Penn’s ‘Slanguage’ class teaches newcomers how to understand Americans

“What seems to be going on in Washington seems to be the opposite of what we’re trying to do.”

Slanguage Teacher Bill Kelly shows his class a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer. On the cover is Governor Tom Wolf greeting the Assalis in Allentown, the family that had been forced to return Syria due to Trump’s travel ban.

Slanguage Teacher Bill Kelly shows his class a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer. On the cover is Governor Tom Wolf greeting the Assalis in Allentown, the family that had been forced to return Syria due to Trump’s travel ban.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Song Han, a schoolteacher from Seoul, arrived in Philly in September. She met her American husband back in South Korea through friends. After he got a job here, she stayed behind to sort out her visa and documentation, then followed.

“My American friends, when they speak to me, they use words like froyo, Mickey D’s instead of McDonald’s,” she explained. “I try to understand in context, but I still need explanation about that.”

So Han turned to a resource on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. She’s now a student in Dr. William J. “Bill” Kelly’s ESL Class, “Slanguage.” Kelly, as a language teacher, isn’t too caught up in conjugation or grammar. He’s much more concerned about specific terms and idiomatic expressions— the way Americans say things.

Kelly is a retired economist. He calls Slanguage his retirement project. After decades of traveling for work and pleasure, he wanted to teach a class that could address those moments when regionalisms, cultural references, nods to history or simply a turn of phrase can sail right over the head of the foreign listener.

“I have a lot of sympathy for [that,]” he said. “People tell a joke, and you don’t know what’s funny about it.”

As part of the class, Kelly offers context for the news. His policy explanations tilt toward progressivism; he doesn’t spare students his small jabs at the President or his open disappointment with white nationalist stances. The class often has questions about shifting American attitudes, about Trump’s latest move. Kelly, knowing how hard it can be living in a foreign land, wants to help them through. He and the Christian Association, he said, view the course as a “hospitality ministry.”

“I think they worry about the general environment, and if the U.S. is becoming less friendly for visitors,” he explained to Billy Penn. “What seems to be going on in Washington seems to be the opposite of what we’re trying to do.”

Han appreciates the course because Kelly teaches American systems too, “like health insurance stuff, which is totally different from health insurance in Korea.” Shiho Nagai has attended the class for three years. She keeps coming back because she’s “learn[ing] the culture.”

They discuss politics; they read the news together. Nagai said it’s the only time she reads the newspaper.

In the class, Han doesn’t feel alone. “I can be part of American society when I’m in class talking to Bill. Otherwise I would be at home and be isolated from this society,” said Han.

To her fellow students, she reflected on the tumult she’s seen since the election of President Donald Trump. “In Korea, I went to protests many times. I thought I was coming to a society that would be better. But it seems horrible,” Han told the group. “I went to protest the immigration ban in Center City last week.”

A classmate asked if she’s planning to stay permanently.

“I’m not sure yet, but I just don’t like the idea,” she paused. “As a human being,” she finished.

***

The class is based out of the Christian Association at Penn. Undergrads who find it don’t stay too long. Kelly watches as workloads pull them away as the semester progresses. Slanguage students are often the spouses of visiting researchers, or visiting scholars themselves. The demographics skew toward women and the highly educated. A wide range of countries have been represented, but the three most common student nationalities are Chinese, Japanese and Korean, in that order. Kelly estimates that he’s taught approximately 600 students over the 19 years he’s done this.

Kelly speaks Russian and Spanish fluently, plus he reads French. He and his wife enjoy putting their passports to good use.  When traveling, “I try to learn the local language as much as I can. She does everything else. We consider it a good deal,” he said.

He teaches Slanguage as a volunteer. The Christian Association gives him $25 per month for expenses; he usually uses this toward lunches with students and tolls he pays along his commute from Marlton, N.J.

Bill Kelly.

Bill Kelly.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

The class, after introductions and conversation, then reads stories from the news aloud together, taking breaks so Kelly can define and clarify whatever phrases slip by his students. That was their main focus this week. He also leads short writing exercises where students get a word to craft a sentence around. Lastly, he teaches them songs.

Ling Xu, the newest addition to the class, arrived in the U.S. just two days prior. She’s originally from China, where she was a customs manager, but for the past six years, she’s lived in Germany. Her son was born in Munich.

In her English, you can hear a German accent. That language was hard-won for her. “In Chinese, we don’t have sounds like that,” she explained to everyone. People wouldn’t respond to her in English at places like the supermarket, so she applied herself. Her family has relocated for her husband’s new job. When asked his occupation, she started with “biology,” then dug deep, and answered using her fingers as she spoke: he researches “neurodegenerative disease.” But she didn’t want to move here.

“I asked [my husband] why because I found my life in Germany,” she said. “My husband told me we have to move to America. We have to sell our furniture. We have to start from zero.”

Kelly wrote on the whiteboard the phrase “to start from scratch.” It’s an alternative phrase Kelly offered her and the class. After he explained it, he gave the floor back to her.

“It’s not that I don’t like America,” she explained. “I like my life in Germany.”

***

The students who take this class are English proficient but still shy of native mastery. That can be humbling: The speaker commands a profound vocabulary and speaks fluidly, but the ceiling rises— above it, a new set of challenges. Not a general sense of local quirks but a genuine acumen. Not a string a words, but the careful and dynamic (personal) marks of a storyteller. All the while, there’ll be jargon at the DMV or the doctor’s office, incomprehensible memes that slide by in social media timelines. There’ll be the aim to write your ideas as well as you can think them. The Slanguage demographic is unique. Many ESL classes at that level are more mixed in terms of education-level, Dr. Joy Kreeft Peyton, a senior fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics, noted. But this profile carries certain expectations.

“We get very smart people who are married to very smart people,” said Kelly. “They arrive for one to five years and they say, ‘What will we do with our time here?’”

Nagai joined the class just in time for the reading. She’s not working at the moment but had been a computer programmer at Penn and before that, in her native Japan. Her husband is a breast cancer researcher.

Nagai said she’s been looking for volunteer work in the city. She’d like to give back by building websites for charity, but is having difficulty finding resources online that could direct her to opportunities like that. “I found some [guides], but I couldn’t find something for me,” she said after the class.

Han taught English in South Korea, and wishes she could be an ESL teacher here. But she hasn’t found opportunities that match her skills. She said she’s unqualified here for the types of teaching gigs she’s held in the past and is avoiding anything that won’t help her prospects in the long run.

“No offense, but I won’t do something like a cashier. For my future, I want to do something good for me,” Han told Billy Penn. “I’m thinking continuously about what I can do.”

Fanghong Dong is a visiting scholar from China at Penn Nursing. Dong has been in Philly for three and a half months. She found out about the class on her way to the International House. “I needed to go to orientation. I found the brand,” Dong said.

“The sign,” Xu corrected her. They laughed. Dong studies teen mental health, particularly “the neural cognition and brain mechanisms of adolescents who have adverse childhood experiences.”

“I am single. I have no children. The most important thing I do is the research,” she said.

***

Dong and Han visited Washington, D.C. recently. They went to the Library of Congress. Dong raved about the crabcakes they had near the White House. She thought DC was beautiful. Han did too.

Han noticed something in the Capitol that raised questions. She wasn’t sure of the terminology in English, but the Korean brochure had called it slave labor.

“It’s a foundation we have to live with forever,” Kelly told her. “It’s particularly hypocritical when you look at the Declaration of Independence. ‘All men are created equal.’ Well, not all… Religious people say it’s America’s greatest sin.”

“Greatest sin,” Han repeated.

He selected an article from the Washington Post for reading aloud. The piece focused on Syrian refugees in Nebraska. He pulled out a map of the country to show them where that is.

“I’m very interested in politics and public policy, so I often get into that,” Kelly told Billy Penn later. In general, his students naturally have questions about immigration laws and procedures for residents from abroad. “During the campaign, people were interested in what [Trump] was going to do on that.”

Kelly explained to the class that Rudy Giuliani claimed he helped Trump with the policy, and told him to base the travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim countries based on their danger, not the popularly practiced religion there. Kelly then taught them the term “thinly veiled.”

They underlined and jotted down notes on the article’s pages. During breaks, Kelly would welcome questions. “What is a synagogue?” “What’s the definition of sneer?”

Someone mentioned in the story had a hyphenated last name. That sparked a whole discussion. Nagai wasn’t able to turn her maiden name into a middle name, so she had to relinquish it entirely upon marriage. It’s not the custom to change your name when you wed in China or South Korea. There were sighs when Nagai told her story.

Xu asked what the word vigil meant. Kelly defined it, pointed out that it has the same root word as “vigilant,” and explained that Philadelphia has a lot of them. While stabbings are very common in China, Xu explained, firearms are banned, so gun violence is not.

Dr. Joy Kreeft Peyton, a senior fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics, said focusing on phrases and units of text, as Kelly does, is on trend in ESL education. Common Core standards put greater emphasis on reading comprehension, which had a ripple effect on how adult ESL courses are taught as well.

“Maybe in the past, we were thinking of teaching language as individual pieces— letters, sounds, words—rather than grouping them,” said Peyton. “We were teaching language in isolation from the real world.”

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