Tag Archives: ESL

Learning English on the fly

Podcast contents

00:00 English-proficient kids help their English-challenged parents

01:14 Monica Campbell visit an ESL class

02:23 “Their kids are learning to be Americans, but they don’t have the opportunity to be Americans in the same way.”

03:23 Some schools are holding separate PTA meetings in Spanish, says Patricia Baquedano-López of UC Berkeley.

03:58 Vietnamese immigrant and ESL student Quang Dang tries to keep up with his 4-year-old daughter.

06:27 Another student from Mexico is learning English so she can ensure her special-needs daughters gets help at school.

Photo: Christopher Connell/Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo: Christopher Connell/Flickr/Creative Commons


08:58 Monica’s father and the “Champagne of teaching.”

11:37 Is there less of a demand for ESL classes? Don’t some immigrants get along just fine not speaking English?

13:04 Joy Diaz learns about Arabic and influence on Spanish from her daughter’s preschool teacher.

14:07 Singers Juan Luis Guerra and Celia Cruz (unconsciously) pepper their Spanish with Arabic.

14:45 It is, of course, all about the history of Spain.

17:15 This wonderful song is “Bilingual Girl” by Yerba Buena.

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Straight outta ESL class: learning English by learning slang

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Here’s a guest post from Los Angeles-based reporter Josie Huang

Donald Chung stood in front of his classmates at the UCLA Extension school and started to throw a fit — well, as much as the mild–mannered student from Taiwan could muster.

“I don’t know what he’s trying to pull,” Chung said. “The guy’s a total flake!”

His friend Jiu Hua Zhang chimed in: “You said it!”

The students had spent a good portion of the class practicing these expressions as part of their “street talk” course. In many foreign countries, English classes start as early as pre-school. But thousands of students still come to the US to get what they can’t get back home: the idioms, the catchphrases — the slang.

“My conversation is more academic, or more like an essay,” Zhang said. “I need to be more, like, American.”

She and Chung enrolled less than half a year ago at UCLA Extension’s American Language Center, one of multiple schools throughout California offering street talk classes. Zhang wants to get all of the jokes on her favorite American sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Chung would like to catch what commentators are saying during NBA games.

“I think it’s very difficult to understand what they’re talking about because they use some vocabulary I can’t understand,” he said, sounding frustrated.

Hip-hop as a second language

There’s a lot to learn. But because slang is constantly evolving, there aren’t many teaching materials devoted to it. Texts get dated faster than you can say YOLO.

So teachers are often left to find their own method of teaching American lingo, in ways creative and resourceful.

English as a Second Language teacher Stephen Mayeux enjoys hip-hop. So he figured his students at UC-Davis might, too.

He crafted lesson plans around 1990s hip-hop. N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” has come in handy teaching reductions in English — for example, how “out of” gets shortened.

“They’re saying ‘straight out of Compton,’” Mayeux said. “But I think a lot of people, especially Americans, we pronounce it ‘outta.’”

Mayex shares his lessons with students outside of his Hip-hop as a Second Language class through his website eslhiphop.com.

He said some educators might frown on what he’s teaching. But, as someone who’s studied linguistics, he believes “you have to treat every form or variety of the language as if it’s equally complex and valid.”

“So the English that a rapper or hip-hop artist uses is no better or worse than what a university professor is using,” Mayeux said.

Fitting in

Mayeux also uses the music to take the opportunity to teach about hip-hop culture, and give the students some context for what it is like to grow up in America.

He said that he has many close friends from other countries, and a lack of understanding about pop culture can leave them feeling left out.

“They do experience a little bit of alienation,” Mayeux said. “They feel like they can’t be fully part of the group because they’re not speaking the same lingo.”

Judy Tanka, who teaches English at the American Language Center, agreed.

”You may understand every word of the lecture,” Tanka said. “But when you have to go to your study group or you have to call a classmate, slang is going to be necessary.”

Tanka tries to incorporate slang into her everyday conversation with her students. She stays on top of the latest lingo with the help of a daughter in her 20s, but she finds a surprising number of phrases have stayed popular through the decades.

When her students tried to make up an excuse for not doing homework, she told them, “I don’t buy that.”

“And they looked at me. ‘Buy what, teacher?’ And then I explained and they loved it. Now they’re telling each other, ‘I don’t buy that.’”

For the latest slang, go to the source

As a young man, David Burke had a knack for picking up slang.

His ears pricked up whenever he heard interesting phrases. He’d write them down on his arms, later switching to a tape recorder.

Burke went on to make a name for himself as “Slangman” and published a whole series of self-titled books in which he teaches slang not just in English, but in foreign languages.

He got the idea to teach American slang after hanging out with a French friend more than 10 years ago.

“Somebody ran up to him and said, ‘Hey, Pascal, what’s up?'” Burke said. “And he froze for a second and looked up and started checking the ceiling.”

Now, at age 56, Burke gets the scoop on the newest slang by striking up conversations with young people.

“I saw a kid at the gym working out with a friend of his,” Burke said, “and I said, ‘Can I ask you guys a question, what word would I not know?'”

Recently, Burke brought his compendium of slang to UCLA’s American Language Center for a special presentation before English language learners. To complicate matters, Burke told students, slang isn’t just about words.

”Americans use a lot of grunts — I’ll show you,” Burke said.

“For example, ‘I don’t know’ becomes ‘I dunno.’ ‘I dunno’ becomes the shoulders-up grunt, ‘uh-uhh-uh.'”

Burke got students to try out the “uh-uhh-uh.”

“How many cars on the freeway right now?”

“Uh-uhh-uh.”

ESL students at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

ESL students at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Like a cow

In the audience was Donald Chung and Jiu Hua Zhang. They hung on Burke’s every word.

In their short time in the US, they’ve managed to incorporate slang into their everyday conversations.

Chung is a fan of “what’s up!” Zhang says she no longer enters a room saying ”Good morning, everyone.”

“We just say, ‘hi, guys!'” she said brightly.

Zhang is feeling pretty awesome about this. Or as kids in China say: “hĕn niú” which translates into “very cow-like.”

But Chinese slang — that’s a whole other lesson for another day.


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Silicon Valley’s Immigrant Janitors Learning English at Work

A Google employee tutors one of the company's janitors in a weekly class. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

A Google employee tutors one of the company’s janitors in a weekly class. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

Here’s a guest post from Big Show reporter Jason Margolis

If the new US Senate immigration reform bill becomes law, millions of people will need to learn English to become permanent US residents. It’s hard enough for any of us to learn a new language, but it can be especially difficult for immigrants. Many work multiple jobs and have little spare time. And there are diminishing resources available for them to learn.

Consider the case of Daniel Montes. When he was 18, Montes moved to the Bay Area from Mexico. Everything was an adjustment, but nothing was more difficult than the new language.

“It would be equal to losing your voice and not being able to speak from one day to the next,” said Montes.

Montes found work as a janitor. He said he remained virtually silent at work for two years until he found an ESL class in a church in San Jose.

“It was a big commitment, and it was very difficult physically to sustain. There were times when I would lose my pencil because I was so tired from working two jobs.”

That was in the late 1970’s. Today Montes runs the company Brilliant General Maintenance in San Jose. He has about 300 janitors on his staff, most of whom are immigrants like himself. Montes said he’s glad his employees have an easier path to learn English.

Thirteen years ago, the janitor’s union in California, SEIU, struck a bargaining agreement with contractors like Montes. Employers up and down the state now contribute a few extra pennies per hour worked toward training programs, everything from health education, to new parenting classes, to English instruction.

Companies must independently agree to allow classes at the work site, and many firms are allowing them in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In the past two years, a growing number of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies — Facebook, Cisco and Adobe among them — have agreed to transform boardrooms into classrooms.

I visited a class at Google’s Mountain View campus, where student janitors were taking classes with a trained teacher and also working one-on-one with volunteer tutors, who are Google employees. Both student and tutor arrived early in the morning, an hour before their shift started. Classes also take place at night.

“Before I worked here, I had three works (jobs), and I didn’t have time for school,” said janitor Edith de la Rosa, originally from Mexico. She started taking classes at Google last year.

The convenience of learning English at the workplace isn’t just benefiting janitors; it helps the companies as well. A Google manager I met expressed his support for the training program. But he preferred that I let the janitors do the talking.

De la Rosa said she’s certain she’s a better employee now.

“Every day I learn two or three words, it helps me in conversations with the clients. For example, ‘Excuse me, do you know who is fixing the toilets or the lights, or something?’ And I say, ‘Oh no, the water has come to the floor, oh yea, I do it. Let me take something to clean it up.’”

Even that basic conversation would’ve been impossible last year.

But again, companies like Google are under no obligation to open their buildings to the janitors. And many Bay Area companies are refusing.

“When anyone hears about it, when foundations hear about it, the government, it’s held up as a win-win partnership. It’s labor, it’s the community, it’s the biggest corporations in the world partnering for the janitors,” said Alison Ascher Webber, associate director of the non-profit Building Skills Partnership, which coordinates the English classes.

Yet, she said, “It’s surprisingly hard to sell (the English program) because it’s a subcontracted workforce. Often the corporations that employ them (the janitors) indirectly don’t even want to hear or talk about it.”

“It’s not their (the corporation’s) bottom-line, it’s not what they do. They’re just about numbers on a finance sheet. As long as the rooms are clean, it’s all about cutting costs.”

Webber mentioned Intel and Chevron as two companies that have refused the program. I sent multiple e-mails and placed phone calls to both Intel and Chevron to ask about the English-learning program. Neither responded.

Webber called this attitude “short-sighted.” There’s plenty of talk about how Silicon Valley is splitting into two classes, rich and poor. Webber stressed that Silicon Valley increasingly needs mid-level managers.

“How are we going to get people to check the water systems at the sewage treatment center? How are we going to get people to become firemen, be metal workers and machinists?”

English will allow immigrants to step into those positions. But learning English in California has become increasingly difficult.

Over the past five years, adult education budgets have been slashed by some 60 percent statewide across local districts where beginning adult ESL classes are traditionally taught. Five years ago, the San Jose Unified School District had 10,000 adults enrolled. Today, there are less than 2,500 adult learners.

Community colleges can’t pick up all that slack either.

With these severe cutbacks, that makes the option to study English at work all the more critical.



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