A Dialogue with International Graduate Students in New York (Part 2)

In her recent post on this blog Roshii Jolly shared some of her thoughts, experiences, and questions related to teaching and learning. Here, in this post, she shares her interview with Nergis and Giovanna which covers a wide range of topics.

1. What is your first language?

G: My first language is Portuguese (born and raised in Brazil), then English and my Spanish is kind of bad, but I can get around!

N: I was born in Kosovo, my first language is Albanian, second is Turkish, third is Serbian and my fourth is English.

2. How long have you been here and what was your experience of the US before you came here to study?

G: I came here during high school, went to college, returned to Brazil, then went to Japan (to teach English as a foreign language) and returned to NY last summer. I first learned English at a private language school in Brazil. My mom forced me to attend, but I didn’t want to go to because I never thought I’d use English, so what was the point? But mama knows best! I had all Brazilian teachers and only one American teacher, so when I got here, my first class was American history and I never understood a word

N: I arrived last summer (only 6 months ago!) I’d never been to New York. I started learning English in Kosovo at a private language school as a teenager, (the medium of instruction at school however was Albanian) and then I got my B.A in English language and literature and I worked as a translator for many years in Kosovo. But that’s not the same as being a TESOL teacher.

Giovanna and Nergis

3. What’s the thing that surprised you most when you first arrived here?

G: The first time I moved to NY I was tired a lot because of all the noise in Manhattan! The city really never sleeps! And I was scared to death of driving in NY, but I had to drive because of my job as a therapist for at-risk-youth. I got a BA in Psychology in Nashville.

N: Everything surprised me! A lot of people! And I also surprised myself. I thought I’d have a cultural shock, but I didn’t.  I attribute that to my experience in working with multinational and multicultural organizations, such as the UN in Kosovo. So that was the thing–I could fit in.


4. What strikes you as the most quintessential characteristic of New Yorkers?

G: The honesty. People see New Yorkers as being rude. I don’t. They’ll tell you exactly what they’re thinking, and I appreciate that.

N: They are helpful. Dealing with all those tourists I thought they’d be like, so fed-up, but they are not unhelpful. You could ask whoever you stop on the street for whatever you need, they are never tired to give you directions. Although they look like they are in a hurry…but they still help you. And I find that amazing!

G: Yes. People in Nashville smile, but they don’t really mean what they say. Here in NY they are straightforward and help you even if they are in a hurry.

N: Kosovo is a small place and you don’t have to hurry to go anywhere! But sometimes people don’t stop. They’ll say they don’t have time. They are friendly but not as helpful as New Yorkers. One more thing that surprised me here is that people wait in long lines and never complain! Back home, people will complain a lot about waiting on line!

5. How has your understanding of the English language changed since you came here and how has your understanding of how you learn English changed while in the MA TESOL program?

G: Back home, the focus was not on speaking English. There was a lot of writing and vocabulary. I could write in English, but I couldn’t speak. I had a hard time understanding because of the rhythm and the intonation of the language and I never had phonics back home either. That has changed here, because it is a little more organized for me as a learner, it helps me how to teach it. Brazil was very grammar driven. Explicit grammar. Naming the features. So even my high school teacher in the US was surprised that I couldn’t speak English, but I wrote better than the “natives” in my class. Now being here, and being part of the MA TESOL, it’s brought everything in perspective and has also taught me different ways to teach grammar from the way I learned it. And that has helped me a lot.

6. So, since you say you view has changed, what would you do differently? For instance, if I were a student in your class here (ESL) or if you returned to teach English (EFL), what would be different?

G: Everywhere I taught was book-based. Here’s the book! It was all teacher-driven, but now, I might still use different books (but those that fit my students’ needs better). I also have private students and I use technology like WhatsApp podcast for listening and pronunciation. I’ve incorporated a lot more new authentic materials than I did before…like articles on music and race. I know some students can get political, but I use a lot more resources than just books.

N: Before coming here, unlike G, I had developed all 4 skills in English because of my work. But contrary to G, my problem was “social language” like casual conversations and small talk, not academic and professional English. And I missed that. But I also come from a country where learning and teaching is teacher-based and not student-centered. So, it’s not like “learn by doing.” It was very prescriptive. And when I came here, the learning style changed…The first semester was not easy! I had to really adjust to it. Although now I’m taking 4 courses, it’s easier than the first semester when I took 3 courses, because I developed that ability…Now I know how to work on it, and then work on it again in the classroom with students. Like G, I’d like to depart from traditional grammar teaching and incorporate the cultural part as well. For example, I would like to teach my students what goes on in US and…hey what about using some idioms, some TV etc. Although I watched TV back home, it’s not the same as being immersed in the culture. Everything I learned and used in English, was in an artificial environment. English in the natural environment is totally different.

7. You seem to be good friends, despite your different backgrounds. To what do you attribute this?

N: I don’t know…It’s just the chemistry! I often tell G, that because we come from different corners of the world, I could never imagine I would have the best classmate from Brazil. We don’t share anything in common.

G: Yes. The culture is not the same, the first language is not the same. I don’t know…

N: But we talk a lot about “back home” and how people are tempered, what gestures and phrases we use in our cultures.

8. Would you then, as teachers ever approach teaching English through a cultural lens?

G: I think culture is a very slippery slope. You have to be very careful and sensitive. Culture can bring people together, at the same time you can’t cross a line and be “offensive” even though you don’t mean to be.  That’s one of my biggest challenges because I plan to stay in NY and teach multicultural students. Food is one of the things that brings people together. For example, we both teach at the same place now where some of the students L1, I haven’t even heard of, let alone know their culture. Some cultures in NY classrooms are very new to me and I have to be very careful.

N: As G said, culture can bring you very close, but it can also take you very far away. I don’t know, but I thought when I arrived here, I would hang out more with people from the same culture as mine – maybe Eastern Europeans or Europeans, but I never imagined I could become good friends with someone from Brazil or the Philippines!  It takes a lot to learn about someone else’s culture. You can read about it but it’s not the same. You can learn through their expressions and gestures about how they feel. So, you have to be very culturally sensitive, especially when you teach adult students because they can lose their motivation. As a teacher you have to be thinking about every kind of gesture, culture in your classroom and it’s not easy.

9. As non-native speaker teachers, what has your experience been teaching your diverse body of adult students here?

G: Well, when I taught in Brazil, I wasn’t viewed as a Brazilian teacher because of my near-native American accent. But when I was applying for jobs in Japan, I put “fluent” in English, because I don’t consider myself as being an English native speaker. But after I was encouraged to write “native-speaker,” I got the job. But they said they couldn’t put that I’m from Brazil on their website. So, they asked, “Where do you consider you’re from?” I said I’m a New Yorker at heart! So, on their school website they put that I’m from New York (not Brazil). But once I got my class, the students didn’t have a problem when I told them I’m from Brazil.

Now, here in New York, I think there’s an acceptance, but I think that still, because the head teacher is American, (although the students trust us), he has the final word in their mind. What do you think N?

N: No. Because I don’t think they can diminish someone’s ability of teaching English based on their accent.

G: BUT …if we make a mistake it’s because we are not natives, but if a teacher is American it’s because they don’t know.

N: I didn’t get that feeling. I think students are fine as long as you are able to teach them and as long as they understand you.

10. What about times you’ve had to teach pronunciation?

G: I’m happy taking phonology because I didn’t feel comfortable teaching pronunciation before even though my accent is near-native.

N: The part that I really struggled with in the beginning, was teaching pronunciation because I think my pronunciation is not clear and perfect. I’d be comfortable teaching students the basics…like this is the best way to pronounce it, but it would be difficult to teach them to pronounce it with an American accent. So, I would teach them the “standard English” (like using the audio sound in a dictionary for how to say the word) so they would be understood by everyone. But there are students who fail the citizenship test because of pronunciation. I could never imagine you could be misunderstood because you pronounced something differently. So, a teacher can focus on sounds that are important.

11. What recommendations would you make to other international students planning to come study at The New School?

G: Be open-minded. Because NYC can be very overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to meet people. Don’t be afraid to talk to your classmates and build relationships! Just come in with an open mind and absorb everything.

N: I would advise them to prepare themselves for a student-centered learning style. Secondly, learn a lot about American culture and how to live in NYC – although it’s not difficult to live here because everybody is from somewhere…You never feel lonely. Everyone has almost the same kind of story really.

12. Why the New School?

G: I actually got accepted in Canada, but The New School was my number one choice. For me it was important because of the social justice angle. That’s very important to me. I plan to teach English here. So, to me, English is a not a commodity, it is a necessity. We live in a world where English is a necessity. For you to be able to defend yourself, fight for your rights, and stand up for your family, that’s a big thing for me; to empower people to do that. So, the school gave me that, which no other school offered me.

N: The New School is multicultural, especially the TESOL program. Before I arrived here, I thought that all the students would be Americans (from here). But when I came here, I realized it’s multi-cultural, multinational. You have people from all around the world and that’s something very nice to share. You have every kind of culture and mentality that works very well with each other.

Roshii: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It was super interesting, and I appreciate it very much. Good luck with the rest of the semester and your future plans!


Author’s Biography: Roshii Jolly worked in the travel industry for many years before getting involved in the TESOL field where she discovered her passion for both teaching and research. She completed the MA TESOL program entirely online, graduating in May 2012. She’s currently teaching in an I.E.P program at The New School and also serves as the program’s Outreach Coordinator. Additionally she’s looking to the future, helping pilot a program for underprivileged students in India through technology.