This is an upper-level grammar class in Pitt's English Language Institute (ELI), one of the best programs in the country for the study of English as a second language. Students come from all over the world to study intensive English for one or two semesters. By the end, most students can read and write English on an academic level and make their way with assurance in the English-speaking world.
The students in this class arc serious about their work. Though class has not yet begun, they check one another's homework and ask careful questions, treating English as a wonderful new gift. The words trip a little awkwardly from their tongues, but the students persist, confident that soon they will speak gracefully.
The class begins discussing ELI Night, an upcoming party for the faculty and students of
institute. At the party, there will be food from the students' countries along with skits and
music. The teacher, the ELI's assistant director Dorolyn Smith, jokes with the students,
them about the Latin American custom of arriving fashionably late. She warns them to be
time or they will miss the food.
"What are you bringing? " one student asks Smith.
"Probably an apple pie," she answers.
"Will you put the pie in a window?" another student asks, giggling.
The whole class laughs at the joke about the storybook cliche of women baking pies and putting them in the window.
As the lesson begins, the students help one another, trying to discern between dependent and independent clauses, direct objects and indirect objects, transitive and intransitive verbs. Smith teaches at an incredibly fast rate, jumping from grammar rule to grammar rule and reading example sentences. But she loses no one. The asking and answering of questions never stops.
Ten minutes into the class, Smith looks over and puts me, the visiting reporter, on the spot. She asks me to find the verb in a complex sentence. For a moment I get the same sinking feeling I used to get in college German classes. The fear of speaking out in a different language and saying the wrong thing creeps back to me. Everyone is waiting for me, the native speaker," to give the correct answer. In my nervousness, I can't even remember what a verb is.
But the pressure I feel for this moment is only a fraction of the pressure that the ELI students feel. They must overcome more than shyness. Most of them have left families behind to come to the United States. They are immersed in a new culture and way of living, and their families expect them to succeed. Studying, for them, is not a casual task. In many ways, their future depends on what they learn at the ELI.
The students in this particular grammar class are part of the Latin American Scholarship Program at American Universities, a US-government-funded program. Most of the students are Fulbright Scholars who have at least an undergraduate degree and will be admitted to universities in the United States. The institute pushes them through intensive, non-credit classes, rapidly increasing their skills in the English language so that they can go on to graduate study.
Not all of the students in the ELI, however, are going on to higher studies. One student, for example, Mohammed Fedal, is a Moroccan from Switzerland. In Geneva he is a chef. He came to the ELI with his girlfriend simply to learn English. They have been in the United States for six months: three months of traveling the country in a motor home and three months of studying. When I ask him whether he thinks the ELI has helped him, he says, "Before, I could not carry on a conversation. I could not communicate."
But this ability to communicate in a new language comes only with practice. The philosophy of the English Language Institute, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is that students learn best when they actually use the language they want to acquire. For this reason, the institute offers interactive classes, as opposed to the more old-fashioned method of teaching through memorization drills. Fulltime students at the ELI attend five hours of classes a day that emphasize listening, speaking, reading, writing, and grammar. And they take home just as many hours' worth of homework.
The success of the ELI has come out of hard work by its founder, professor emeritus of linguistics Edward Anthony, and the current director, Christina Paulston. When Paulston, a professor of linguistics, became director in 1969, she pushed to increase enrollment in the ELI from a mere 20 students to its present 100-150. She added classes to accommodate all levels of language acquisition, advertised the program on and off campus, and began work on The Pitt Series in English as a Second Language, a series of instructional materials written by ELI faculty. Used by English teachers all over the world, the Pitt Series is considered one of the finest anywhere. This series was the first to reject drills in favor of exercises that draw students into conversing and solving problems in English
. This participatory approach, which The Pitt Series and the English Language Institute share, grew in part out of Paulston's own experiences abroad. Early in her career, Paulston taught at a university in Lima, Peru. During her stay in Peru, she found that the traditional, grammar- based Spanish classes she had taken in the United States had not given her the vocabulary she needed to get around in the new country. And as she struggled to make her way in Spanish, she soon realized that she could remember words and grammatical structures better if she used them for something important„to buy things she needed or to communicate with a friend. Several years later, when she came to Pitt and joined the ELI, she was able to draw on these experiences in developing a new curriculum.
These days, in addition to administrative tasks, Paulston spends time with the rest of the ELI staff, who frequently observe classes so that they can personally evaluate the curriculum and see where it needs improvement. "We are never satisfied with the status quo," she says. "We are always considering new developments and new theories to improve learning."
The basic problem, she points out, is that learning a language is an enormous and complex task, but people simply have limited brain space. For this reason, Paulston is always working on new ways to make language acquisition easier and faster. For example, the ELI is designing a language class that will examine topics in cultural anthropology. The idea for the course arose from recent national research showing that students learn a language faster if they study other subjects„ such as math or anthropology„in that language.
Another of the new developments that Paulston mentions is an increase in computer- assisted language learning. Paulston, who calls herself an "old dog barking in the wilderness" because of her preference for human interactions, nevertheless calls computers an "undeniable aspect" of the ELI's teaching methods. "They are extremely motivational," she says. She acknowledges that computer programs help students learn„even though the programs are not much different from the audio cassettes used in listening exercises.
On the other hand, the strength of ELI is that it is small enough for personal attention„not only to the curriculum, but also to the students themselves. Like Paulston, the other fulltime faculty members are well traveled, and so see themselves as having a common tie with the students. Most have been in similar situations: living in other countries and studying other languages. Carol Jasnow, the student advisor, is an advisor not only on academic, but also on personal terms. She knows the symptoms of culture shock (depression and seclusion) and does what she can to make the students more comfortable by participating in activities like ELI Night.
Associate director Lionel Menasche, who has been with the ELI for 15 years, describes the institute as a safe place that has tough academic standards, yet remains sheltered from academia. "This is a friendly, first-namebasis, culturally sensitive, respectful environment," he says, "that the students might not find if they were to go straight into the academic world."
CAROL JASNOW STANDS at the front of a small ELI classroom. She is teaching an intermediate speaking class and begins with a good old spelling test. There are people of various nationalities in this class: Asians and Middle Easterners, as well as Latin Americans. After the test, she hands out maps of London with tourist attractions highlighted. The task is to ask and give directions to these attractions. The students immediately begin asking their partners questions.
The students in the ELI's intermediate speaking class might at one time have been embarrassed and shy about speaking English. But the ELI's supportive atmosphere has allowed them to overcome their nervousness. The map of London becomes their sole focus. Everything else around them, including the other students, falls away. Soon the students are working so hard at giving directions that some are yelling without even knowing. In the mishmash of voices, I hear the words, "Buckingham Palace!" and "Hyde Park!" Carol Jasnow does not tell them to be quiet. She stands back and listens to the wonderful sounds made by these students of the English language.