English as a Second Language, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
Education in America
English as a Second Language

Learning English as a Second Language
This section was contributed by Jodi Diderrich

The best thing about life in the United States is that no matter how many difficult or unwelcoming situations an immigrant or foreign born visitor might run into, there are always, just a step or two beyond them, wonderful networks of people whose sole aim in life is to make things right again. One such network is made up of people who teach English as a Second Language.

There are many different organizations geared to this purpose. Some are in the business of teaching English to people who can afford the time and money to immerse themselves in the English language for weeks or months or even years, as they please. Some are volunteer agencies that seek out and recruit people who will give their time in exchange for nothing more than the satisfaction of helping others. Others are somewhere in the middle, utilizing both volunteers and paid staff to teach English to those in need, charging only enough to cover their costs.

Each of these groups brings with them the understanding of what learning a new language entails and at least a minimal level of training. While some people may think learning a language is simple, anyone involved with these organizations has witnessed first hand that for the vast majority of people it is simply not the case. Part of the reason that language learning can be challenging is the fact that learning a language is not a single step process. There are four separate components to language instruction: writing, reading, speaking, and understanding. This factor, coupled with a myriad of different learning curves, learning styles, and cultural complexities make second language instruction challenging, to say the least.

Learning to read and write in English can be further complicated by the fact that not all languages are written using our alphabet. Further, even those languages that use a similar alphabet do not use the same phonetics, or sounds, to describe or pronounce the letters. So, no matter what country a nonnative English speaker originates, the first thing they must do before they can learn to read or write in English is to learn the letters of the alphabet, perhaps for the first time, or perhaps all over again. Having mastered the alphabet, next will come the daunting task of learning the rules of phonics. Anyone who has really looked at the English language will realize immediately how difficult this can be because, in the English language, no phonics rule remains unbroken for very long. For example, the sentence My cat is so furry could also be written as Mbie kaut yz sew gheree and still be read exactly the same. (Consider the mb in dumb, the au in laugh, the y in myth, the gh in laugh, etc.) In essence, every single word in English must be memorized according to which rule it follows or which rule it breaks for pronunciation of its letters. Now, there are those who would say, well, we did it, didnít we? We learned to read in the first grade after all, didnít we? If those same people think about it, though, theyíll realize three things. First, it actually took them years and years to learn to read and write the many words they now know, second, there are probably many words they still canít spell by heart, and finally, there are still many native English speakers who did not learn to read or write and continue to struggle with it, even today.

Speaking English and understanding it might be thought of by many who have never learned a second language as one skill. If a person can understand English, they can surely speak it, canít they? Unfortunately, this is not necessarily so. Nor is it necessarily true that if a person can speak a language, that they can automatically understand it when it is spoken back to them. The author of this article can attest to that one herself. People often do not naturally speak slowly enough or clearly enough in any language for a non-native speaker to easily understand. It is imperative that both skills be mastered before engaging in any important conversation with another person in the new language.

That being said, second language learners, take heart. There are indeed many organizations out there that not only understand how difficult it is to learn a second language, they also have the skills to teach you to the best of your ability and they will stick with you as long as it takes.

There are Literacy Councils throughout the United States, including Kenosha, Wisconsin, St. Paul, Minnesota, Birmingham, Alabama, Rockford, Illinois and hundreds of other cities that utilize trained volunteers to teach English language skills to, not only nonnative English speakers, but also to native English speakers that, for whatever reason, did not learn to read and write during their childhood or adolescence. Many offer one-on-one tutoring for individualized instruction, drop-in tutoring where trained volunteers are available to guide students through their lessons or help with homework, and small group classes where students study civics or economics, practice their conversation skills, or prepare for upcoming naturalization testing. For more information on Literacy Councils in the United States, there is an organization called Proliteracy. At www.Proliteracy.org a person can search for a nearby Literacy Council by clicking on find a program at the bottom of the page. Each Literacy Council has its own individualized training program geared toward preparing tutors to deal with the different students they will encounter. To become a tutor for the Kenosha Literacy Council, for example, a person must attend fourteen hours of training. During this training, potential tutors are instructed on the complexities of learning a language and informed about the different learning styles and learning disabilities they might encounter. They are then given proven strategies on how best to instruct students in light of these variables and opportunities to role-play different tutoring situations. Additional support and training are provided several times a year for tutors to attend at their discretion.

Another resource for English Instruction is through local technical colleges. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, for example, Gateway Technical College has an ESL program funded by various state and federal grants which provides free English classes to Wisconsin residents. According to Ginger Karaway, Gatewayís ELL District Chair, the only charge to the student is the cost of the books. Also offered at Gateway are the computer programs Rosetta Stone and Grammar Mastery which are geared toward students that want additional practice and/or prefer to work independently on their English skills. In addition, students are encouraged to access the many free on-line English learning programs whenever they have free time at home. There are many other technical colleges throughout the United States that offer free or low cost English instruction, including Altamaha Technical College in Jesup, Georgia, Truman College in Chicago, Illinois, and Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina. The level of education required to be an ESL Instructor at a technical college or community college varies from state to state, but many, like Gateway, Altamaha, Truman, and Midlands, require a bachelorís degree or better.

If a person is fortunate enough to have the time and the money to put toward a full-immersion English language program, there are a number of excellent colleges and universities out there with professional instructors, offering a variety of different programs tailored to suit individual learning styles and personalities. One such program is GEOS English Academy based in San Francisco, California. GEOS offers Masterís level instructors, free placement testing, small class sizes, individual counseling and feedback at the end of each four week course, as well as social and volunteer opportunities in a studentís chosen field of interest. Other similar programs can be found throughout the United States, including IPSA with schools in a number of states (including Hawaii) and Spring International Language Center with three locations in Arkansas and Colorado. For an online listing of other English language programs throughout the United States, there is the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP) at www.aaiep.org/.

Although learning a second language may appear at first glance to be a daunting passage, with the help of trained people, dedicated to making the journey as easy as they are able, it is possible to not only learn that second language, but to enjoy the sights and sounds along the way.


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