I've accumulated two local ESOL students over the last fortnight: I am tutoring one from Russia (a married woman with children) and one from China (a high school guy). The former is determined to improve her already considerable language skills, while the latter may require being dragged by his lapels into the broader world of knowledge. Both are thoroughly nice and extremely intelligent; just their level of motivation is vastly different. The guy is addicted to League of Legends--much to the frustration of the adults in his life (both here and overseas--his guardian led me to believe that his parents threw up their hands and packed him off abroad in hopes of breaking his online gaming habit)--and I've got to come up with a way of engaging him in learning away from the computer. The woman is actually a medical doctor fluent in three other languages prior to English, and she looks forward to becoming comfortable in the culture, and possibly employed in research in her field, as she and her family are due to stay here for at least five years. The high school student ultimately needs to pass the TOEFL and get into a decent university (his math and science skills are great).
I was once told that when you are trying to figure out how to teach material to someone, you study more than you did when you were a student yourself, and this has been proven true. Since these two students are wholly dissimilar in terms of stage of life, interests and social background, not to mention home country and native language, each requires an individually-tailored plan to address his or her needs. Yesterday, I decided to have Katya read through a selection on the history of Halloween, both to practice her pronunciation and to introduce her to the American holiday. In preparing for the lesson, I read several articles about how we got our contemporary celebration, and discovered that its current incarnation is only about a century old. As an historian, it's fascinating to me see how traditions that we take for granted as having been passed down from ancient times are, in fact, of relatively recent genesis. For example, trick-or-treating as we practice it today was only first mentioned in the 1920s. And, contrary to popular understanding, Halloween was usually a fairly benign, if not relatively positive holiday in both the old pagan and the Christian traditions--although it marked the remembrance of the dead, there does not seem to have been the level of gruesome terror associated with it that many people now incorporate in their decorations. As a matter of fact, the theatrical qualities of festooning houses with elements evoking dismembered murder victims is probably more an influence of Hollywood than heritage.
Teaching someone your language can feel like a game of Taboo, where you have to describe an object or concept without using particular off-limits words, since you realize they don't know the "clarifying" words either. And there are so many basic concepts that one language takes for granted as universal than in fact are not. For example: the case of the color red. To some it symbolizes blood, to others Communism, and to others, (particularly in Asian countries) good luck. The American good luck color, by way of contrast, is green (thanks to our Catholic Irish influences and the general hue of our currency). I suspect the phrase "capitalist running dogs" is somehow a grave insult in Mandarin, but to us it's a funny image, not a hurtful one. Neither of my students knows much about American history (world history is not a subject on which they are tested in China, I was told today), and though I do know a pretty fair amount about Russian history, I can't say the same for that of places further southeast. At any rate, I am going to try to "elicit" (a good TESOL instructional term) as much language from my students as possible while teaching them about the United States and general English vocabulary.
My friend June and I hope to complete our initial applications to work as ESOL instructors abroad by the end of this week (we've been saying this for more than a month now, but by golly...). My international teaching CV has to be topped with a head shot, and list my age, number of dependents, and marital status--all data technically illegal to ask for here in the US, but essential to any attempt at finding employment overseas. I hope 40 is considered a lucky age number in some places!