By Michelle Yelaska, SED’16
Studying abroad in London for a semester, I thought, “I already know the language, it’ll be fine!” I knew there would be some culture shock, like driving on the left side of the road, but I was in for a treat when I started talking to people in both London and on the continent. Student teaching in London, I picked up many diverse teaching tips, learned about international school systems, and navigated through new standardised tests. One of the greatest takeaways from studying abroad was the experience of being an English Language Learner (ELL) firsthand. Throughout my semester, whether in the classroom in London or travelling around the continent, I lived as an ELL student.
On my first day at Ursuline High School, my student teaching placement, I was assigned to observe a ninth grade mathematics class. The teacher announced that we would be reviewing surds that day, a revision topic. I nodded my head and pretended I knew what a surd was and why we would need to “revise” them. It quickly dawned on me that I was in a foreign land where I would have to adapt to their language and customs. (For the mathematically curious, a surd is an irrational number. “Revision” simply means to “review.”) Even though we share a common language, many words are used in a different context. For example, “pants” no longer meant jeans or slacks, but underwear. Complimenting someone’s pants was the most American crime I could have committed.
In the beginning, I was a little overwhelmed by all the new phrases I would have to learn in order to effectively communicate with my students. While not exactly like a full ELL experience, I sympathised with my bilingual students even more. I had to use two different languages in London: one for when I talked with my American friends and one when I talked with my British students and colleagues. To help me translate, I started keeping a spreadsheet of American speak versus British speak. In the future, for my ELL students, I think it would be extremely useful to keep a chart of common American phrases and academic maths terms.
The biggest learning curve, however, was when I was travelling on the continent and didn’t speak any French and barely any Spanish. Asking others for directions was extremely challenging and navigating the metros and underground subway systems was tricky. I found the Paris metro the easiest to navigate because they verbally announced the station and visually displayed the stop on the train. For my ELL students, I realised how helpful it is to display the information in many forms, not only limited to verbal and visual representations.
My study abroad experience proved to be a learning experience in every corner. London helped me get a taste of what ELL students experience when they first come to America. Although my conversion from American English to British English is admittedly much easier than other transitions, even this little sampling of language barriers provided valuable insight. I am very appreciative of this experience and I believe it improved my teaching skills in many ways I could not even imagine.