Mastering the Art of Hand Fishing and Other Idioms: Conversing with ESL Students

by Katherine Williams
Southwestern Student Representative, 2012-2013
Arkansas Tech University, Russellville, AR

You would think that the Department of English and Department of World Languages would be in the same building, but at Arkansas Tech University they spread out to three. The third building, Tomlinson, is where many college students from another country come to study. Many students rarely get a glimpse of their peers who speak English as a second language (ESL), and fewer have the opportunity to have a conversation with them. But several members of the Omicron Tau chapter of Sigma Tau Delta scheduled their Monday nights to meet these students. This chapter, where I served as Vice President and President during undergraduate study, got word from our Faculty Sponsor that a professor from the English Language Institute was looking for student volunteers.

The goal was to engage in conversation in a non-threatening environment and help ESL students on their English while they prepared for the TOEFL iBT test they must take before graduation. In addition, many of us were coming into this project with little to no experience in tutoring, so we were just as nervous as the ESL students when it came to talking to each other. To avoid long the awkward silences from our fist meeting, we decided to break up into groups to make it less daunting to meet new people.

Hand fishing, as you might imagine, is the proud tradition of catching fish with your bare hands.

What I found interesting about our interaction with these students was how much the Internet helped us bridge the language barrier. During one of these conversations, someone mentioned “hand fishing;” Google Image provided the photos. Careful to avoid confusing students with pop culture references—phrases we came to take for granted, but a cultural puzzle for others—we had to find ways to communicate with one another clearly and without native-language shortcuts. During a game of Taboo, one Chinese student didn’t know how “Chopsticks” related to “Piano.” Thanks to YouTube, we showed her that it referred to a famously simple tune. Laughter, the universal language of merriment, filled the classroom on this night as each of us tackled tricky words (oddly enough, several words related to lingerie).

Members of the Omicron Tau chapter pose with ESL students from Arkansas Tech University

Our volunteer project came to an end at the end of March—the post-Spring Break rush kept everyone too preoccupied—and although we didn’t raise any funds, engage the entire campus, or offer free pizza, we still considered our project to be a successful one. Many of us knew that this project would benefit us in the long run, too, as we would possibly enter a workforce where we would communicate on a global level. Sometimes I think our chapter members benefited the most from our Mondays with the ESL students; we certainly had a lot to talk about.

Comments are closed.