Sniffing, then squinting and holding up a Kiwi fruit a Chinese student muttered something I wasn’t sure I wanted to have translated. A classmate from Brazil leaned over, pointing to a photo in a picture dictionary. Two Korean ladies giggled, their hands covering their mouths.
The lesson on food was bombing big time. When the ESL class ended, none of us were satisfied, but at least the topic had been broached. “Review your vocabulary materials before next class”, I encouraged. They were all new to the USA. Some had only been in their new country a few days, others a few weeks. A few for a couple of months or so, but none had yet crossed over into the realm of communicating on a daily basis in English. I had to do something to help my multi-cultural class of ESL students start to internalize the language. Thinking back on my own French language struggles in Paris and French Canada, the answer struck me. The next class I was ready.
“Okay, everybody, let’s go” I requested. They all gave me quizzical looks.
“Where are we going?”
“Just wait. You’ll see.”
Earlier, I’d arranged with the manager of a local supermarket located three blocks from where we had our English classes, to bring the 15 adult learners for a field trip. Representing Colombia, Brazil, Poland, China, Korea, Puerto Rico and Vietnam, the group made a curious sight as we stumbled through the remnants of a week-old snowstorm. Many of them had experienced snow for the first time only a matter of days ago. Two of the newly immigrated Chinese men wore sandals. I kept my comments on this to myself, confident that they’d learn soon enough. I just hoped they didn’t get Pneumonia.
“Okay, where are we?”, I asked.
“store for food”
It didn’t take long to realize that none of them had been in a large supermarket. Mostly they food shopped at small, local grocery stores that catered to the tastes of their immigrant neighborhoods. Their reactions ranged from shock and disbelief to awe and wonder. There was more than a little curiosity present as well.
For the next forty minutes or so with notebooks and writing pads open, we methodically wandered up one isle and down the other exploring the vocabulary of food and containers presented in previous lessons. Stories we swapped in broken English. Anecdotes emerged. One student offered to push the shopping cart along to collect the items I’d have to pay for later.
“No, you can’t buy just one egg”, I explained.
“Back home you can buy just what you need”, several students responded.
“Two eggs or a cigarette, even a half loaf of bread or a cup of rice” they explained as best they could.
They fondled grapes, sniffed, licked and nibbled new fruits, and strange vegetables like brussel sprouts, pumpkin and acorn squash. I bought watermelon, varieties of apples, canned goods, jars of sauces, pretzels and pickled goods to take back to the class for sampling. That class outing used “realia” or actual physical objects, to make the lesson “real” for the learners. It generated discussions, jokes and humorous stories until the following spring and beyond.
Use actual objects and items instead of just pictures to make your language learning real and more natural. Think of the difference it makes to have 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, package, roll, and tube, came alive and were instantly assimilated by learners who brought in full (or empty) containers of products from their respective countries. Try a nearby Zoo for animals, a museum, a pizza shop, the cinema, even a local park to breathe life and reality into your foreign language classes like we did. Problems? Yes, a few, but you and your students will be astounded at the difference it makes in internalizing the language. Whether you’re an EFL or foreign language teacher or a language learner, using realia will go a long ways in making your new language “real” for you. It’ll be lots of fun too. I promise.