the stresses of adults learning English.
The sources at the end of this guide will provide you links to explore different world religions and cultures. Once you know the background of your community group, you will be able to learn about their general characteristics. This information could help you in determining if they are comfortable with direct eye contact or not and possibly other physical aspects such as gestures. However, do not assume that a person from a specific culture or religion follows the general characteristics. You will find out how best to approach people by first observing them and the teacher. Once you have approached them, you can ask them simple questions about their culture. Questions about where people are from, their families, and what family events they like are usual questions that we ask when we meet people for the first time no matter what background they have.
Programs for Adults learning English
Adults learning English includes adults in programs such as English as a Second Language (ESL), English as a Foreign Language (EFL), English as an Additional Language (EAL), or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). They may also be called English Language Learners (ELL) if they already speak more than one language.
English as a Second Language (ESL) classes teach English to individuals who have a native language other than English and reside in a country where the dominant language is English. English literacy development (ELD) programs provide classes for people who speak a language other than English and do not read or write very well in any language. Literacy classes help to improve reading, writing and basic math skills in English (http://settlement.org/ontario/education/english-as-a-second-language-esl/esl-for-adults/what-different-kinds-of-esl-programs-are-available/ )
Most ESL classes have structured curriculum that subdivide levels within the categories of basic, intermediate and advanced. The Canadian program is called ‘Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada’ (LINC) and is a Settlement program, funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. LINC provides basic language instruction to eligible adult newcomers – immigrants and those to whom Canada intends to grant permanent resident status – to facilitate their social, cultural and economic integration into society. Prior to registration in a LINC program all students must take a Canadian Language Benchmarks-based test in order to place them in a class at the appropriate LINC level for them. LINC programs are run in collaboration with local school boards, community agencies and private providers. The Settlement website is: http://settlement.org/
Canadian Language Benchmarks: LINC levels are based on Canadian Language Benchmarks, which are the national standard for English as a second language proficiency. They rate each individual’s ability to use the English language in four ability areas: speaking, reading, writing and listening using a 12-level descriptive scale.
- On the Benchmarks and assessing language website http: www.language.ca/, scroll down to the section “For Volunteers working with Refugees or other newcomers to Canada” and click on it. Then scroll down and click on the link for the CLB Support Kit. When you click on the link, you will see a bookshelf with one of the options titled “Exemplars”. The exemplars are video clips of an actual adult ESL demonstrating that level of ability in listening, speaking, reading and writing for a beginning stage, levels 1-4, intermediate 5-8, and advanced, 8-12. Listen to the recordings for ‘Speaking’ for different levels, such as level 1, 4, 8, and 12; to gain some idea how the ability to speak increases as the adult learner moves from a beginning stage to an advanced level. When you learn the level for the adults you will be working with, you can return to the link to check out ability levels for listening, reading and writing.
- The document titled “Can do Statements” on the website will provide you written explanations of what you have heard in the CLB Support Kit bookshelf Exemplars. These Statements will also be helpful later when you prepare your teaching materials.
- To reinforce your understanding of literacy levels, pick a topic from the website of Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership (OLIP) titled ‘Language Learning for Health’ http://olip-plio.ca/knowledge-base/toolkit/ and compare how the topic is delivered to learners with different literacy levels.