Teaching English as a Non-Native Speaker: A Student Voice | Yoyo Zhang | 4 Min Read

September 8, 2022

Growing up in Shanghai, I learned English at four years old. After eight years of training — from alphabet games in kindergarten to after-school tutoring in middle school — I could eventually call myself a fluent English speaker. Speaking English fluently proved to be useful after I moved to the U.S. at 12, not just for everyday usage but also as a skill I could share with others. 

At the start of this summer, I stumbled across ENGin when searching to fulfill the yearly community service requirement at my school. The website headline caught my eye: “…a nonprofit organization that pairs Ukrainian youth with English speakers for free online conversation practice and cross-cultural connection.” 

As a remote job that calls for my English skills, ENGin was perfect for me. I immediately enrolled, went through the training, and, there I was, paired with my 13-year-old Ukrainian tutee. 

I had only taught English to Chinese kids before, but the Chinese-Ukrainian language barrier did not prevent me from sustaining the communication just as easily. If anything, the mutual process of using a second language between my student and I has only made the lessons more effective. 

Research has shown that when a non-native speaker teaches a language, they are more likely to anticipate and empathize with the student’s struggles than a native speaker. Having been through the learning process themselves, the non-native teacher would be keen to tackle common slip-ups and misconceptions. 

This benefit is especially evident in my case, given ENGin sessions are more like casual conversations than structured lessons. As my student and I engage in themed discussions each week, I am able to pinpoint the roots of her mistakes in expressions and explain the mechanics from the perspective of an English learner. Just like my student, I also formulate English sentences through an acquired process instead of relying on intuition, which allows me to visualize the steps. The analogy goes both ways: if I were to teach Chinese, I would not be able to explain why a sentence works a certain way because it comes so naturally to me. 

In addition to the technical elements of teaching a language, Edutopia notes another essential element in teaching English language learners: “cultivate relationships and be culturally responsive.” North Carolinian teacher Emily Francis emphasizes the connection between language acquisition and cultural understanding. By accommodating her students’ needs in a foreign environment and incorporating materials reflective of their backgrounds, Francis strives to make learning language and culture feel like an addition instead of a subtraction to the identities of the English learners. 

This is particularly important as I teach a student from Ukraine, a place that has been under global attention. In addition to creating a safe space for my student to talk about the events around her community, I also actively introduce materials related to Ukrainian culture into our discussions. We would talk about idioms in Ukrainian as well as English; we would explore historical landmarks in Ukraine as well as the U.S. As someone who is exploring American culture myself, I would help my student contextualize the material based on my interpretation and experience in both the East and the West. 

Researchers from the University of Utah and the University of Minnesota conducted an experiment with two classes at a linguistically and culturally diverse elementary school. Each class read two books in English under two different instructional frameworks: Scaffolded Reading Experience and Response-Oriented Approach. While one method focuses on applying the literature to hands-on activities and the other encourages more reflection and verbal output, both were proven to bring unique advantages. The takeaway is that having diversity in the teaching methods and content promotes literacy development — crucial to second-language acquisition. 

Having gained from the variety in learning models as an English learner myself, I bring diverse materials like articles, videos, and podcasts to class and discuss topics ranging from U.S. pop trends to traditional Ukrainian cuisine with my student. When she gave a presentation on the classic Poltava dish Galushka as an assignment, she incorporated newly acquired vocabulary into her own culture, synthesizing the information through practice. This form of exchange also helped me learn about Ukrainian culture and formed a two-way cultural appreciation between my student and me. 

Volunteering for ENGin means much more to me than teaching English. Despite being motivated at first by my school’s requirements, I have come to find joy in the act of volunteering and accumulated many hours beyond the required amount. I have come to appreciate the true meaning of service — supporting others with humility and empathy. I see myself in my student’s journey of learning a foreign language and culture in hopes of studying abroad one day. The experience as an English language learner, the compassion that stems from using a foreign language together, and the cultural exchange that extends beyond borders have made the teaching feel more like a deep bonding experience.

Yoyo Zhang is a student at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT).

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