Conversation appointments come with a host of issues that tutors who primarily tutor might not have even considered. I can confidently say that I’ve had more conversation appointments in the past two weeks than I’ve had over the course of the last year put together, and there was plenty that I hadn’t thought of. What to talk about, how to explain grammatical issues, etiquette, and tone are all essential when talking to a conversation partner, but one thing I never thought about before now was the role of confidence and self esteem.
English language learners are, unsurprisingly, something of a nervous bunch. They’re learning a new language, in a new (or newish) culture, and many of them are very sensitive about their own abilities. Some of them even think they aren’t very good at English or downplay their own abilities (while I think it’s incredible that they’ve achieved enough to talk to me in English, in an academic setting, about the topic of their choice). Many of them may feel, after sitting in class or taking a test, that their English will never be up to par with native speakers. The thing is, I’ve heard several English language learners say things like, “My English is not very good,” or “I’m sorry if my English is very bad,” but if a conversation partner doesn’t think they’re going to be able to speak English properly, they won’t try new phrases in an appointment and won’t receive feedback or help with new aspects of English. So, the question becomes: how do we help English language learners feel better about their own abilities and more willing to open up to us?
A good way to help an English language learner realize that they’re not the only one that has trouble with English is to refer to dialect. English is not a stable or homogeneous entity; many English speakers in many different areas speak many different Englishes. Do you always understand what someone from the UK is saying, or someone from the South? They’re speaking English, but they might not be speaking your English. You could also mention the rise of indecipherable chatspeak and slang among teenagers. Let your ELL writer know that not everyone speaks English the same, so it’s okay to not have “perfect” English – no one does! To go along with this, don’t correct each pronunciation error; if the student seems like they’re on a roll and you can still understand them, let them get the thought out. You can always ask a question or mention the correction afterward.
If you have any experience learning a foreign language, mention any insights you gained from trying to speak Spanish or French or Japanese for the first time. What did you have trouble with, and what did you do about it? I found, as I was learning Spanish, that watching Spanish-language movies with subtitles on and then off helped with my comprehension, or listening to pop songs in Spanish. Even though you’ve probably never had to “learn” English the way they are learning English, you can relate to your appointment with similar experiences.
Most importantly, talk about other things. If your student is in the ELA, they’re probably hearing about language struggles all the time. You can provide a break from the stress by asking them about what their favorite restaurants are, what TV shows they watch, or what they think about a current trend. Non-serious discussion of America’s Next Top Model can help the student feel more at ease speaking English, and increase their skills at the same time by giving them speaking-time with an unfamiliar topic.
Finally, offer the CMWR events as a break from English class and a chance to meet other non-native and native speakers. I’ve had plenty of writers lament that they “haven’t made any American friends” but they don’t know how to find a social event that allows them to practice English with English speakers. Suggest a Walk and Talk or a workshop to meet other people who may struggle with their English, or tutors who might be able to give them a wider range of speaking experience.
An English language learner is a brave soul, and don’t let your conversation partner forget it.