What I Learned: 5 Things I Learned from Immigrants Learning English

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Jody Fernando, sharing what she learns as she teaches English language students.


To the casual observer, it would be easy to assume that they are the ones who need me.  They’re new here – foreigners from every corner of the globe learning the ways and words of a new land.

Me? I’m the ‘native’, able to translate the words and explain the customs.  I’ve spent years studying how to teach English as a second language and even get paid to pass along my knowledge. I know the nooks and crannies of this crazy language and play the role of a seasoned tour guide helping my students navigate the complex streets of grammar and spelling and pronunciation.

But don’t let that fool you.

Their resilience, fortitude, humor, and kindness are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them – probably more.  “I teach you English,” I tell them in our serious moments.  “But you teach me life.” While I spend my days prepping for class, scouring the internet for engaging videos and activities to help them learn English and navigate a new culture, they spend their days attempting to learn a crazy-hard language, reconciling new realities with old traditions, and working hard to thrive in a new country.

We come together from every corner of the world, bringing so many experiences and stories. Together, we laugh, we dream, we hope.  Some carry sad tales of war-torn homes, others struggle to navigate life without the right documents or enough money. Nearly everyone is terrified of LA freeways and perplexed by American teenagers.  Each day as I walk them through the maze of the English language, they teach me how to walk through the maze of life.

Sometimes life is sad

Some days, a student enters my class with tears helplessly spilling out. The reasons for their tears vary, but often they’re due to violence in their homeland, separation from families, or overwhelmed feelings of living in a new culture. Most recently, my Syrian and Venezuelan students have been unable to hide their sorrow, and they speak of their grief with weary eyes, “I pray to my God to bring peace to my country,” a Syrian man told me with slight tears in his eyes.  “But I don’t know when it will come.”

An Egyptian asylee has been waiting for her husband and five year old son’s paperwork to come through so they can come to America for almost two years now, “I am so sad I cannot not see them, teacher,” she tells me. “My heart hurts very much.”

“My daughter has been in her house for 10 days,” a Venezuelan woman whispers to me in the hallway. “She’s safe, but her little children are driving her crazy because they cannot leave the house. She doesn’t even have toilet paper. I’m so worried for her, teacher.”

I pause quietly, remembering the heart-heavy years when my husband’s homeland of Sri Lanka dominated the headlines for ethnic violence. There were never any answers – it was always tense, always sad, always heart-breaking.

Sometimes life is happy

Even though it’s present, the sadness doesn’t always predominate.  One term, we had an end-of-term party which I interpreted as wear-jeans-and-a-t-shirt-casual-day.  My students arrived decked out in sequins, heels and perfume, ready to dance the morning away.  Many lack money, papers, family, jobs.  They’ve lost family members, careers, homes.  But these things slip away momentarily as they swing their hips, raise their arms, and kick up their heels to merengue or circle dance.

They bake cakes, share fruit, swap recipes. They tell stories of children, parents, beaches and Disneyland. They dream about the cars they want to buy, the homes they’re creating, and the opportunities for their children.  They exclaim with glee over the technological wonders of apps and websites that make learning English just a little easier; and we all laugh ourselves silly over a host of YouTube videos.

Their joy is as real as their sorrow, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.

Kindness is important

It started with a package of paper cups, then a platter of sandwiches.  When another student walked in with a cake that read “Happy Birthday, Jodi”, I grew instantly grateful for the ‘secrets’ that Facebook tells. At the time, I had recently relocated to a new home 3000 miles away from my old one.  I’d given up a thriving career, proximity to my family, and cultural familiarity for the foreign land of palm trees, plastic surgery, and freeways and was still feeling a bit tender from my losses.

jody fernando birthday

Being new, I didn’t have many friends to celebrate with, so we were planning a small family affair.  I was ok with that, but what a grand surprise to have a party thrown for me when I thought I didn’t have enough ‘friends’ for that!

I watch their kindness toward each other as well. They translate for, give campus tours to, and excitedly share what they’ve learned living here with newer students. They throw wedding showers for each other, ooh-and-ahh over pictures of adorable children, and listen empathically to each other’s woes. Their kindness reminds me of our individuality, of our need to see others and to be seen, even in a city of 10 million people. I see it expressed in so many little ways, and it inspires me to return it to them.

I see you, I say in my mind each day as I stand before them.  You are not invisible here. You matter.  They’re the ones who taught me this first, I’m just sending it back to them.

It’s good to laugh at ourselves

After learning the word “migraine”, one of my students recounted a pronunciation mistake she made once, “I go to the doctor and tell him I have a ‘ma-ga-ri-na’ and he tell me, ‘Lady, you in the wrong place for a margarita.’”

As we all howled at her phonetic misfortune, she stopped us, “It gets worse!  I try to ask for a ‘fork’ at a restaurant but they no understand because I no say the ‘r’ sound good. Yes, teacher, I tell them ‘I have no ‘f&*#’ on the table.”

We lost track of all sense for at least 3 minutes. It’s been a good long while since I’ve laughed that hard. Having spent six years in the serious and lofty world of academia, all this fun was proving very healing for my soul. I’d forgotten how life-giving laughter can be.

It’s important to show gratefulness

Just because I’m their teacher, I’ve received Chinese candies, Venezuelan chocolates, Egyptian plates, Ecuadorian necklaces, Salvadorian coin purses, Thai lunches and Peruvian sweets. Class ends each day with choruses of Thank you, teacher, expressions of gratitude for the time we spend together and the work I put into teaching them.

While I’m not the most emotionally demonstrative person, they’re starting to rub off on me.  We throw ourselves a party for our hard work on the last day of each semester where we eat and laugh and listen to music and sometimes even dance the class away. As the party wound down, I gave them their completion certificates and told them how proud I was of all their hard work. They responded with the ever-flowing and grateful expressions of thank you, teacher. My tears arrived suddenly, without any advance notice, “Thank you,” I said, my voice breaking. “You teach me, too.”

We all embraced our good-byes, and one student met my eyes on her way out, “This is not only job for you,” she said to me. “It is your passion.  It comes from deep in your heart. I see it, teacher. You do more than teach. You love us.”

What could I do but nod in agreement with her? These immigrants – I love them. I teach them. They teach me. Together, we laugh and learn about so many things on top of all the  verbs and vocabulary. They are, indeed, one of the greatest gifts of my life.

jody fernandoJody Fernando (@jodylouise) does a lot of living between worlds.  A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean.  Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents.  She writes about intercultural life on her blog Between Worlds, teaches amazingly resilient immigrants to speak English, travels the world with her soul mate and sweet kids, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry.