ESL stands for English as a Second Language, an academic discipline that aims to prepare students for a lifetime of effective communication in English. The field also goes by EFL (English as a Foreign Language), ELL (English Language Learning), and a whole barrage of other acronyms. It’s a large field with crucial importance. As of 2012, federally-funded ESL programs served nearly one million adult learners in the U.S. And the field continues to grow.
In two years, I’ll be joining the field as a professor.
But to be a successful ESL professor in the United States, I have to do so much more than just teach grammar. ESL students bring our global world into the classroom—where diverse identities, emotions, and life experiences interact with the politically-charged endeavor of learning English in America.
And this is the true excitement—and challenge—of teaching ESL: the students.
In my 14 years as a college tutor, I’ve learned that ESL students can be broken down into three populations: international students, immigrants, and refugees.
International students are young, usually between 17 and 25 years old. They are often attending college for the first time, away from their parents and native country. These young people—like any study-abroad student—are preoccupied with culture shock, homesickness, and the thrill of independence. Like all young adults, international students are sculpting adult identities. But one thing they are not ready for is the minefield of American identity politics—especially race. And this is where the ESL instructor has to be more than a teacher; I have to be a cultural informant. After that first racial slur shouted at them across a city street or the first restaurant where waiters overlook them, international students need information about U.S. history and the cultural terrain they’ve entered. Too often, without this information, they blame themselves and lose confidence in their communication skills.
Immigrants tend to be older and thus have firmly established identities as parents and employees. Unlike international students, immigrants have made the difficult choice to leave everything behind in their native countries in order to give their children a better education and attain a higher quality of life in the U.S. But no matter how committed they are to that relocation, starting over at midlife is hard. And it’s even harder when you’re living in a foreign country, operating in a foreign language. In fact, learning “A is for Apple” at age 42 crushes the adult ego into a fine powder—more than any other experience I’ve yet seen. Immigrant students often interpret every error as “stupidity” and personal failure. Again, the ESL educator has to step in as a coach and get these students back on track. Redirecting students’ focus to their successes and their goals helps them keep their head in the game.
But of all three populations, refugees face the greatest struggles. The refugees I’ve worked with range in age from late teens to late sixties. I’ve worked with students who have survived civil war, genocide, human trafficking, and prisoner of war camps. But that’s hardly the end. After escaping their homes, many of them spent years in refugee camps, where education was spotty at best. After the refugee camps, they have often been shuttled between different countries. By the time international organizations have settled them in the U.S., many refugees are browbeat and tired, struggling with rage and a sense that they have no control over their fates. Before I can accomplish anything with refugee students, I have to establish mutual trust and respect. Language learning makes students vulnerable to mistakes and confusion, and it can feel especially unsettling for students carrying almost unspeakable stories. Whether or not students share their stories of atrocity and survival, one of the most important tasks with refugees is to listen. In ESL, the goal is communication, and refugees especially need that space to be heard, to have their stories witnessed, to have their reflections honored.
I once attended an academic conference where a presenter stated that all ESL educators are essentially activists. I believe this is true. And while the primary goal is effective English communication, that communication is facilitated in a classroom where students feel their experiences, voices, and identities are recognized as valid. International students, immigrants, and refugees may have diverse experiences and backgrounds, but all ESL students need a safe space and a sense of community where they can explore how best to say what is most important to them. It is not enough to be a great teacher in ESL. ESL teachers must also serve their students as a cultural informant, a coach, and a witness.
This is the challenge and the reward of teaching ESL.