The best part of teaching English is laughter - it takes no translation, everyone can do it, and no matter who you are talking to you will be understood, perfectly. As a volunteer conversation partner at the University of Montana's English Language Institute, I have found that the most efficient tool for communicating with students from all corners of the world is humor. At the beginning of each semester, the two or three students I am assigned are understandably a little nervous, they have just arrived in the United States, for many of them the first time living in an English-speaking country. The first time we sit down together, there is an almost palpable layer of tension at the table. We introduce ourselves and say where we are from, most students hailing from Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. After a pause, I'll ask a question which guarantees eventual laughter, "So, is there a particular food in your home country that may seem strange to Americans?" To get them out of their shells, I'll make direct, piercing (and moderately awkward) eye contact with the student directly to my left. "In Japan, we eat takoyaki, octopus!" Okay, not so strange to those of us who love sushi, but eating anything with eight legs is interesting. My gaze then moves to the next student. "Well, in Taiwan, we have snake soup." The student from Brazil immediately starts laughing. Success! "At home in Saudi Arabia, we have a common dish with, I am not sure how to say, like a mouse?" And here we are, a perfect time to laugh and learn new vocabulary. Mouse, rodent, gerbil, shrew, and even their furrier cousins squirrels, chipmunks, and guinea pigs. Each animal joined with a photo pulled up on a smart phone. The student from Saudi Arabia explains, "But this kind that is eaten has a...a long...you know this thing that comes from behind?" A tail! Yes, more vocabulary! At this stage, each student is pantomiming "tail" and giggling loudly, big smiles all around the table. We are all having fun, forging friendships, and most importantly, learning. The words, phrases, and simple elements to pronunciation that native English-speakers take for granted can pose a serious hurdle to many students, but can also produce very effective and simultaneously enjoyable tools for instruction. Take for example the word, "snack". Easy, right? After this story, you will never think of "snack" the same way again. At the end of the fall semester, the English Language Institute organizes a potluck for all of the students and conversation partner volunteers. In our last class, a piece of paper was being passed around for everyone to sign up to bring a potluck item. As the paper reached our table, the previous ten students had written their name, and next to it the word "snack". My student from Saudi Arabia looked at the sheet, nodded, and said firmly, "Yes, I will bring snakes to the party." Now, I'd like you to consider the words "snack" and "snake". Pretty close! In fact, closer than I ever realized. After a sincere bout of laughter, I wrote the two words next to one another, and pronounced them several times, my student repeating the words back to me. Instead of his mispronunciation being an embarrassing error, the relationship that we had built together over the semester, based on humor, allowed the mistake to be a productive, memorable, and mutually hilarious lesson in English. I've continued to use food as a great teaching tool, sharing both American culture, cuisine, and opening up huge opportunities for learning English. My newest students have enjoyed buffalo burgers (does it get more Montana than that?) learned to make their own pizzas, meanwhile mastering nouns and verbs like "spatula", "cutting board", "bake", "grill", and some very flattering adjectives like "scrumptious" and "mouth-watering".
My experience as a volunteer at the English Language Institute has been nothing short of phenomenal, exceptional, and truly life-changing. The next time I go to a party, I'll always think of bringing snakes before a salad!