By Anne Tomalin
If you could choose to have a superpower, what would it be? The ability to fly? Read minds? Teleport? Turn invisible? Although any of those would be fun, I’d choose instead the ability to speak every language.
I’ve always been fascinated by other languages and cultures. During high school, I was an exchange student in a town in Ecuador where almost no one spoke English. Completely immersed, I learned Spanish quickly. Being able to communicate with my host family and friends – however imperfectly – enabled me to view the world from their perspective, through their cultural lens. I learned that language isn’t just for communication, it’s for connection. The experience of learning a new language felt like acquiring a superpower.
That life-changing experience eventually led me to become an English Language (a.k.a. English as a Second Language or ESOL) teacher. In my classroom, students come from many parts of the world and speak multiple languages, so the only language that everyone has in common is English. This is a plus because I can leverage English as the tool for connecting with each other and co-creating our language learning community. For the students, the urgent need to acquire English is an equalizer: whether refugee or immigrant, economically disadvantaged or privileged, they all face the challenge of mastering English in order to help their families and build their own futures in the US.
Sometimes students feel that having to learn a new language is an unpleasant burden, and I get it – it’s absolutely exhausting. But I try to help them see that it will give them a door to new people, perspectives and experiences, as well as better understanding of themselves. I encourage them to take pride in being multilingual, particularly since so many Americans are monolingual.
I help kids develop their superpower. What could be more fulfilling than that?
Anne Tomalin is a National Board Certified Teacher at Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has taught ESOL for 33 years, at every level K-12. She is an avid student of global education and participated in GEA’s Finland program in 2019 and Utah program in 2021.