Mick Jagger, although a cultural icon, is not someone you would expect to be the focal point of an English class. The lyrical gems "I can't get no satisfaction" and "If you start me up, I'll never stop" are prose even he would likely admit fall short of Wordsworth and Shakespeare. Yet down in a basement of the University Baptist Church, just across North Charles Street from the Homewood campus, pop and rock tunes by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Shawn Colvin are proving to be a handy medium for transplanted foreign adults trying to learn the nuances and idiosyncracies of the American vernacular.
Spinning the tracks are two Hopkins undergraduates, Allegra Heinrichs and Philip Waddell, friends who are volunteering their time to tutor adults in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program. ESOL, begun in 1996, is run by the United Way- affiliated Greater Homewood Community Corporation and offers one-on-one tutoring sessions and classroom instruction for foreign-born adults seeking to improve their English at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
Heinrichs and Waddell this fall are teaching advanced conversational English twice a week to a class of 12 immigrants and international visitors. Those who attend ESOL classes are often highly educated and have some background in English, Heinrichs said, but she has found they commonly trip up on the cascade of idioms and expressions they hear every day--familiar phrases such as "what's up" or "let's do lunch."
Phonetics, usage and especially homonyms also can be a problem for those just learning the English vocabulary, she said.
Heinrichs and Waddell discovered that one way to hear these idioms in use is through song. The music exercise starts off with each of the class members receiving a lyric sheet with certain words whited out. The song is then played and the students fill in the blanks as best they can.
During a recent session, the pair used Shawn Colvin's hit "Sonny Came Home" and explained the writer's use of the words "vengeance" and "mission" in the story's narrative. Heinrichs would write each word on the board, spell it out phonetically and then discuss its various meanings.
"It's fun. We get to explain what the song is about, and then they understand the context in which these words are being used," Heinrichs said. "I think what is most important in this class is practical usage. We are not teaching them the nitty-gritty; most of them know the basics already."
Playing and listening to songs isn't all the class does during the two-hour evening sessions, however. Heinrichs and Waddell also have the group read challenging works of literature, write stories, role play scenes such as renting a hotel room and discuss current events. One recent topic discussed was the upcoming presidential election and how to register to vote.
"We are also going through SATs and GREs right now," said Waddell, a senior majoring in history. "And resume writing. Some of these people are looking for better jobs or just want to know the skill."
A typical class can include people who came to America for jobs, foreign Hopkins faculty members and/or their spouses and foreign-born citizens who came over to live with family.
Heinrichs said some of them have a tough time adjusting to life in the United States and she sympathizes with the language- and custom-related frustrations on their part. She knows what it's like to be a fish out of water.
"I participated in a foreign exchange program to France when I was in high school. I had two years of French and decided to go over and live with a family, and I quickly found out I didn't know anything," said Heinrichs, who like Waddell began the program this past May. "I could not imagine trying to live there for the rest of my life. I find a lot of people here in ESOL are like that, and I think that is why I was drawn to this program."
Completion of a short training program is all that is required to become an ESOL tutor, but Waddell said familiarity with one or more foreign languages is helpful.
Both Heinrichs and Waddell said they have thoroughly enjoyed their ESOL experience and feel they are performing a valuable community service.
"I would tell anyone, definitely do it; it is really fun," Heinrichs said.
Waddell said the experience also has confirmed for him his desire to become a teacher.
"This is the kind of thing I am really interested in, teaching and working with language and with students," Waddell said. "I thought this was about the best way I could get out into the community and do my part."
The Greater Homewood Community Corporation, incorporated in 1967, is a nonprofit umbrella organization representing a diverse group of individuals, businesses, organizations and institutions in 40 neighborhoods in north Baltimore. In addition to ESOL and its adult literacy programs, the organization sponsors activities that help strengthen community organizations, improve public education, foster crime prevention, encourage economic development, increase home ownership and enhance the environment.
For more information about volunteer or educational opportunities in adult basic education or ESOL, contact 410-261-3518.
For more information on the JHU United Way campaign, logon to www.jhu.edu/~outreach/uway.