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Teaching English as a Fun Language


By Geoff Hargreaves

It’s Saturday morning. Sunlight and shadows dapple the patio of La Biblioteca. At a circular table, Jock Whitehouse is starting an English class with four students. For the next hour, laughter will be frequent.

“How long have you been doing this?” I ask Whitehouse later.

“About nine years,” he said to my astonishment. “I help students get ready for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), but currently I don’t have a student who is aiming to take that exam.”

“So instead?” I inquired.

“Exam or no exam, the ability to speak English is one of the most important skills any student can acquire. So here the students sharpen their vocabulary and pronunciation through conversation. I don’t teach the rules of grammar because I don’t know them,” said Whitehouse with a chuckle.

“What do you talk about?” I asked.

“We meet every week for two hours; between times, the students research a topic. Topics range from specific biographies to job hunting, math/fractions, personality types, even astronomy. We also get our share of conversation about favorite movies and rock groups!” enthused Whitehouse.

“And what do you get out of it?” I asked.

“It’s rewarding to see students take hold of a new vocabulary word or sentence structure. The larger reward is to notice how someone who’s been working at the language for several years comes in one day and suddenly they’re practically fluent. Deep down, it’s very rich to engage intimately in the lives and challenges of these students. Each one is such a beautiful individual,” commented Whitehouse.

While Whitehouse is teaching his students in La Biblioteca, Jill Noack is at her monthly meeting with one student, David, at Starbucks. David is studying electrical engineering at the well-respected Instituto Sanmiguelense in San Miguel. They’ve been working together for the past 10 months. For Noack, the principal concern is to expose David to a different culture through the medium of English.

“We both benefit,” she said with satisfaction. “We cover resume writing, interviews, and hobbies, but the best moments are when we share stories of our families, countries, or cultures. Working with David helps me learn more about his culture in the country I’ve chosen. He’s intelligent, kind, and very curious about the world. He’s a warm and genuine person. His smile can light up the entire room,” continued Noack.

“My experience gave me an ‘aha’ moment,” she continued. “One day I was explaining a concept or word to David. I switched to Spanish, and I realized that was the wrong tactic. Now, if he gets stuck on the occasional word, I explain it to him in English. That means he continues to think in English. Once, for a change, we attended a movie, a French film with English subtitles. David enjoyed it. He said it stretched his brain to hear French and see non-Spanish subtitles,” concluded Noack.

Margot Young is the coordinator for Jovenes Adelante’s English tutoring program, which is available free to all JA students. Jovenes Adelante is a nonprofit organization that grants scholarships to local Mexican honor students who otherwise could not afford to attend university and thus breaks the cycle of historic disparity in their lives.

“Many JA students now realize how important English is for their future job prospects, so we are getting many more requests for tutors. I’m in awe at how hard our students work—studying all week at university, often having a part-time job, helping their families on weekends when they return to San Miguel, and also meeting with their English tutors,” she said.

“While some tutors are former teachers, the main requirement is an interest in helping a young student move forward in life. If a volunteer tutor doesn’t speak Spanish, I match them with a student with some English. Schedules are fluid and individual. Teachers and students work out their own timetables. In general, tutors meet weekly, usually on a Saturday, for an hour or an hour and a half,” she concluded.

To explore how you can make a difference in a student’s life teaching English as a fun language, contact For more information, see, call 415 150 0030, and/or email Thank you.


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