Me vs. Them: Helping ELLs Step Out of the Classroom and into the Real World

Nothing aggravates me more as a language teacher than when other people fail to be receptive to non-native speech. Unfortunately, we can’t prevent encounters with impatient or judgmental listeners. We can foster a positive, supportive environment in our virtual and traditional classrooms, but the world at large is full of all kinds of personalities.

I’ve read concerns from students online and I’ve heard stories from private students and international friends, and the fact is that non-native speakers will sometimes find themselves in conversation with those who are not very willing participants. Unkind listeners judge ELLs based on speed and accents. They might make only a weak effort to deal with language errors. Outward behavior can range from disinterest to annoyance. Even those with a strong spine can feel the sting of such rudeness.

What can we do to prepare and support ELLs?

  1. Provide corrective feedback with the right mix of praise to build confidence. The whole point of the lessons we teach is to help improve accuracy in all aspects of communication. When tasks are done correctly, we give confirmation and praise. When mistakes are made, we encourage learners to try again and we give explanations to clear doubts. Ongoing support from us will build students’ chances for successful communication.
  2. Help learners see what they’ve already achieved. Building a portfolio of work can give students a sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that they have the skills to take on real-life tasks at school or in the workplace. I like for students to keep a folder of their corrected compositions, and when possible, they share audio presentations on private accounts (like Facebook, Dropbox, and ShadowPuppet). Learning is a journey, and our students should be proud of how far they’ve come.
  3. Welcome conversation about their real life experiences. Students sometimes need to vent, and if they want open up, I feel privileged that they feel comfortable enough to share their frustrations with me. When appropriate, I share my own experiences as a language learner and recall times when I felt harshly criticized or judged too quickly. Students can open up to one another as well. As my Russian husband has said, “I may speak slowly, but it doesn’t mean I think that way.”
    (See related video.)
  4. Give perspective. A short film clip of American tourists trying to speak a foreign language can bring out the right kind of humor. Laughter is truly a form of medicine, and a comedy scene can remind non-native speakers of the daily courage they’re asked to show when they enter an English-only setting. I’ve told ELLs that if the average American had to spend a day in a non-English-speaking environment, the person would struggle greatly.
    National Lampoon’s European Vacation might not have appropriate language, but I recall the Griswold family’s struggles with French and German.
    – Lost in Translation has many funny scenes where lack of language is the catalyst for all the drama. Check out the hospital scene with Bill Murray.
  5. Recommend good practices. ELLs know immediately when a conversation went badly or an email wasn’t effective. These situations provide learning opportunities. Current students have the option to share business emails with me. Taking all confidential information out, they present a text and I edit their writing. Chances are that a similar message will have to be sent in the future, so having a corrected copy on hand makes composition easier the second time around. I also tell students to replay an awkward conversation soon after it happens and take the time to think what should have been said. If they’re unsure of the wording, they can ask me at the earliest opportunity.
  6. See the good in people. I recently explained to one ELL here in the U.S. that sometimes Americans ask questions like, “Where are you from?” not because they heard your accent and they’re judging you, but because they’re curious. Americans commonly like to find out people’s backgrounds. Even among native speakers, typical questions include “Are you from around here?” or “Where did you grow up?”

Got any thoughts on this matter? Please share them.

Photo credit: Earth, Meditation, World, Relaxation by Geralt. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

One Comment Add yours

  1. vietnamtravelandculture says:

    Reblogged this on Vietnam Travel & Trade Portal .

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