Delivering Innovation

Sniffing, then narrowing his eyes and holding up a kiwi, a Chinese student muttered something he wasn’t sure he meant to translate. A classmate from Brazil leaned over and pointed to a photo in a picture dictionary. Two Korean ladies laughed, their hands covering their mouths.

The lesson on food was bombing in a big way. When the ESL class ended, none of us were satisfied, but at least the topic had been brought up. “Check your vocabulary materials before next class,” I encouraged. They were all new to the United States. Some had only been in their new country for a few days, others for a few weeks. Some for a couple of months or so, but none had yet moved into the realm of daily communication in English. I had to do something to help my multicultural class of ESL students begin to internalize the language. Thinking back to my own struggles with the French language in Paris and French Canada, the answer struck me. The next class was ready.

“Okay everyone, let’s go,” I asked. They all gave me quizzical looks.

“Where we go?”

“Just wait. You’ll see.”

Previously, I had arranged with the manager of a local supermarket located three blocks from where we had our English classes, to bring the 15 adult learners on a field trip. Representing Colombia, Brazil, Poland, China, Korea, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam, the group made for a curious sight as we stumbled across the remnants of a week-long snowstorm. Many of them had experienced snow for the first time just a few days ago. Two of the newly immigrated Chinese men wore sandals. I kept my comments on this to myself, sure they would learn soon enough. I just hoped they didn’t have pneumonia.

“Okay, where are we?” I asked.

“The store”

“The supermarket”

“grocery store”

“Great market”

It didn’t take long for him to realize that neither of them had been to a big supermarket. They mostly bought food at small local grocery stores that catered to the tastes of their immigrant neighborhoods. Their reactions ranged from shock and disbelief to amazement and amazement. There was more than a little curiosity present as well.

For the next forty minutes with notebooks and notepads open, we methodically meandered down one aisle and down the other exploring the food and container vocabulary introduced in previous lessons. Stories we exchange in broken English. Anecdotes arose. A student offered to push the shopping cart to pick up the items he would have to pay for later.

“No, you can’t buy just one egg,” I explained.

“At home you can buy just what you need,” several students responded.

“Two eggs or a cigarette, up to half a loaf of bread or a cup of rice” they explained as best they could.

They fondled grapes, sniffed, licked, and nibbled on new fruits and strange vegetables like Brussels sprouts, squash, and acorn squash. I bought watermelon, apple varieties, canned goods, dip jars, pretzels, and pickles to bring to class to try. That class outing used “realia,” or real physical objects, to make the lesson “real” to the students. It generated arguments, jokes, and humorous stories into the following spring and beyond.

Use real objects and items instead of just pictures to make your language learning real and more natural. Think about the difference it makes to hold a can or jar of something in your hands versus a picture of a can or jar in a book. Other containers, box, bottle, bag, packet, roll and tube, came to life and were instantly assimilated by the students who brought full (or empty) containers of products from their respective countries. Try a nearby zoo for animals, a museum, a pizzeria, the movie theater, even a local park to bring your foreign language classes to life and reality like we did. Issues? Yes, some, but you and your students will be amazed at the difference it makes in internalizing the language. Whether you are an EFL or foreign language teacher or a language student, using realia will go a long way in making your new language “real” to you. It will be a lot of fun too. I promise.

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