The importance of learning English for the successful settlement of newcomers can not be overstated. When the first former refugees we sponsored - a Syrian family of eight - arrived in Canada at the end of 2015, enrolling them in ESL classes was one of our top priorities. Most of them are fluent now. For Jamila, a single Eritrean mum with four small children who arrived in November 2018, participating in English classes proved to be a lot more challenging. We have not been able to find subsidized childcare for her two youngest, making it impossible for her to attend formal classes. But we have been extremely lucky to find an amazing volunteer teacher who comes to Jamila's home twice a week. Zeynep is an ESL teacher from Turkey who recently moved to Canada. Here is an account of her experience.
When I heard from a friend that they needed an ESL teacher for a single mother of four from Eritrea, I did not hesitate for a second to volunteer. I was so excited about the idea of joining this group of volunteers that I did not think about the potential hardships of the task.
At that point, it did not occur to me that she and I did not speak the same language, that all the languages she spoke (she speaks her mother tongue, Tigrinya, Arabic and Amharic) had a different alphabet, that actually being at home meant she was not only a ‘learner’ but a mother even though there was always a volunteer to keep the kids entertained. Nevertheless, we both started with great enthusiasm and motivation.
Her at-home-custom-made ESL course can be defined as functional, i.e. focused around language that we use to perform various functions, such as introducing oneself, meeting new people, making requests, giving advice, complaining, agreeing, asking permission. Although there is a core curriculum, the course is somewhat flexible to meet her immediate needs. For instance, once one of the kids had a fever, and we immediately started talking about expressing health problems, such as have a stomachache, have a headache, have the flu, and incorporated the vocabulary for internal organs. On another occasion, she was feeling blue, so we worked on how to express feelings and mood.
She is good at comprehending conversation at her level, initial basic ability (in CLB1); however, production is slightly delayed. She needs to study, but her other responsibilities do not allow her to do any homework. For this very reason, we write the new language items on colourful paper and post on her walls to accommodate some peripheral learning.
As for vocabulary, which is an essential component of the course, her progress is better. It is easier to learn and use language at the word level, since she gets input from everywhere, i.e. supermarket labels, food labels, post signs. She even utters some words when she is speaking with her kids in their own language. For example, she may say “.……. garbage” when asking the kids to put some things in the garbage bin.
Although she appreciates the kind of support she gets for English, she is looking forward to going to “school” for ESL. In my opinion, she will benefit from being in a group of learners from various language backgrounds. There will be more opportunities to repeat, recycle, revise and use the language in the classroom situation.
Our experience may shed some light on the ESL aspect of the refugee/newcomer matters. An institutional language learning experience is necessary. However, for the newcomer to be able to use the newly-acquired language real people, i.e. people whom they encounter outside of the class, may give some support. It will be highly helpful if the third parties, i.e. volunteers, social workers, public health nurses, have some training on how to address ESL learners it will enhance their learning process.
Here are some tips for sponsors and volunteers to support the learning process of the newcomer:
- It is important that we speak slowly, allowing time for them to process.
- Using body language will support the oral communication in a visual way. Acting is always a life saver if necessary.
- Use of realia, i.e., real objects will also assist communication. You can also use any object, such as clothes, utensils, furniture, as a learning tool.
Children’s books are also a good resource. They can be utilized for reading comprehension, practicing description, asking questions, and pronunciation.
By Zeynep Iskenderoglu Onel