I know what it’s like to feel embarrassed about speaking a language you are learning or don’t know very well. My grandmother, who never went to school, struggled with English and was ashamed to speak outside the family. Her sadness made a deep impression on me. At 10 years old, I began learning French, studied it through high school, and later joined a French speaking club. All this served me well, although I lack most slang or terms introduced after my middle school years. A few years ago I cobbled together some words to express “fast food.” I said “alimentation vite,” and native speakers broke out laughing. The right words were “cuisine rapide.”
I was incredibly nervous, never having taught anything, let alone ESL, before.
This background is what led to my volunteering as a “conversation partner.” Distressed over the war in Ukraine, I felt helpless even after donating money. What could I do? A few months ago, the local Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which had done so much for the Russian emigres in the 1980s, emailed me that the first Ukrainian refugees were arriving in the Bay Area. Volunteer opportunities were available, and I could fill out a form to describe my skills. Two weeks later I became a conversation partner to “Olga,” who is living with extended family members in a nearby town.*
After several hours of training and reviewing resources about teaching adult English language learners, I set up my first video session with Olga. I was incredibly nervous, never having taught anything, let alone ESL, before. It turned out Olga was delightful. Her English wasn’t bad, and she was well educated. We soon identified some common interests, including science and reading short stories.
Each week we meet on video for an hour and talk. I can use the chat function to type new vocabulary words and show grammar structure. Through working with Olga, I’ve gained an even greater understanding of how difficult English can be.
This past week we reviewed some irregular verbs. Fall, fell, fallen–you can fall down, fall ill, and prices can fall. That’s different from feel and felt. You can physically feel a tickle, feel ill, or have felt helpless. And those are just the verbs, not fall and feel, and felt as nouns. How do you pronounce “owl”? What is the word for knitting with a hooked needle (crochet). How do you explain April Fool’s Day? That turned out to be easier than I thought, because Ukrainians have a week-long festival in April when they play jokes on each other.
Olga has taught me much about Ukrainian culture and how people lived during Soviet times, the era of freedom, and now that there is a war. I have learned as much or more from her as I have taught her. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.
*Because of strict confidentiality required by the JFCS, I can’t divulge many details about “Olga” (not her real name) and our conversations that would add color to this story, but what I do relate is accurate.
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.