Thursday, 09 October 2014 00:00

English without borders Featured

Written by Whitney Palmeter
Dr. Rosalind Gann shows her students how to make a pretzel. Dr. Rosalind Gann shows her students how to make a pretzel. Whitney Palmeter

Every Thursday evening at Cherokee United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tenn., an exchange takes place as different tongues learn to speak in one common language.

Leading this conversation is Dr. Rosalind Gann, an East Tennessee State University professor and English as a Second Language advocate. The main goal of this gathering is to equip people whose first language is not English to speak it comfortably and correctly.

Gann has worked with English language learners in many countries. It was there that she realized how the English language is becoming more global.

"One thing I've learned is just how important English is—worldwide—and the scope of this language," she said. "It was, originally, a language of conquerors, of oppressors, and now, it's been transformed into a vehicle for universal communication."

Gann first taught as a middle school English teacher, where she developed an interest in literacy. This led her to pursue a doctorate in literacy, linguistics and ESL from the University of Cincinnati.

Today, she coordinates the teacher ESL program at ETSU, as well as an ESL class at Cherokee United Methodist Church.

At the ESL class, Gann talks to each of her students as they arrive, taking the time to get to know them. Here, the teachers are volunteers and the students do not pay tuition.ESL 0043

“In a school-based ESL, there are exams and assignments and grades. What we do at Cherokee is quit different,” said Gann.

“We welcome our second language learners, and ask them what they want to do. If they want homework, we assign it; if they want it corrected, we correct it. If they want help in preparing for exams, we’ll put together exams, but we don’t give exams and grades.”

On one occasion, the students baked together. After a student asked a question about pretzels one week, Gann brought in dough the next. As they worked and laughed together, attempting to twist their creations, the students learned where the pretzel originated and how to bake it.

“I believe that we learn best by doing. That we learn best by actually conversing for a purpose, writing for a purpose, doing something to communicate.”  

            – Dr. Rosalind Gann

“In adulthood, people should determine their own goals,” said Gann. “Our attitude is: What you want, we will give you. The only rule I have is no heritage language. We’re only talking English. Not because I want to impose English, but I say, ‘You already know Spanish or Chinese or whatever. That is not why you’re here, you’re here to learn English.’”

Dr. Theresa McGarry, a professor at ETSU, works with international students who are learning English as a second language. She also coordinates the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Certificate Program at ETSU.

“The idea is get them to know their own learning styles so they will know what techniques will help them,” said McGarry. “Also to work on the learning styles that they’re not really strong in to become more well-rounded learners. Self-awareness is a big thing. Understand yourself as a learner; I’m not in charge of your learning, you are. So figure out how you do it, and assess yourself all the time.”

In regards to learning, McGarry said that what is most important will vary from student to student. For some it may be integration into the community, for others it’s passing an entrance exam.

ESLclass 0043Gann uses the same idea when approaching her ESL class. She starts the class by asking each student what they want to work on. They are divided accordingly and the rest of the time is spent working on grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and other group requests.

 “I believe that we learn best by doing. That we learn best by actually conversing for a purpose, writing for a purpose, doing something to communicate,” said Gann. “Any of these things that a person considers important is important to me, and I will work with them.”       

When the class made pretzels together, they came together over a common project. Then, they held conversations about cultural cooking over freshly baked pretzels.

Hannah Norris, an ETSU sociology student, spent her summer at an ESL language camp for international students in Lawrenceville, N.J. She noticed that the high school students she worked with wanted to learn more verbal and listening skills.

“I think interactive learning is the way to go,” Norris said. “The students at the camp said that their learning improved so much over those three weeks than from years of learning, just from being submerged in this culture and having to speak English to do everyday life.”

“English doesn’t belong to us anymore, if it ever did. If you want to say it’s the global language, ok, but that means it’s gotten away from us. It belongs to the world."

            – Dr. Theresa McGarry

Learning a language almost always involves learning a culture. Gann’s class is multi-ethnic, so conversation often revolves around the students’ own cultures and American culture.

“We try very hard to create a warm atmosphere, and one that’s respectful of their home cultures,” said Gann. “Language is imbedded in culture. So a lot of what we do is explain cultural practices, and we teach the language in that context.”

For Lucy, an ETSU student from China, this is helpful for thoroughly understanding the English language.

“The teachers here are so sincere, warm and energetic,” she said. “Through this class, I’ve learned culture, slang and idioms.”

This cultural aspect is important for speaking English in the United States. However, McGarry said that when English is being used in other parts of the world, it doesn’t necessarily need to reflect American culture.

“I would never want to assume that all ESL learners want to become American, immigrate, or integrate,” she said. “Most of the English speakers in the world now, numerically, speak it as a second language. They are not all talking to us; they are talking to each other. English is being spoken between people who do not have another common language.”

As a result, this will change some of the structure and rules.

“English doesn’t belong to us anymore, if it ever did,” said McGarry. “If you want to say it’s the global language, ok, but that means it’s gotten away from us. It belongs to the world. So, that affects your approach in a lot of ways. There are certain aspects of grammar that have been changed, or simplified. The oddities of English tend to get smoothed over when it gets in the hands of non-native speakers.”

“English, to me, is something that should be free like the air and the water."

            – Dr. Rosalind Gann

There is a theory that considers English as a lingua franca, or a language of exchange between people who don’t necessarily speak it as a first language.

“If you believe in that principle, you’re not going to waste your time correcting ridiculous things,” McGarry said. “Focus on the things that they need to communicate among each other.”

Gann said that now, learning English means learning an international language. She believes that English should be available to anyone who wants to learn it.

“English, to me, is something that should be free like the air and the water,” Gann said. “It’s a gift to all of us. This may well be something that allows us to communicate and to ultimately cooperate together as a human race.”

For more information on ESL at Cherokee Church, visit or call 423-434-0105. 

Upper right: Students at the Cherokee Church ESL class make pretzels. Left: Students Chris and Svetlana converse after the ESL class. (Photos: Whitney Palmeter)

 En español: Inglés sin fronteras

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