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Use Proverbs to Teach English and Provide Perspective

by rvaughn on June 22, 2010

Use Proverbs to Teach English and Provide Perspective

Teaching English? Use Proverbs to Provide Perspective and Create a Global Classroom

” I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Chinese proverb

“Well begun is half done.” Greek proverb.

“Persistence pays.” Latin proverb

English teachers and many English students will immediately recognize these traditional sayings or proverbs. They convey a way of looking at the world in a few short, vivid words. English language learners , often struggling with a limited vocabulary, find these memorable proverbs easy to learn and fun to use.

Proverbs add familiarity and comfort to an often strange and stressful situation for older English learners. Proverbs can capture a point of view in vivid words. We learn proverbs our entire lives – from our relatives, our teachers, our friends, the media, and our literature. These classic sayings contain folk wisdom gathered through time and experience. They often capture a common human experience across cultures and languages.

Yet I like teaching proverbs in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for four other distinct reasons.

1. Students can share proverbs from their own countries. In ESL classes where you have students from many different countries and numerous first languages, proverbs allow students to affirm the insights and experiences of their native culture. “Home is where the heart is.”

2. English language learners can easily memorize proverbs. Using the right proverb at the right moment gives students a tremendous sense of competency and fluency in English – something that immigrants often struggle to achieve. Repeating proverbs, in a new tongue, displays their intelligence to their English listeners. “Words count.”

3. Studying proverbs from around the world helps create a more global education, and counters the fears of English displacing the insights and words of other tongues and times. “The sky is blue everywhere” and “birds return to old nests.”

4. Sharing proverbs shows a respect for tradition and the past while students expand their vocabulary in a new, modern language. Many adult immigrants, particularly older ones, have very mixed feelings about their new lives in an English speaking nation. Even refugees who fled war, economic crisis, religious persecution, or political oppression will often maintain an extreme in the “authentic” culture of their native country. The proverb “old habits die hard” acknowledges this tendency. Yet another proverb, “you’re never too old to learn”, gives hope to English language learners.

For instance, an older immigrant from rural Korea learning English in Los Angeles might find themselves also learning to live in modern, culturally diverse city for the first time. While the formal subject may be English, immigrants are also discovering new ways of living and thinking in the school. Proverbs seem to affirm the concept that “the more things change, the more they remain the same” and “the unexpected always happens.”

When I taught an advanced ESL conversation class to immigrants and international students from many different countries at Santa Monica Community College, I usually introduced conversation topics with a classic American or English proverb. Students would soon be paired up to interview each other and share experiences. When we returned together for a group discussion, I noticed that students often explained their answers using proverbs. I decided to “go with the flow” and build proverbs into course materials. I’ve used the same technique ever since while teaching in other English language programs for both college students and international graduate students. Compelling Conversations comes out of those classroom experiences.

After all, “everybody is a student of life.”

Eric H. Roth currently teaches English at the University of Southern California to international students. He has previously taught English and writing to immigrants, refugees, and college students from over 50 countries. He is also the co-author of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics, an ESL textbook to improve speaking skills. (Free chapters can be found at http://www.CompellingConversations.com)

Gwangju Ministry Of Education, Busan, Korea produced this video of an English lesson in an Elementary School. The teacher on the monitor is a regular presence during the class’s English period. She is a US Certified School Teacher working for Eleutian Technology (Ten Sleep, Wyoming). The US company is revolutionizing the way the world learns English.

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