Culture and Language Find Crossroads at ESL School

Often it’s the cultural nuances that make international students and businessmen uncomfortable when trying to adapt to this country – understanding the sport of American football; what the idiom “hold on” means; whether to shake hands or not, and other idiosyncrasies. As an immigrant herself, Julia Solomin understood that succeeding in the U.S. wasn’t a matter of just improving English language skills but also adapting to the western lifestyle. That’s why when Solomin founded an English as a Second Language School two years ago, she vowed that the school would be a safe haven, a go-to place for visiting foreigners or those already living in Boston. The International School of Advanced Learning (ISAL), a small, all women-owned business in Allston, includes team members who speak 10 languages, including Slavic, Germanic and Romance languages.Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene spoke to Solomin about what it was like to launch an ESL school in this already-crowded industry.

“ISAL started as just another English as a Second Language school – of which there are dozens – but my partners and I quickly found there was a need far beyond just teaching English to immigrant workers and students. Because I originally came from Russia a few decades ago, I will give you the example of what corporate life in the U.S. looks like through the prism of these foreign workers. Many female office workers in Russia dress in spike heels and miniskirts and don’t understand why that’s not acceptable here. Other incidents occur in conversing around the water cooler – many newcomers don’t know how to make small talk and even get confused about why Americans talk so much about trivial things like the weather. These are the kind of things our classes deal with, beyond just teaching English. We also observed that while many of our high-tech and biotech companies have many foreign workers, they need encouragement to integrate – the Asians tend to commune with the Asians; the Middle Easterners with the Middle Easterners, the Europeans with the Europeans, and so on. There’s a realization that there’s benefit in greater cultural communion, at least during working hours, and that’s what our school helps focus on. We want to provide not just the language education but a bridge for foreigners. Right now we have students from Brazil, Spain, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Ukraine, Liberia, and Kazakhstan; some of them say, ‘I need to pass the TOEFL in one month – the standardized test of English language proficiency –but clearly are not ready to do so. We tell them straight out that we can’t perform miracles; you can’t wake up suddenly in the morning speaking English. For true adaptation to the U.S., everything has to work together, grammar, conversation, and cultural adaptation. I came to this country when I was 16, and felt like I was in a bubble, watching people open their mouth and not understanding a single word. So I understand how difficult it is to adjust to a new place. One of our students got lost recently and called a friend who asked her, ‘What is the name of the street are you on? Read me the sign.’ She replied, ‘One Way.’ This might sound funny, but really when you start to learn any language, you have to build a very strong foundation of grammar first, start to build sentences then learn how it is used by communicating with native speakers, whether it’s at a store, school, work, or just on the streets. Yes, we are teaching language but we are also teaching about the culture. The two are inseparable. That is our philosophy.”


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