Modal Verbs & Cross-Cultural Moments

Over that past couple of months, I’ve been occasionally teaching ESOL classes for an amazing organization in east London called The Arbour. The project I’m teaching on offers free ESOL and Life Skills classes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women who have been in the UK for less than two years and are on the path to settlement. I’ve been teaching the same class of E2 (upper beginner/low intermediate) women every week and have loved getting to know them, learning about their cultures, and seeing their English improve. This particular class has about eight women from Bangladesh, two from Morocco, one from India, and one from Thailand. All of the women from Bangladesh and Morocco are Muslim.

So last week I was teaching part of a lesson on modal verbs (can, could, should, may, must, might, etc.) and had the women practice asking each other polite questions using modals (e.g., Can you please tell me where the next bus station is?”). When I called on one pair to demonstrate a short dialogue, one women indicated the other’s headscarf (hijab) and asked, “Why must you wear this?” This sparked a clamor for responses from most of the Muslim women, each wanting to explain why they wear the headscarves. I made them take turns as they explained about the rules of Islam requiring head covering unless a woman is with her close family members (only one of the Muslim women’s doesn’t wear one — nowadays, the women acknowledged, it’s more a matter of personal choice).

Though the conversation was interesting — I’m a sucker for cross-cultural moments — I thought it was getting off-track until one woman started to say “It is necessary to wear the hijab because…” A lightbulb went on in my head and I immediately stopped her and asked, “How can you rephrase that sentence using a modal verb?” She quickly figured out that “it is necessary” can be turned into “must” and made a beautiful modal verb sentence. The conversation continued, with me making sure that the women used modal verbs to explain the rules requiring them to wear the hijab.

I felt elated afterwards, thrilled that we could learn about each other’s cultures and religions while also practicing essential English grammar points. The women I’ve been teaching are incredibly smart and motivated to learn English so they can live, work, and navigate London more easily.

In sum: I love cross-cultural moments, especially when they happen to work perfectly with teaching English grammar.

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