Language Pedagogy Specialist Ashley Merriweather has been a member of the English Language Institute since 2015. Upon receiving her M.A. in Applied Linguistics in 2018, Ashley decided to take a year’s leave to work abroad in South America and Japan for professional development. The below is her account from her time in South America.
At the beginning of 2019, I embarked on a life-changing, personal, and professional goal to live and teach abroad. Having had a lifelong dream of teaching English in another country, I decided to do so to enrich my pedagogical contribution to the English Language Institute and gain a deeper understanding of my students’ cultures, languages, and experiences.
Although I had studied Spanish throughout school and lived in Spain for a few months in college, I had never traveled to South America. Therefore, I decided to begin my travels in Colombia, eventually settling in the country’s capital of Bogotá. I searched for ways to merge my interests in music and art, achieve my professional goals, and connect more deeply with the community.
The perfect opportunity happened to be at a non-profit cultural house whose mission is to cultivate community through activities and events within cultural, artistic, and environmental spheres. I could volunteer for a cause that I believe in, improve my Spanish-speaking skills, and work with a diverse group of English language learners.
With only a few months to make a meaningful impact on an already robust organization, I proposed a low-commitment, weekly English conversation hour similar to the ELI’s, which I launched in 2016. The idea caught on and from that point, we worked together to design a flyer and set weekly topics. While I was rather familiar with the logistics of planning a conversation hour, my main challenge was considering this offering from an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) perspective. I needed to make decisions about when to communicate with learners in Spanish and English and deliberately incorporate cultural points about language that learners would not naturally encounter in their daily lives.
All in all, the volunteer experience reshaped my approach toward teaching English. While abroad, I often found myself in the shoes of a learner, which is an essential perspective to consider as a teacher. I tried my best to dust off my Spanish speaking skills, but I did not always succeed in the ways that I expected. I had to rely on my intercultural communication skills and actively improve them in order to connect more deeply with learners and the community. Through these efforts, I expanded my worldview and revisited what it feels like to be a learner of an additional language. Having returned to the U.S., I am not only excited to share my experiences with my students at the University of Chicago, but also connect with them in new ways by offering a renewed understanding of their experience as language learners.