A Dialogue with Christina Kitson

Zaid N Mahir

This dialogue is about learning English and then specializing in teaching it as a second language. My guest, Christina Kitson, has had a unique experience learning English as her native language, beginning with the challenges she dealt with in her childhood and formative years. Recounted in this dialogue, her experience provides an insight into the role of culture in language learning, a role often ignored or marginalized by teachers of English as a second language. Equally important is Dr. Kitson’s views of “disability” as a challenge to language learning in general.

Mahir: Generally, there is a more-or-less universal set of reasons people decide to learn a language, which may be personal but are not necessarily based on a personal experience with language learning. But you, Christina Kitson, have had an unusual experience in your childhood with language as a means of verbal communication, which, as you have told me before, shaped your perceptions of language acquisition and, consequently, your approach to the teaching of language. Will you share your childhood experience with our readers?

Kitson: My childhood experience learning English was very different from that of other students working with their first language.  I grew up in the United States and English was the only language spoken in my household, but I did not acquire the language like others. I struggled with multiple aspects of English. My school found that I needed extra help with speaking as I had a severe speech impediment that made many of my consonants sound the same; with writing because I struggled with convention, mechanics, organization, and construction; and with reading as I was dyslexic and did not learn to read in English until I was in the second grade (7 years old). I also had a general communication disability that made it difficult to communicate and be understood by others, in addition to some issues with behavior and attitude that made all of my issues more pronounced and difficult for the teachers to work with in the classroom. I know how it feels to learn the sounds of English, to learn to read and write, and to be told my logic and organization are not appropriate. I like to repeat ideas that I think are important and place the thesis at the end of the piece as a reflection of what was read, but in American writing the thesis is expected to be at the beginning and you should not repeat concepts in your paper at all. When I was in college I worked with international students for the first time as a conversation partner. I loved learning about their cultures and languages. I saw this group of people struggling with issues that I had struggled with, and eventually that is what brought me to the field of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) and working with language learners. I have been able to bring my empathy for language learners struggling with learning English to my teaching. It has helped me see that there is not one right way to make the sounds of English—you have to find what works for your student to make the sound or the sound most similar to what you want them to make. I had to do this myself. I do not make some of the sounds of American English the way other speakers do, but most people can’t tell that I am making the sounds differently. As long as it is close enough to be understood, then you have reached the basic goal of comprehensibility.

Mahir: How has your “empathy for those struggling with language learning” informed your understanding of competence and appreciation for disability?

Kitson: Since I struggled and had to make a lot of modifications and adjustments, I bring that to my classroom. We work on sounds and getting them “close enough” that they can be understood.  If my students want to sound like a “native-speaker” we can work on that, but my default is to help them be more understandable in their spoken language. I think being able to get through a conversation without being asked to repeat information is a worthwhile goal. Having learned differently helps me to appreciate how we all learn differently and we just have to do the best we can with what we have. This is a concept I have struggled with in academia. I was told I have a disability, but I prefer to think of it as learning differently. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of work.  You have to do all the same work that everyone does, but you then have to figure out how to make the way your brain processes information work for those evaluating you. I was lucky to have a school that did provide me with assistance and I learned a lot of skills that I still use to this day.  The key idea is that I still deal with these issues, they do not go away; you just learn to work around them and through them, but without help that would be difficult. When I tried to learn a foreign language, I struggled immensely. My pronunciation was terrible and I was scared to speak (this was not unusual for me as I had been scared to speak English at one point because I made so many mistakes). I did not have the supports that I had had in the past and I know that made a difference in my ability to learn. There is another side to this issue. My brain does not work like others: I think differently, I learn differently, and I problem solve differently. That ability to problem solve differently has been very advantageous when I have worked on projects and created materials. So, a disability is really just a different way of processing.  What makes it different is that it is not the same as the majority, but that does not mean it is less or should be less valued.

Mahir: So, you chose TESL—Teaching English as a Second Language—to be your future line of work. You must have known from the start it is a demanding job requiring a set of skills. How did you go about acquiring the necessary skills to teach English, while meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles?

Kitson: TESL is a demanding job that requires a lot of specific skills, abilities, and knowledge.  Knowing how to pronounce something is not the same as being able to help someone pronounce it correctly. This is part of the challenge, but also what makes TESL such an interesting and exciting field. Once I decided I wanted to work with people learning English I looked into what was needed to do that. I found that being a native speaker was the basic requirement for many countries, especially if you had a bachelor’s degree. With my past, I did not feel comfortable with that as my credentials and decided to get a Master’s degree in TESL/Applied Linguistics. This is where I got to learn about all the different areas that intersect in the field. I found I loved certain aspects of linguistics because it felt very comfortable and familiar (phonetics, phonology, and syntax). Due to my work with a speech therapist I was already a little familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which was very useful in Linguistics class. I fell in love with the field of TESL and Applied Linguistics and decided I wanted to work with not only students learning English but teachers preparing to work with those students. So, I decided to pursue my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction/TESL. This was not an easy path for someone that struggles with their own language, but my struggle really helped me see things from my students’ perspectives. What I didn’t learn in my various schooling, but did learn by being hands on in a classroom was how important culture is to language teaching. I learned more about cultures around the globe from my students, and I learned how critical they can be in the learning process. I think acknowledging the importance of culture and learning to use in your language classrooms is one of the most critical skills for language teachers, but one that remains often untaught or undertaught.

Mahir: In your discussion of language learning skills, you mention the cultural component. How important is culture to teaching English as a second language and, by extension, to teaching any language—both spoken and written?

Kitson: As I stated in my previous answer, culture is necessary. So many aspects of language deal with culture. This even applies to social aspects of language learning. This is not about trying to show one culture as right or wrong, but to allow students to gain an understanding of the culture behind the language, helping them see the connection between choices made and the culture of the people making the choices. I teach American English because that is the type of English that I speak, but I bring up other dialects of English in my classroom. We also talk about how the students do things in their native languages. This gives us a chance to talk about similarities and differences and where those might come from. It has helped my students feel connected in the classroom. My goal is to show respect for and interest in their cultures and encourage their interest in mine.

Mahir: Within the general context of discussion of teaching language as a means of communication, where would you place Linguistics as a discipline in the process of language learning, especially in the process of Second Language Acquisition (SLA)?

Kitson: Linguistics is what helps us understand language. Having a solid foundation in Linguistics is needed to be able to understand language and explain it to others. Second Language Acquisition (SLA) uses the linguistic terms and concepts in its theories, so without a background in Linguistics it would be difficult to really fully understand the theories presented in SLA. Language learning is not simple or straight forward. We are not learning just words and new grammar. We are working on changing how we think about language and how we express our ideas. We might have to make some big changes to how we use the language we use if there are a lot of social conventions that are different from what we do in our first language. Between Linguistics and SLA we as teachers gain our understanding of this. The problem with Linguistics is that it is limited in its application to second language learning. Chomsky has a lot of wonderful ideas, and many of them work very well in first language acquisition, but many of them do not work as well in second language acquisition. I think it is important to focus on the foundation of terminology and basic understanding we get from linguistics and then apply it to the second language learning context.  Hence the difference between Linguistics and Applied Linguistics. We need to focus on how the concepts apply to our learners, not first language learners, as they are not the same. One key difference is culture. Our culture influences how we think, process, and produce language. In English to be polite I change a few vocabulary items, but that is not universal. If that was all I did in Japanese I could seriously upset someone. Even how we put our information together—are we subject or topic focused—is really a reflection of our culture.

Mahir: Finally, given your experience teaching teachers of ESL, what’s your take on the way the U.S. education system trains and prepares school teachers to be competent ESL teachers?

Kitson: This is a challenging question. I think there are efforts made to produce qualified teachers to work with ELLs in their classrooms. I do think we should put more value in language education in the U.S. in general, which would help out ELLs fit in better as they would not be the only ones speaking a second language. I also think that we focus on the surface level aspects of language learning (linguistics, SLA, methods, assessment) while not spending enough time talking about how we use language culturally. We need to teach our teachers to show students the benefits of having another language and leaning English in the classroom. I think right now there is so much focus on their English development that everything else is left out. This means culture is not talked about as much as it should be, their native language is not discussed (I don’t mean taught) or used as a tool in the classroom, which can leave the language learner not feeling very valued.

To improve our system I would suggest we start introducing more culture into all classrooms at earlier ages to help us better understand those around us. I would also like to at least introduce language earlier than the last four years of public education, thus showing the students that there is value in learning another language or making that attempt. Right now, it still feels like the U.S. has a belief that everyone speaks English so no one needs to learn another language, or if they do it is only for fun. I think that mindset needs to change. The students I work with that want to go overseas to teach understand that idea. They value learning about culture and language (even if they don’t speak the language). So, there is hope.

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