ESL: Like Student, Like Teacher

by Marty Green

As an ESL teacher, I try to encourage my adult newcomer students as much as possible. Yes, you can learn English. Yes, you can find work in Canada.

When I talk like this, students smile at me. I know many are thinking: “That’s easy for you to say! You don’t have to learn English and look for work!”

Actually, I had to look for work after I learned English. Three times.

First I looked after I studied English literature in university. Then I looked after I studied business communications in college. Then, about ten years later, I looked after I went back to college to become an ESL teacher. Thankfully, I found work each time, though each time it took some effort to find it.

Now here’s something that might really surprise you. I had studied English a lot, but when I was learning how to teach ESL, in some ways I was also learning ESL. For several months, my first language felt like a second language!

The main reason is this. Before I took my ESL teaching course, I was never formally taught English grammar. I could have told you the meaning of many, many verbs, but if you had asked me if a verb was transitive or intransitive I would have just stared at you with a puzzled face.

In fact, that’s often how I looked at my grammar teacher. He asked many questions I couldn’t answer. I knew English, but I soon learned I didn’t know about English. Just because I could speak and write the language didn’t mean I could teach it.

I was shaken. And it seemed many of my classmates had the same experience. I’ll never forget the uncomfortable silences when our grammar teacher asked a class of native English speakers questions as “easy” as: If we say “I am driving my car”, why don’t we say “I am owning my car”? (Because own is a stative verb, and stative verbs aren’t normally used in the continuous tenses.)

What’s one difference between “during” and “while”? (While is often followed by a subject and verb, during isn’t. I fell asleep while I was studying English, not during I was studying.)

Why do we say “I have eaten today” but not “I have eaten yesterday”? (Because we don’t use the present perfect tense with finished past time references like yesterday.)

Why do we say “I have a lot of time” but not “I have much time”? (Because much is normally used in questions and negative sentences. Is there much time left? There isn’t much time left.)

What are some rules for using the definite article with the names of bodies of water? (Use the for oceans and rivers – the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Lawrence River. Don’t use the for lakes and bays – Lake Ontario, Hudson Bay.)

What’s one way to explain the difference between -ed and -ing adjective pairs like interested and interesting, bored and boring? (-ing adjectives are causes, -ed adjectives are results. The boring movie caused people to feel bored.)
My small knowledge of grammar was embarrassing; it caused me to feel embarrassed.

Just as troubling was what I thought I knew but discovered I didn’t. For example, like many people I thought it was okay to say “I was laying on the sofa”. But we should say “I was lying on the sofa”. If the verbs lie and lay confuse you, don’t feel bad: they also confuse many native English speakers. It might help you to remember that the base verb lay is used with an object (you lay something on the sofa) but lie is used only with a subject (you lie on the sofa).

One more example of grammar I didn’t know. Like many native English speakers I sometimes said “If I would have.ˮ But I learned I should say “If I had” instead. If only I had studied grammar earlier…

My pronunciation class was just as eye-opening – or rather, ear-opening. The teacher asked: Why does a ‘t’ sometimes sound like a ‘d’, as when we say the word ‘water’? He explained that when the ‘t’ is between two vowel sounds, and the first vowel sound is stressed – WAter – then often, though not always, the ‘t’ is pronounced as if it were a ‘d’.

I also found out that, like water, most two-syllable nouns are stressed on the first syllable (TAble, PICture, DOCtor). Similarly, compound nouns are stressed on the first word-part (WATERfall, NEWSpaper, BASEball).

On the other hand, more two-syllable verbs are stressed on the second syllable (reVIEW, arRIVE, beLIEVE) than on the first. And two-word verbs are also usually stressed on the second part (try ON, get OVER, wake UP).

By now you can see why, after my first weeks in school, I felt I couldn’t even spell ESL let alone teach it.

However, I studied hard and learned and passed the course. Yet even today, more than ten years of teaching and learning later, I’m still not sure about a number of things concerning English. When students ask me grammer questions, I don’t always know the answers. (By the way, if my bosses are reading this, it was written by a different Marty Green.)

Sometimes I also make little English mistakes. In fact, I made one in the last paragraph just to prove my point. Did you see it? It’s a common ESL student spelling error. Hint: the error is a “grammar” mistake but not a grammar mistake. That’s right: I misspelled grammar as grammer.

You may ask: why don’t we spell it grammer? Isn’t that closer to how we actually say the word?

Yes, it is. But in English, often we don’t spell as we speak (or speak as we spell). And that was something else my pronunciation class taught me: how hard English spelling makes it for ESL students to learn to speak and write the language. Before the class I never cared that we write cough but say “cof”, write knee but say “nee”. After the class, I did.

My ESL-teaching course showed me how little I knew about some aspects of my own language. It also made me think differently about aspects I knew pretty well. The experience was humbling. But it was also fascinating. I learned to see in a fresh way what had been familiar to me.

We think we know about life, and then someone – a teacher, a friend, an artist, a thinker – describes or explains things in a new way. And suddenly we see as children see, as if for the first time. Isn’t this also true of starting a new life in a new country? The experiences that wake us up are among the most important and most exciting we can have.

True, they can also make us lose confidence. What wakes us up can shake us up. But that’s one reason I wanted to tell you about my own English learning experience. If you can see ESL teachers – and native English speakers in general – as fellow language learners who don’t always have all the answers, you might feel more comfortable in class and in Canada.

English is my native language. Canada is my native country. But I still have things to discover about so vast a language and so vast a country. Like student, like teacher!

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