Non-Natives Tackle Decoding English With Zest

Strait-laced Aunt Margaret, visiting from London, exclaimed, “You wouldn’t believe the price of a nice joint these days!”

If native English speakers do a double take at her provincial reference to a Sunday roast beef, imagine the challenge English presents to non-native speakers. Chocolate moose? Drives me up a wall? Steal a base?

In ESL (English as a second language) classes from Oceanside to San Diego, teachers help students decode the English language.

Regardless of skill levels, the subtleties of English--patterns and variations, colloquialisms, phonetic irregularities, inflections, tone of voice, run-together words--create stumbling blocks for the new learner.


In most ESL programs, communicative competence is the goal. Assessing individual needs, teachers help students learn to communicate in real-life situations.

In Encinitas, San Dieguito Adult School’s flourishing ESL program offers 14 classes--from beginning conversational English to advanced. Classes, with 15 to 60 students each, draw students from Carlsbad to Del Mar.

Handing Students a Tool

“The whole goal of our program is to facilitate communication,” says introductory ESL teacher Pat Brunini, who has also taught French and Spanish to English-speaking children, as well as ESL to elementary and secondary school students.


“I really enjoy working with beginning students,” she said. “I’m handing them a tool. I’m not necessarily the one to polish it later, but the initial teaching is so gratifying.”

Many adults attend ESL classes (two to four nights a week) after a full day’s work. Brunini uses humor and an informal approach, and sometimes goes to great lengths to loosen students up to learn.

On a recent class night, Brunini held up a flannel board and whipped the hair off the flamboyant felt figure. “Poor woman!” she cried. “She has NO hair, she is very OLD, she is BALD. (Laughter) MEN are usually BALD.”

Using clear language and broad overdramatization, Brunini sauntered down the classroom’s main aisle, hands in pockets, whistling. Her face lit up as she encountered a student.

“HELLO! Roberto, how ARE you?’

“Fine thanks, and you?” came the shy but amused student’s response.

“Where are you working now?’

“I am working landsc . . . “


“Landscaping?” She prompted.


“Good. I’ll call you soon.” She held an imaginary receiver to her ear.

“Perfect. See you later.” They shook hands and said goodby.

By twos and threes, students repeated the exercise. Brave souls ventured more complex questions--"When is your birthday?” “Are you married?” to a pretty young woman. The class giggled.

Students leaned forward, immersed in the flow of new phrases.

In this class, the students are young (52% of ESL students in one study were between 18 and 30), eager, friendly and conscientious about trying to learn the language. Spanish-speakers predominated. Other classes presented a greater ethnic mix.

Variety keeps the evening classes lively. Time is allotted for the teacher, individuals, pairs and groups to speak English.


“The important thing,” said Brunini, “is to limit the percentage of time the teacher is talking and to provide more time for students to speak. The more students are producing, the more they learn. You can’t learn to speak a language without speaking.

“Students come in with written notes, asking me how to say things like ‘You’re welcome.’ Or, ‘My motor is broken--I need this part.’ ”

One student brought in what appeared to be a Valentine. The bright, attractive card was perfect, except for the message: “Glad to hear you’re feeling better.”

A student from Hungary needed help studying for a driver’s license test, so Brunini provided the Department of Motor Vehicles manual.

Money is also a topic. “It’s essential for the students to understand the value of our money, so they will know if they’re ever shortchanged,” she said.

From class response, it is clear this ESL teacher strives to make English approachable and unintimidating. With constant encouragement, games and festive cultural events, she helps take the fear out of learning English.

Even with classes of 50, “It’s essential for me to know students’ names . . . " said Brunini, “to know them as individuals.’

Rather than needing help with job applications or finding work, most ESL students (67% overall, according to one study, and 99% at San Dieguito Adult School) already have jobs but want to increase their English for job advancement or to master practical skills. ESL teachers adapt teaching materials to the needs, age, education and socio-economic levels of different classes.

Trendy Expressions

For beginning students who are illiterate in their native language, much of the ESL presentation must be oral and/or keyed to visual clues.

“Learning a second language is much easier when you’ve already learned a first language,” said Brunini. But even for those literate in their own languages, English poses unique challenges with its trendy expressions and colloquialisms.

Brunini solved one language mystery.

“What’s ‘Ah-doon?’ ” asked one student.

“I don’t know,” Brunini said. “Use it in a sentence.”

“Like you’re walking down the street and someone says, ‘Ah-doon.’ ”

“That’s ‘How are you doing?’ ” Second nature for a native speaker.

Other examples: “D’jeat?” (Did you eat?) “Wanna” (want to?) “Gonna” (going to) “Waydago” (Way to go!) “Hafta” (have to).

“I don’t teach colloquial speech, but I explain it and I use it when I speak, so students are familiar with the difference between spoken and written language,” said Brunini.

Understanding usage distinctions is vital. For example, the difference between invoking God’s name positively, as in “God bless you!” (after a sneeze), and negatively, in anger.

And subtle cultural amenities are important. “Gimme a paper!” sounds rude. “Please pass the paper” complies with social standards.

Inflections, changes in pitch or stress placed on words, can obscure the meaning of common words. For example: desert and dessert, “How ARE you?” and “How are YOU?”

In other languages, placement of words within a sentence varies from English, so students must learn new patterns. In Spanish and French, the adjective comes after the noun. The Spanish words “los zapatos rojos” translated literally means “the shoes red” in English.

Written conventions also differ. A letter dated 7/12/85 would be read as July 12 in English, as Dec. 7 in Spanish.

“Talking on the phone is extremely difficult for a beginning foreign student,” said Brunini. “He or she can’t see the non-verbal language expressions, facial and body movements, which give clues as to what is being said.”

Non-native speakers also puzzle over figures of speech. Taken literally, wild visions are conjured up by expressions such as “a new wing on the house,” “pick up the tab,” “hammer out an agreement,” 'hit the road” and “hot date.”

Cultural backgrounds often dictate students’ responses. “Some Orientals are taught not to speak out in class,” said Brunini. “But once they warm up to the teacher and the class, and know this is a completely nonthreatening situation, they are eager to participate.”

Brunini integrates language skills and American culture with questions such as: “Why are there suddenly 4,000 turkeys in the grocery store?” (at Thanksgiving); “Why are all the banks closed today?” (on Washington’s birthday).

Many Different Classes

MiraCosta College’s ESL program in Oceanside and Carlsbad serves 1,000 students in 30 classes each week. One unique aspect is its link to the public schools. In some cases, elementary-school teachers, who teach ESL during the day, also instruct their students’ parents at night.

“Not only do the parents learn English,” said Char Jorgenson, director of MiraCosta’s Instructional Services, “but they become familiar with the child’s school and are able to discuss what’s happening with their children. Then they’re not afraid to go see the teacher.”

Focusing on an entirely different population, colleges offer more-advanced ESL students the chance to improve both English and study skills, but at considerably higher cost (up to $2,000 for 16 weeks) than adult schools and community colleges (both free or nominal cost).

Cultural hurdles must still be cleared. “There’s a lot more to teaching a language than the language itself,” said Paula Kelley, director of San Diego State University’s American Language Institute and associate dean of extended studies.

The institute offers 25 electives a semester, combining English with specific subject areas, and serves 800 students a year from 50 different countries. Roughly two-thirds of the students enroll as a prerequisite to entering the university. Another group, mostly professionals--Swiss lawyers, Saudi businessmen, Indonesian government officials--come to polish their English.

“More and more people do not want to come to the United States just to learn English. They want some content knowledge as well,” Kelley said.

Students in UC San Diego’s intensive English Language Program can choose from six levels of ESL classes. Director John Thaxton, who also trains ESL teachers through the UCSD extension, says most students come from middle-class to wealthy families. They come from 25 to 30 different countries.

In ESL classes, caring friendships often develop. One 18-year-old Mexican girl and a 45-year-old Chinese woman became fast friends--comparing assignments, trading expressions, sharing experiences.

With exposure to languages other than English, students glean snippets from other languages too.

“Students have been impressed by the fact that I can speak French, Spanish and English, yet many of the Mexican students can speak Spanish, English and an Indian dialect,” Brunini said.

Outside the classroom, non-native speakers sometimes encounter resentment.

“Any large group who is not speaking your language is intimidating,” Brunini said. “But when you meet the individuals, one on one, you discover just another human being who had the same thing for breakfast that you did and wants his kids to grow up safe, healthy and happy too.”

San Dieguito Adult School Principal Walter Norling agreed. “You have to give these students credit. They work all day, then don’t finish here until 9:30. Many of them come from impoverished childhoods, so they are starting off from ground zero,” he said. “They’re marvelous people--super friendly, with a sense of humor. These are the cream of the crop. It’s wonderful to have them on campus.”

“Making contact with the students is the whole ballgame,” Brunini said. “My experience has been that students have the greatest respect for class, and for me as a teacher--that’s the ego trip of teaching ESL. I’m handing them a key to unlock a door, through which they can enter into another culture, another world, if they have the skills.”