Photo by Andrew Nicodem / ITeams

Language Teaching and Integrated Community Transformation (part 1)

May 16, 2016
Kathy Baxter
Kathy Baxter

This article is part 1 of 2 in a series by Kathy Baxter, Language Teaching Specialist with ITeams.

The Somali woman across the table from me smiled, her face framed by her headscarf. “I have never been to school before, because girls didn’t go to school in my country,” she told me. “Here, my children are in school and speak English. My husband is working and speaks English. Now, it’s my time to learn.”

I’ve seen it again and again: language learning is empowerment. Individuals in a foreign culture can feel terribly disadvantaged and locked in isolation. Through language learning, unforeseen doors of opportunity swing open. My Somali friend knew that new opportunities would come to her if she learned English at this key moment in her life.

Teaching languages (not only English, but the languages of our host countries) can play an important role in integrated community transformation (ICT). Having resources available for people in need is important, but if their language leaves them unable to access those resources, then they might not survive, let alone thrive. And they might remain invisible. Described below are some examples of language teaching that can positively impact communities. Each one suits a different type of learner, a different set of felt needs, and a different community situation. More importantly, each can be adapted and customized to fit a given context.

Diagram of LL and ICT by Adam Baxter

1. Individual tutoring

When I worked in Chicago, I visited a newly arrived refugee mother who was not able to attend language class because of her young baby. She felt very isolated and alone in this new country. I visited each week and helped her talk about things that were important to her, that would help her feel at home in her new culture. Her felt needs were for friendship and cultural insight as much as for English. 

This type of individual teaching can help promote ICT by demonstrating to individuals, and communities, that no one should be invisible. Mothers with young children, the elderly, infirm, or disabled, or any number of groups may find their needs met by individual tutoring. It is also a way to deepen relationships with key people, allowing study to be tailored to that individual's needs. Those individuals might be the ones who are empowered enough to lead other community transformation efforts.

  • Who benefits: the physically “invisible”, homebound, or people not comfortable in a class
  • How it affects ICT: empowering the “invisible”, showing God’s care for individuals
  • Resources needed: staff with basic awareness of teaching methods; materials on real-life topics relevant to students (see useful resources at the end of this article)

2.  Small, informal, highly relational groups

“We will buy you coffee each week if you bring us a topic to discuss in English,” said a group of my former students. The six of them had been in the same class together for over a year and had just graduated from our language school, but wanted to keep meeting together. We met in coffee shops over the course of the next three years. Our discussions became deeper, into heart-level topics that challenged us all, including the gospel story. The key was the trust and friendship that had been built up beforehand.

We will buy you coffee each week if you bring us a topic to discuss in English...

This model consists of an informal group of people that already know each other that meet either in a home or neutral “third space” such as a coffee shop, community center, church, or office. Informal teaching might be included on a planned topic, or it might be free conversation. Often, learners will need to be of an intermediate level or higher in order for the conversation to flow. This type of group can be particularly effective for ICT as participants can learn a great deal from each other. Topics can be directed toward personal growth and enrichment, like Bible study, spiritual journeys, future goals or dreams. They can also focus on deeper reflection about the community, its history, needs, or assets.

  • Who benefits: a group of learners who already know each other
  • How it affects ICT: can empower a group that have good connections with each other, and facilitate mutual learning, breaking down barriers
  • Resources needed: a neutral “third space”, such as a café, or possibly homes or offices; one teacher with good relationships with students and basic training; materials for discussion topics, conversation questions

Both of these models focus on the highly relational nature of teaching as the entry point for community transformation. Both of them require a minimum amount of training, though it’s worth saying that some awareness of teaching methods is crucial to the success of any teaching endeavor, no matter how informal. A weekend training taught by an experienced teacher, or an online course would be a low-cost, low-time commitment way to be equipped for this work.

In part two of this article, we will move to the more public side of teaching with different types of organized classes that would be open to the public.

Some training courses I recommend (I know these groups personally, but there are other respectable organizations as well):

Other resources for these classes which I’ve found useful: