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ESL Teacher Opens Up World to Students

By Cindy Atoji Keene

The English language is full of idioms that make it difficult to understand, says ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher Robert Davis, who gives some examples: “‘Let’s go over that’ makes it sound like you’re flying over something; ‘Stand behind a product’ is another confusing statement,” says Davis, an associate director at the Boston Language Institute. Davis teaches advanced level classes that prepare foreign students for the linguistic and cultural challenges of such MBA programs as MIT Sloan and other business schools, but he also has experience teaching what he calls “true beginners” – those who have never been exposed to English before.

For immigrants living in the U.S. who don’t know English, life can be difficult, whether asking for directions or listening to a lecture at college. But with the help of teachers like Davis, who are certified to teach English to non-English speakers, every lesson makes a big difference in helping often-befuddled students get through the day. Davis starts with the general building blocks of language, like the verb “to be” and expands from there. “ His lessons start slowly: “I begin with, ‘I am,’ ‘she is,’ ‘you are,’ and then pair with an adjective or noun. Like, ‘I am a teacher,’ or ‘I am happy.’ I stick to present tenses, and then start to branch out,” says Davis, who encounters students from all over the globe, including Brazil, France, Vietnam, and Japan.

With the increasing number of immigrants entering the country – in Boston, for example, eight percent of the city’s population doesn’t speak English well– employment for ESL or ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) teachers is expected to grow by 14 percent to 2016, with many part-time positions available. The average salary for an ESL teacher is $35,000. At minimum, a certificate is needed to teach English to adults, with many colleges and universities offering master’s degrees in ESL.

Q: What cultural aspects come into play when teaching English as a second language?
A: Americans are careful not to stereotype, but there are ways to characterize different ethnic groups. Russians, for example, tend to be more outspoken, while people from Japan and Korea have trouble stating directly what they want. Almost everyone has trouble writing and there are common pronunciation problems. Europeans, for example, get confused as to when an “H” is silent or not, like when saying, “See you in a half hour.”

Q: How did you get involved with teaching English as a second language?
A: I was in the photography business for 20 years but I wanted to use my brain more. I have a dual major in English and psychology, and when I took a one-month course in teaching ESL, it seemed obvious to me that this is what I was meant to do. I enjoy helping people, and the ability to teach was almost like an instinct.

Q: What are the rewards of this profession?
A: I meet such a range of students, from doctors and lawyers as well as those who were janitors or cleaners in their native countries. At first, you don’t know these people or their personalities, but the more words they learn, the more they begin to open up. It’s very satisfying.

Q: If I end this interview by saying, “See you later,” is that one of those confusing idioms?
A: It certainly is. I had one student who heard someone say, “See you later.” So she waited and waited, thinking she would actually see him again. Needless to say, he never showed up.

Q: So, I’ll just end this with “goodbye.”
A: Yes, that’s best. Bye.

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