I think that one of the most interesting things I did when studying abroad was volunteering as a native speaker language assistant at some beginning and intermediate ESL courses.
Given that I primarily went to Russia for RSL (Russian as a Second Language) courses it was really interesting to be on the other side of the table and it really made me think about how I use language and the phrases that I take for granted.
An example of this was teaching the difference between “homework” and “housework” which ended up being quite a struggle for the students who didn’t see why “homework” was only schoolwork. I was also asked what the difference was between “irritating” and “annoying” and which one is more intense.
Being in Russia was also the first time I was exposed to native speakers of Russian in a classroom setting and there are just so many conversational, colloquial idioms and expressions that I think can only be learned by being in an immersive environment of native speakers.
On the flip side, in this English class I was the first native English speaker that many of these people had ever spoken with, and I realized there’s also a lot of idiomatic American slang too like saying “I’d be down for that” or “Whoa that was wild.” It made me think a lot about how alive language is as well and how grammar rules shift (oxford comma?) or trends in style change between generations or countries (American vs. British English).
I also had a lot of thoughts about what language really is. I think common advice every language teacher gives is to stop translating everything in your head and just think in terms of the language. This can be really hard for a beginner, and it took me about two weeks of living in Russia before I really stopped translating everything into English from Russian. It was so weird because I would be going along in Russian and then realize I didn’t know a word but then instead of hearing the word in English it was like there was just a blank space in my brain where I didn’t know the word at all.
Also in Russia, I had to rely on so much communication that wasn’t verbal—a look, a sigh, pointing at something…it really all begs a lot of questions about communication and thinking. What are things really when we remove words and labels from them?
Teaching English was also just really rewarding and fun. I loved being able to talk about cultural differences with the students and hearing even more about how life differs in America vs. Russia. It felt very triumphant when a student finally understood a difficult concept, and it was interesting to compare pedagogical methods between how I learned Russian to how these students were learning English. I also think that seeing how people were thinking about English constructions was a really useful window into how Russians think about their own grammar and language.
All in all, I highly recommend teaching English as a way to enrich your study abroad experience as it can illuminate a lot about both the language you’re learning and the language you already speak.