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Teaching ESL on the 18 to the Legion of Honor

Since I knew today was going to be another one of these amazing January days of sun, I got up early and got all my work done as fast as I could so I could go out this afternoon and take some photos and just enjoy the sun (since we may not have any this summer).

I started out taking the N to Ocean Beach, where the N was having a beach party for 3 trains all stacked up waiting to return downtown. On a whim, I decided to take the 18 to the Legion of Honor and take some more photos, so I got on the bus when it showed up.

As we were leaving the Outer Sunset (and I dare anyone at the Times to call it "bleak" today) a woman tapped me on the back and said "excuse me, can you help me with something?" I assumed she was going to ask for directions, as that is the most common thing I tend to be asked, and it looked like she had a map or something in a folder.

Instead, she was asking for help with her ESL homework. Now I have to say, in my entire life, that has to be the most unusual thing anyone has asked me on a bus, or anywhere. So, I figured what the heck and she showed me what she was working on. From what I could tell, the assignment was to read an essay that uses metaphors, and a bit more abstract language, and then write about what it meant.

I took a look at her notes and she had actually done fairly well so far, but there were certain words that she couldn't decipher, and some of the phrases as well. Now, being the writing critic I tend to be, I have to say, whoever wrote this essay should have been edited a bit because some of the sentences, in an attempt to sound big and artistic, just sounded stupid. But I pushed that aside and we went over a couple of words.

For example, one of the words was "instructive." So I asked her "well, do you know the word 'instructor?" and she said yes. One we established that I wrote down the words:

- instructor - someone who tells you what to do

- instruction - something you read that tells you what to do

- instructive - how you describe something that tells you what to do

Obviously these are simplified, but hey we were on the bus! If we had more time I'd explain this is from a Latin word, etc etc etc.

Once she saw that then she got it. I showed how all these words have the same root, and the modifier changes the word ever so slightly. She had that "lightbulb" moment when I explained how many words are like this so it's easier to figure out what they mean.

We did a few more and then I said "you're doing fine, but remember this- English borrows words and grammar from many langauges, and sometimes uses the same words for different meantings, or worse two words that sound the same that have nothing to do with each other. That's why it's not an easy language to learn - every rule has an exception."

She looked at me and said "You said it!"

We then tackled one last thing - a terribly worded sentence about memory and so on. This is when I did something that will blow my high school English teacher's mind, and will be waved around by English teachers (what few that even do this) around the country:

I diagrammed the sentence.

Now this wasn't an according to Hoyle diagram, but I was showing her how the two halves related to create a sort of paradox. It was perhaps more of an equation than anything else, but once we went through it , she got it.

Before the bus got to the Legion she had to get off, but said "Thank you so much! I think you explained this English to me more here on the bus than I learned in class the other day!"

And with that, she was off.

I never really thought of teaching English, but I have to say it was kind of fun in a way, especially when you basically tell people "hey, English is a great language but it has some crazy ass rules" it seems to make them lighten up a little and realize that they're not going insane.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Legion, then took the 18 back, getting off at Balboa. My original plan was to buy a soda and take a 31 to the 44, but it was so nice out and I was feeling great so I ended up walking from way out there to 7th to grab the 44 instead. It was a nice walk, very quiet, and I took some pictures of the more interesting buildings and whatnots out there.

Overall a great way to spend one of these non-blizzard, non-bleak days in Not New York.

Comments

What a wonderful story! As someone who has three teachers in the family tree, I always admire someone who can impart knowledge where it's needed.
Are you ready for another of my stories? This dates back to the 1960's, when I worked in East Pasadena. I'd take the bus to Pasadena City College for night class, then walk down to Huntington Dr. in San Marino, where I'd catch the last bus of the night to my home in Duarte (20 years earlier, it would have been a PE Red Car, but that's another story). One night I got on the bus, paid my fare, and was asked by the driver, who knew me as a regular passenger, "Can you help me out here? There's a guy from Mexico who doesn't speak any English. Do you know enough Spanish to find where he's going?" So I asked the man "A donde se vaya?" "Monrovia" "Acerca de que en Monrovia?" "Acerca de la iglesia". Then I went forward, and told the driver, "If you stop at the Catholic Church on Shamrock, I'll make sure he gets off there." By this time we were going by the Santa Anita Race Track, and I said "Santa Anita Park" and he replied "Si'! Los caballos!" (The horses) and made a gesture with his finger indicating horses going around the track. He got off in Monrovia by the church, and every now and then I'd see him. He was learning some English, and told me how he had a job at the old cemetery near the Monrovia Santa Fe station. It's always a good feeling to help someone out and "be a friend to man".

One of my favorite quotes about the English language is from James Nicoll:

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

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