Teaching English As A Second Or Foreign Language/Esl Language Instructor Learning a Language: Make It Real and You’ll Never Forget It

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Learning a Language: Make It Real and You’ll Never Forget It

Sniffing, then squinting and holding a kiwi a Chinese student muttered something he wasn’t sure he meant to translate. A classmate from Brazil leaned over, pointed to a picture in a picture dictionary. Two Korean ladies giggled, their hands covering their mouths.

The lesson on nutrition bombed big time. When the ESL class ended, none of us were happy, but at least the topic had been covered. “Review your vocabulary materials before the next class,” I encouraged. They were all new to the United States. Some had been in their new country only a few days, others a few weeks. A few for a couple of months or more, but no one had yet crossed into the realm of communicating every day in English. I had to do something to help my multicultural class of ESL students begin to internalize the language. Thinking back to my own struggle with the French language in Paris and in French Canada, the answer struck me. The next class was ready.

“Alright everyone, let’s go” I asked. They all gave me guessing looks.

“Where are we going?”

“Just wait. I’ll see you.”

Earlier, I arranged with the manager of a local supermarket located three blocks from where we had our English classes, to bring the 15 adult students on a field trip. Representing Colombia, Brazil, Poland, China, Korea, Puerto Rico and Vietnam, the group made for a curious sight as we stumbled through the remnants of a week-long snowstorm. Many of them had experienced snow for the first time just a few days ago. Two of the newly immigrated Chinese men were wearing sandals. I kept my comments on this to myself, confident that they would learn soon enough. I just hope they don’t have Pneumonia.

“Okay, where are we?” I asked.

“The shop”

“The Supermarket”

“food store”

“big market”

It didn’t take long to realize that no one had been to a large supermarket. Most of the food they bought in small local supermarkets that catered to the tastes of their immigrant neighborhoods. Their reactions ranged from shock and disbelief to admiration and wonder. There was also more than a little curiosity present.

For the next forty minutes or so, with notebooks and writing pads open, we methodically go up one isle and down the other exploring the food and container vocabulary presented in previous lessons. Stories we exchanged in broken English. Anecdotes emerged. A student offered to push the shopping cart to collect the items that he had to pay for later.

“No, you can’t just buy an egg,” I explained.

“At home, you can buy only what you need,” many students answered.

“Two eggs or a cigarette, even half a loaf of bread or a cup of rice” they explained as they could.

They caressed grapes, sniffed, licked and nibbled new fruits, and strange vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, pumpkin and acorn squash. I bought watermelon, varieties of apples, preserves, jars of sauces, pretzels and pickled goods to take back to the classroom for the display. That class outing used “realia” or real physical objects, to make the lesson “real” for the students. It generated discussions, jokes and humorous stories until the following spring and beyond.

Use actual objects and articles instead of just pictures to make your language learning real and more natural. Think about the difference it makes to have a can or jar of something in your hands versus a picture of a can or jar in a book. The other containers, box, bottle, bag, package, roll and tube, were alive and were instantly assimilated by the students who brought in containers full (or empty) of products from their respective countries. Try a nearby Zoo for animals, a museum, a pizzeria, the cinema, even a local park to breathe life and reality into your foreign language courses like we do. Problems? Yes, a few, but you and your students will be amazed by the difference it makes inside the language. Whether you are an EFL or a foreign language teacher or a language learner, using realia will go a long way in making your new language “real” to you. It will also be a lot of fun. I promise.

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