I was an English major in college, which in some ways might have made my decision to join the Huntington Beach Literacy Volunteers seem more obvious than it was. Like many who are tied to a computer, my own grammar was lazy. I hadn’t diagrammed a sentence since middle school and my knowledge about the parts of speech had been relegated to a game of MadLibs. My participles were dangling over the Huntington Beach Pier. I wanted to be ‘perfect’ so that my learner would be exposed to the precision and specificity of English, which I initially believed would give her the best chance for success.
What I discovered is that what makes a learner become more native in their non-native language is the very messiness that I had tried to avoid. Idioms, slang, colloquialisms, and regional dialect have allowed my learner and me to connect in ways that make us both laugh and marvel about the elasticity of our spoken words. The value of informality is that even as native speakers, we’re not ‘perfect.’ Our lessons are typically comprised of grammar that is TOEFL correct but with an understanding that something can be both correct and not commonly used. I’ve given up on perfection and along the way have become instead more practiced, more patient and indeed, more fun.
During the training last fall, we’d been told that our learners would teach us more than we would teach them and this has proven true in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I look forward to the lesson preparation and my time with my learner has been very rewarding. Most meaningful have been the friendships I’ve developed with other volunteers. We exchange ideas, support challenges with real solutions and we celebrate each win. It helps that they love coffee as much as I do.