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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Meet the Jobs Docs
Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.
Tracy Cashman is a partner and the general manager of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.
Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.