Combining ESL Classes With Cultural Awareness

After 40 years of English as a Second Language (ESL) coaching, Renia Tyminski decided to make a shift in how ESL is being taught. In 2019, in collaboration with the Syrian Canadian Foundation, she created Cultural Connectors

Cultural Connectors is changing the ESL landscape by introducing the use of sound and the fundamentals of trauma-informed tutoring as a more holistic approach. Here is an overview of this innovative project. 

After 40 years of English as a Second Language  (ESL) coaching, Renia Tyminski decided to make a shift in how ESL is being taught. In 2019, in collaboration with the Syrian Canadian Foundation, she created Cultural Connectors - a program that targets refugees who struggle with trauma, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or have no access to childcare. It’s a free program run by a group of volunteers.

Creating Cross-Cultural Communications

Cultural Connectors owes its name to Renia’s desire to create cross-cultural communication opportunities between Canadians and refugees and consequently change the power imbalance that often occurs when Canadians sponsor refugees in Canada. “When people are volunteering, there is an opportunity to create a relationship. It’s better to avoid having one side which is all about giving, and the other one is all about receiving. I want to present the opportunity for people to engage productively while co-sharing their stories and knowledge,” insists Renia.

Her classes are not only focused on learning English but also on changing perspectives. “In addition to numerous differences in learning styles, there are many different, often unconscious, cultural attitudes on both sides of the newcomer/language instructor relationship. There is a lack of training in terms of how we can negotiate the divide and not impose our interpretation of things on newcomers if we want to establish a good coaching relationship,” says Renia. 

Training the Brain

Forget typical ESL classes, Renia uses unconventional methods for language training, and works with sounds. Mother tongue language learning is always the best model.  She gives students a new, more confident voice while encouraging them to be “playful” and “spontaneous”, and by using rhythm. English has 44 phonemes (distinct sounds) that Canadian born speakers recognise before they start school and are taught to write. That is not how most adult ESL classes operate. Because of that, and  the non-phonetic nature of our writing system, confusion often sets in for adult learners.

“Mirroring the actual phonemes repeatedly with the students, while having them watch my lips and the facial muscles I’m working, allows them to drop their inhibitions pretty quickly once they start to engage and mimic. In fact, watching mother’s face closely and repeating sounds she makes was wired into our brains as an early training method for our first language,” explains Renia. 

By building on the neuroscience of language learning, her method  helps  learners to reroute their memory storage bank for the second language. “My method shifts the new language building blocks out of the compartment of the brain where the first language is stored, and cultivates the neural connections for a completely separate compartment. Becoming bicultural and bilingual is about having well-wired but completely separate compartments to tap into,” she stresses. 

English Learning Patterns

Her strong background in the study of languages has enabled Renia to spot certain patterns in the learning curve. “When you have students whose teachers never left their home country to immerse themselves in an English-speaking culture abroad, you often have to take apart what the learners thought they knew about the English language. You may also have to factor in whether they learned British or Canadian-influenced English at school in their home countries. In addition, knowing something about the sound system of their first language helps you to know in advance what difficulties they’ll have grasping certain sound patterns, and to decide when to work on those while building on their listening/speaking strengths”, stresses Renia 

She adds that she encourages her students to train their own brains to do better self-listening, and develop an awareness of their own patterns. The most reliable learning path for them is clearly hearing their own words and correcting themselves as necessary, in daily life. Interactive communication exercises help them do that. Being able to tune into the sound distinctions in their speech during everyday conversations adds up over a short time to the equivalent of many focussed classroom hours.

Accommodating Refugees 

This is all the more important for refugees who came to Canada with limited English skills, and have a hard time learning English. Thanks to her experience in trauma-informed education, Renia is able to find effective approaches to accommodate them. “To learn a new language, you must be very dedicated and attentive. Refugees have not chosen to be here, they have been through a very traumatic experience. And now, they have to learn a new language on top of having to acclimate to a new environment,” says the ESL instructor. 

She points out that the first step toward accommodating them is to acknowledge that people who did not choose to be in Canada may often have some resistance to learning a new language. One solution is to find means to provide unexpected learning experiences. Renia does that by creating an environment that is relaxed and enjoyable, with a lot of improvisation. “You create a situation that lessens distractions as well as lack of self confidence, and helps them develop the skills to be fully present”, stresses Renia. 

Collaborating with a Choir

Since sound-system based language training is a major component of her method, Renia decided to take it one step further by combining it with the music training of Georgette Fry, a self-taught musician and the director of Shout Sister Choir. Renia has found the choir's repertoire of around 150 to be a good resource for.colloquial language use rhythm training, and insights into popular North American culture. “One song that is especially suitable as material for the project is The River Knows Your Name by John Hiatt. The words evoke landscape, identity, loss, and the endless flow of life. It has a strong resonance with displaced people,” Renia underlines. 

The Shout Sister Choir has generously offered gift membership to refugee women who cannot afford the session fees but are ready to benefit from being part of a growing social and emotional support group that sings songs of peace, love and understanding. Some of the members have volunteered to be online trainers for the Cultural Connectors Project. 

Pre-Arrival ESL

Renia is now working with collaborators to set up an online resource base of training videos due to an increasing demand for customized ESL training and the need for home instruction. 

“My intention is to give people who need it an effective tool to work with: clear communication skills. Refugees who arrive in Canada with their ears better attuned to Canadian English will have a better chance of successful settlement experiences. Through language we create our reality. Skillful communicators make good neighbours, and good community leaders,” emphasizes Renia.  

She’s hoping to appeal to volunteer trainers and learners in Canada and worldwide and demonstrate through these videos how simple and effective her approach can be. Discussions are also ongoing with an international humanitarian organization who is interested in using her online training as part of their education assistance for Syrian refugees who are in camps and in transition.