Making Connections: Teaching English and Learning Spanish

When I first began working with the Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research (CMWR), a team tutors can join at The UCWbL that focuses on working with multilingual writers and facilitating conversations about culture and language, I had no prior experience working with non-native English speakers. Conveying complex ideas regarding grammar, sentence structure, and other cornerstones of basic English proved difficult without the appropriate terminology. Providing constructive non-evaluative feedback was feasible, but it failed to provide the language learner with information that would contribute to their English-learning journey. As a native speaker of English, I realized I did not have the skills or focal knowledge to help people navigate the process of language learning. I could no longer rely solely on my instinct and tacit knowledge and needed to be more conscious of the intricacies and technical aspects of writing, reading, and speaking. Tacit knowledge and focal knowledge are terms that are particularly helpful in describing language knowledge, largely because everyone has seemingly endless tacit knowledge (what you know how to do) of their native language, but, we often have incredibly limited focal knowledge (what we know how to explain and talk about, an awareness) of the linguistic rules we adhere to because they are so automatic and internalized. You receive primarily focal knowledge in formal classroom settings, which is why I often feel like ESL students know more about (focal) English grammar rules than I do, even though I likely use them (tacit) more consistently.

In order to become more conscious of these intricacies and technical aspects of language, I began teaching a weekly “Level 3” English class at an organization I have worked with in the past. My lack of experience was not a problem because they critically needed a teacher, and the organization believed classroom exposure with an inexperienced teacher was better than canceling class. I disagreed and decided that if I was going to teach Level 3 I was going to do it not only to the best of my ability but to try to par with the standards ESL professionals are held to. In lieu of teaching certification, I aimed to train myself using online resources and textbooks. I consulted an ESL teacher who I’ve interned with, and they let me borrow one of their books—Explaining English Grammar by George Yule. I also looked through lesson plans online to get an idea of how ESL professionals prepare to teach. With this additional knowledge regarding pedagogy and basic grammar concepts, I was able to successfully teach the summer session of Level 3. Despite the measures I took to prepare myself for teaching the course, my skillset was not as developed as ESL teaching professionals, and I still had a difficult time explaining basic grammar concepts.

Teaching English to non-native speakers for the first time was definitely a milestone for me, but it wasn’t until I began taking Spanish classes that I saw major improvements in my ability to provide feedback. I learned Spanish primarily through speaking and texting when I lived in Chile for 6 months. My Spanish knowledge was mainly conversational and did not have a solid foundation in the classroom. So, when I took my first Spanish course, I also struggled to understand the more technical aspects of the language. One day, I had a breakthrough while working on a lesson about pronouns. I was able to see the discrete parts of the sentence in a different way and suddenly had a concrete focal understanding of direct and indirect object pronouns. In English, I understood this concept, but I never had the tools or focal knowledge to explain it. That same week, I found myself using the words I learned in Spanish to convey the same idea to an English-language learner. Learning another language often gives us metaknowledge about our first language. Learning the formal categories of words not only helped me with my Spanish, but it helped me make my knowledge about English more transparent and accessible.

The skills I have acquired over the past year working with English and Spanish don’t only apply to work with non-native speakers, but also to my ability to provide constructive non-evaluative feedback to anyone looking to improve their writing, including myself. This upcoming January, I will have the opportunity to use my experience with Spanish in another Level 3 classroom. I am excited to see how much my teaching abilities have improved and to learn and grow more as I go.