Language Reflects Identity: How I Learned It The Wrong Way

| July 1, 2014 | 0 Comments

Education July-14“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my mom said, a child or a book or a plant – anything his hand has touched.” These wise words ceased to puzzle me when I reached 25 as I experienced what might be called a ‘quarter-life crisis’.

“I’m not wealthy. What do I have to offer?”

I reviewed my competencies as objectively as I could. Then, an idea hit me: I’d volunteer as an ESL tutor for indigenous kids!  The thought of taking care of tender plants (the minds of children of aboriginal origin) and seeing their leaves unfold day by day was just downright exhilarating.

Mission: Educate a Special Bunch of Children

I eagerly filled out an online form and expressed my earnest desire to join a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the education of indigenous children. Immediately after signing up, I got an email confirming my membership. The post I applied for was in great demand at that time. I was to teach children aged 9-12 how to speak, write, and read Standard English.

Pride and delight swelled in my heart. I was going to be a rescuer – the hero awaited by kids imprisoned by poverty and ignorance. English language education was the best gift I could give to the children. I thought it would be an immensely helpful tool to expand their minds and learn more about the world.

The purpose of our outreach was to close the literacy gap between Australian students and aboriginal children. I desired that they embrace English as the ultimate language – the  key to a wealth of printed and recorded learning materials.

Identity and Self-Discovery

We never exactly know the impression we create on other people…I mean than we have no mental picture corresponding to the image our personality leaves in the minds of others.

I was right to assume that my aboriginal students have a great need to sharpen their English language skills. They had to understand listening and reading passages in order to explore more complex information written and spoken in English. But I overlooked a crucial aspect of ESL teaching – I was sharing topics that only interest students from my own culture.

To make matters worse, I insisted on using only the target language (English) while in the classroom. I totally neglected the fact that their native language could assist in learning the second language. Since the students could not express themselves using their mother tongue, they had trouble communicating their thoughts and feelings. I kept using the direct method of ESL teaching  because I thought allowing them to use their dialect will  impede the learning progress.

In a matter of weeks, I noticed a drop in their attendance. I began with five students. Then after a few weeks, only three students attended – until there has been just one left. I panicked. I grappled with this truancy issue. I did not realize then the biggest blunder I committed: I tried to impose my values to replace theirs.

What did I do wrong?

Aboriginal students learn from their parents through repetitive storytelling – this is the educational approach they are used to. In their culture, they mostly listened and absorbed massive amount of knowledge from their parents’ and elders’ tales. It never crossed my mind that learning about their culture (how they think and live) was paramount if my goal was to really reach out to them.

As I look back, I know I blindly went about it. I replaced reflective teaching with canned teaching strategies – techniques I find easy for me, not on the learner. I used the techniques that worked with traditional students without regard for their own way of living and learning.

I cannot stress this enough: if anyone attempts to teach aboriginal children, they need to be culturally knowledgeable. It was the situation where I least expect to learn about identity and self-discovery. Specifically, I realized that:

  1. ESL lessons need to be relevant and applicable to students’ daily life.
  2. More than English learning, students yearn to find answers to these questions: “who am I?” and “where do I fit in?”
  3. Every culture matters, aboriginal or not. If you wish to reach out to a different cultural group, study their ways and adapt them in your outreach programs.
  4. You need a lot patience when teaching indigenous children, willing to give students as many chances as they need to understand ESL concepts thoroughly.
  5. Involve their family in their journey to learning English as an additional language – no ally would have been more powerful.

More about Erika Schmidt’s work and the source of this article can be found at the Kids Worldly website: Mission: Teach Children

Erika Schmidt

Erika Schmidt

Erika Schmidt is a wordcrafter working with the amazing and talented people at Author Specialists. She has a penchant for playing with words and punctuation marks, sorting them into fascinating forms that tell shareable stories. When she isn’t busy writing or editing in her computer, she’s either riveted in playing mind games or doing outdoor activities or unearthing new things in life with her husband, Ansel. She currently lives at Queensland together with her wonderful family. You can follow her on G+.

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