An Ode to English Learners – An Essay by Kathryn Aedy

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I love tutoring English to people who have another language as their mother tongue. I mean ‘love’ in its truest sense.

I can’t help but admire the person who is making life work in a place ruled by English, while at the same time learning the very language. Conversations can be so direct with English learners. When someone uses the most explanatory words possible rather than hinting at an underlying message, there’s less of a need to read between lines. An added bonus is being able to learn novel facts about places I’ve never been, as well as gaining new perspectives on some of the deeper matters of life.

One of my first English students was a young high school boy I tutored through Pathways to Education, during my first year of undergraduate studies. He was soft spoken and determined. He came from Pakistan, and worked in the shop his parents ran in order to help pay the bills. Not only was he dedicated to developing his own English voice, but he was also realising one for his parents, who were navigating their way through Toronto life with limited knowledge of English. For a couple of weeks I looked forward to his quiet smile, the homework he would present to me, and his carefully thought out questions.

Due to a number of shootings in the area, my friend and I, who were only 18 at the time, decided to put our safety before our volunteerism and we stopped going. Nearly a decade later I still wonder about his progress. I probably miss him more than he ever missed me, but my heart hurts a little when I think about abandoning our weekly routine so suddenly. I imagine he’s fluent by now!

***

Years later I taught an adult English class for the first time, during the evening at a local community centre. Some students were naturally more vocal than others. One woman, who had left behind a professional career in Portugal, enlightened the class on the conditions at the chicken factory she’d worked at since moving to Toronto, told us how to make the perfect caldeirada de peixe soup, and joked about the personalities of her family members. Another woman from Vietnam was much more hesitant to speak in class. She was preparing for her Canadian citizenship test while working overtime in a restaurant. Sometimes her young English-speaking daughter would come along, join in group activities and happily help the other students.

That same year on a weekend visit home, I picked up a book that my mum, a librarian, had brought home from work: Bite of the Mango. The author Mariatu Kamara, a survivor of civil war in Sierra Leone, describes in painful detail her experience of living through war. I took the book to the class and had each of the students read however much of it they felt comfortable reading aloud. Week by week we became increasingly immersed in the small village Mariatu grew up in, and more invested in her fate. We empathised with her struggles as she lived in expectation of the worst: house raids, having to hide, fearing nightfall, and having her hands cut off by rebel soldiers. With students’ instructions based on Mariatu’s descriptions, I mapped out her village on the front whiteboard. We stopped to untangle complex words and ideas as they arose.

One Ugandan student related particularly deeply to the book, and brought it to life for the class. He explained his similar experiences of war, and vividly described his encounter with a leopard mother in the bush. He talked about how he stared into her eyes as she defended her young. “You want to see her before she sees you, because leopards are most active at night.”

It was so satisfying to hear at the end of the day, when my students – immigrants, Permanent Resident hopefuls, and refugees, each with exhausting struggles of their own – smiled after class and said, “We couldn’t be tired, because this class was so good.” The feeling was mutual. When I returned to my own studies, I left the book behind. I wonder how everyone is doing. I hope they finished the story together.

***

“As long as I am here on this earth, I have all that I need.” A mantra shared by another one of the many formidable humans I’ve met through English tutoring. A psychologist from Kazakhstan, she was more of a teacher to me than I to her. We met at a community art class and began meeting before the class to improve her English speaking skills. By example she taught me a sort of patience and perseverance that I didn’t think I’d ever need to use myself, but that became invaluable when I moved to London to study. I have twice held my breath and my pennies waiting to hear good news about my UK visa status. She has been waiting for hers in Canada for years.

There are few feelings more fulfilling than being told by someone who you look up to that they look up to you. English as a Foreign Language students motivate me to do better. A lot of people say, “Oh, I couldn’t teach English. I don’t have the patience for it.” Why can’t I get enough of it? Maybe it’s a subconscious tribute to my maternal grandmother, who despite living in Canada for half a century maintained only a minimal English vocabulary, but gave all she could to ensure that her children succeeded in both the language and the country. Maybe it’s because I know how it feels to not fit in or to be treated “differently”. Because I know what it’s like to decipher application forms, having changed schools and jobs so many times. Or, perhaps it’s because I know how it feels to be included and appreciated, and I want to pass this feeling forward. Nonetheless, as important as it is to be comfortable in another language in another country, it is just as important to be comfortable with yourself. For me – and hopefully for the multilingual individuals I’ve been fortunate enough to meet – language tuition achieves just that.

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