By Kim Wyatt
English as a Second Language (ESL) learning is hard work!! There is so much to learn!! There is so much involved: Speaking, Reading, Writing and Listening!! It can be absolutely exhausting! Some consider English one of the most difficult languages to learn in the world. But difficulty often lies with the ability of the learner more than with the language. But when it comes to weird, English is all that and more.
A study cited in an The Economist article called ‘How Hard is English? How Weird?’ used a resource called the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures. WALS ranks global language features. The study looked at languages with the greatest number of unusual features. Languages with the least ‘normal’ features were considered ‘weird’. English ranked 33rd out of 239 languages on the index.
In our ministry, we provide English as a Second Language along with pre-school readiness, after school homework clubs and mental health counseling in 5 Raleigh-area neighborhoods with large refugee and immigrant populations.
In our apartment outreach classes we have a variety of students. Our friends hail from countries around the world. We have moms from Afghanistan and Congo, Grandmothers from Eritrea and Somalia and fathers from Burma, Mexico and Guatemala to name a few. There is also a variety of educational experience present among the students. Some people are literate in multiple languages. Some, however, don’t read or write in their heart language; they have never had a formal education. I spend much of my time with moms and grandmothers like this.
Adults who don’t read or write in any language have the greatest difficulty learning new words in a new language, but somehow they still do. Retention is particularly difficult for them. Remembering lessons from previous classes is especially hard because they don’t usually have someone to practice with at home.
I’m always amazed at how our most devoted ESL students are those that have had the least opportunity for formal education prior to moving to the United States. Maybe that is why they are the most devoted. Like learning sponges they soak up every opportunity to learn something new. It is one way we see God’s restoration.
They were left out and often mistreated in the past. Now they are being given opportunities they never imagined and they seem to be making up for lost time.
I see learning as one of God’s gifts to them. One of these devoted students was walking with her high school aged son one day when I came upon them. She told her son to translate for her and asked me, “Teacher, why don’t you have class every day?” She is hungry for more.
Her question both surprised and delighted me. You see, sometimes she gets a little frustrated in class. She is an adult but she needs beginner help. However, she doesn’t want basic helps. She is struggling with being reduced to baby talk. I know that frustration well, having lived overseas early in my mission career. She champions on, plugging away despite her frustrations. Each day my friend gains one or two new nuggets of English. She is always delighted with herself when she gets to share those nuggets with every English speaker she meets.
Sometimes the teachers themselves feel a little frustrated too, spending many hours repeating and pronouncing weird English words and phrases in hopes the students are growing in their language proficiency.
When I sense a teacher’s weariness I remind them that teaching English is the second thing we do. The first and most transformative thing we do in our ministry is making sure everyone knows and feels that we love them. Our new friends are created in the image of God. They are valued and important to us. First things first in our classroom, I say to myself and volunteers daily.
The only thing keeping us from having class every day is more volunteers. This is my prayer.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35
Kim Wyatt and her husband, Marc, are CBF field personnel serving in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, ministering with refugee families through the Welcome House, ESL classes, advocacy and more. Learn more about and support their ministry at www.cbf.net/wyatt.
The Wyatts’ long-term presence in North Carolina is made possible by the CBF Offering for Global Missions. Join God’s mission in the world. Give to the Offering for Global Missions. 100 percent of your church’s gifts will be used to send CBF field personnel to share the Good News of Jesus Christ around the world. Go to www.cbf.net/transform and order your free OGM resources today.