Dr Maria del Pilar Kaladeen reports on an innovative language project, which was run in partnership with academics from the School of Advanced Study and students from the Cardinal Hume Centre in Westminster. It included a series of ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes led by humanities scholars, and culminated in a session at Senate House where the students had an opportunity to speak to academics about their research.
ESOL classes form a lifeline to anyone in the UK who needs to learn English. Courses, from beginners to advanced level, are commonly found in centres for adult education and further education colleges, and lessons are structured to accommodate language needs. These classes are often incredibly diverse. For example, in the eight years I taught ESOL, my youngest student was 19 and the oldest in her late 70s. I have taught students who come from all over the world including from Afghanistan, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Iran, Lithuania, Portugal, Somalia and Vietnam. Depending on your prior knowledge of English and the amount of time you have available to study, the journey through the various levels can be incredibly daunting. Yet the majority of ESOL students I have encountered have been a dauntless bunch and for many, English is a route to a vocational course or tertiary education.
I will never know the challenges of navigating a foreign education system but having left secondary school before ever sitting an exam, I do know something about how impossible the prospect of university might seem without the vital qualifications that can get you there. One of the things I loved about working in further education is that it meant playing a part in helping to fulfill someone else’s educational goals. So when an opportunity arose to create a project that could be considered for the School of Advanced Study’s (SAS) community engagement fund, it occurred to me that this was a chance to bring intermediate ESOL learners into the university and share some current postgraduate research with them.
The idea was relatively simple. I and two other academics, Dr Natalia Bremner, a post-doctoral fellow in francophone studies at SAS’s Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), and Jose Luis Guevara, a PhD candidate at the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS), would deliver ESOL classes on-site at the Cardinal Hume Centre. Each of us would tailor our classes to convey our research in a series of typical ESOL exercises. Although not trained in ESOL, Natalia and Jose are both experienced teachers and this went a long way in aiding our preparation for the classes. In the final session at Senate House, students worked in pairs and spent about seven minutes with each academic asking them questions about their research.
The result was a delightful representation of the sheer variety of research backgrounds at SAS. Dr Julian Burger, sessional human rights lecturer at the School’s Human Rights Consortium, discussed key moments from his two decades working for the United Nations.
The learners were particularly excited about meeting Dr Shahrar Ali who has worked on the philosophy of lying and deception, and visiting fellow Dr Chandra Morrison, who spoke about her research on graffiti in Sao Paulo and Santiago de Chile. They were intrigued and moved by Dr Catherine Gilbert’s (research officer at the Centre for Postcolonial Studies) work on the lives of the survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
Rose Levinson, Institute of English Studies, discussed a fascinating conference on international literature that she recently convened.
Halfway through the final session I found myself looking out at a room of academics, each one totally engaged with the learners they were speaking to.
I remembered some of the concerns that had been aired before the project commenced: the academics would find it difficult to talk about their research without resorting to jargon, the students may feel nervous about responding to questions or asking academics to slow down or speak up.
Having all worked hard to mitigate these concerns we were now involved in a successful piece of community engagement.
Later, over lunch, individual learners and academics approached me to speak about the event. It was clear in these conversations that any language barriers had been overcome on both sides by an extraordinary willingness to communicate.
With thanks to the students and staff of the Cardinal Hume Centre and the participating academics at the School of Advanced Study.