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Language Learning as a Gateway to Culture and Understanding

  • Martha Young
    Martha Young  Turkish National Ministry of Education’s Teacher Training Project  Photo courtesy Martha Young
  • Martha Young
    Martha Young  Professional Development for Pre-and In-service teachers: “How to Scaffold Speaking Strategies in the Classroom”  Photo courtesy Martha Young
  • Martha Young
    Martha Young  Young and student Mehmet Sahhoca practice critical thinking by reading Sherlock Holmes.  Photo by Kate Hoving
  • Martha Young
    Martha Young  English Language Learning at the Islamic Divinity School, Ankara University.  Photo courtesy Martha Young
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by Kate Hoving

One of the first things you realize in talking with Martha Young, MA TESL, the new Assistant Director of the English Language Program, is that teaching English as a second language is about much more than syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation. At Reves just a few weeks after returning to the U.S. after almost a decade overseas in Turkey, Georgia and Pakistan, she has brought her energy, creativity and passion to take the program to the next level.

Young has been in the field of education for more than 20 years.  Her experience includes English teaching, Teacher Mentoring, Teacher Education and Intensive English Program Administration both abroad and in Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. She was a Senior English Language Fellow with the U.S. Embassy of Ankara, Turkey, US Department of State and focused on English language teaching methodology and learning across the country with Turkish Fulbright, the National Ministry of Education, Turkish American Association and Pearson Education Publishing.

Most recently, she served on the Faculty of Divinity at Ankara University in Ankara, Turkey, working with an English Theology program that she co-developed. She taught English and Presenting in English to Islamic theologians while also developing and teaching English courses and religious content courses in English for undergraduate students.

Young was in Turkey but considering returning to the U.S, when her former VCU colleagues sent her the notice about the William & Mary job.  Her immediate reaction was that it was a perfect fit, looking at the job description, skills and experience required.

And yet that wasn’t enough. “I wanted to know: What is the place about?” She needed to understand the goals and zeitgeist of the place. “I dove into the Reves Center,” she explained, exploring the website, reading staff descriptions, program information and the goals.  The two aspects that spoke to her most were the Mission Statement and commitment to internationalization across the university. Young believes in the transformational power of travel and experiencing different cultures. “You bump into parts of yourself you don’t even know.” At the same time, she knows it can be tempting not to test yourself or your limits. “But we have a choice. So . . .  do you stay in your box? Reves encourages that push into discomfort.” And it’s that aspect of the Reves mission that clicked with Young and made W&M the right choice for her.

She’s taken leaps of faith throughout her career. One of the most challenging, perhaps, was her first posting to the Middle East as an English Language Fellow. “It was terrifying,” she admits, but her eyes sparkle and she laughs as she says it, and barely takes a breath before she adds, “I loved the challenge.”

She understands that feeling of being “other” in an unfamiliar place.  She remembers how hard it can be to navigate in a foreign land – whether realizing that the bus you’re on is going to pull off the road for a lunch break before it actually loops back to your destination, or that paying your rent involves not just dropping the check in the mail, but rather engaging in an hour-and-a-half visit and several cups of tea with your landlady. In fact, “the art and science and craft of tea” is a part of most social and professional interactions. “It’s the way to find the human in the person with whom you’re working,” she learned.

This empathy is in part why she’s so sensitive to helping her students navigate the daily activities and newness. She knows it’s not easy, and she’s been in a similar spot, but “You’re not going to know until you try.”

She was intrepid but also prepared and open. “I became an astute student of Turkish culture.” She felt it was important not to come with an agenda. “My goal was to learn and to do good.  What mattered most to me was learning what was most important to them.”

The hospitality of the Turkish people made all the difference in helping her feel welcome, and she remembers that as something to help students in the U.S. “I’ve conducted informal exit interviews with participants in U.S. State Department programs and asked about the most meaningful part of their time in the U.S. Every single time, I was told, ‘I got to be a guest in an American home.’ Every time.”

The unique mission of the ESL teacher

One of the aspects of being an ESL teacher, Young explains, is that “professionally, you’re aware that you’re bringing your own culture to the educational process.” But she points out that’s not to be avoided; that’s the point of the experience. “The students have chosen to study in the United States because they want to understand U.S. culture and language.” As teachers, “we are the gateways to American culture.” In that capacity, language teachers can have a tremendous impact. “In Turkey, every single day I was bridge building.”

One thing she comes back to is that there’s more to this program than the language classes and curricular goals. “I’m a student of the students, while the students are students of me.”

That realization helped her learn to forget about trying to make everybody like you, or to be afraid of awkwardness or honest discussions of beliefs and cultural differences. “What’s happening [in these interactions] is that just as you stumbled over their culture, they’re stumbling over yours. The question is how can we learn from each other and discard preconceptions?”

She reminds herself that, “I’m just one person from one culture, and everyone around the world has their way of living life, and it’s wonderful to be able to learn from them.”

Hopes for the future

Young has lots of ideas for the future of the W&M program, but is also eager to learn from the staff and faculty

Above all, she is committed to making learning interesting for the teachers as well as the students, from professional development to ensuring that they remain excited about the work and content. I want to ensure that the faculty “like waking up in the morning to go to their job.”

Young is also focusing on course content and program standards. She would like to explore collaborations with W&M and her former faculty in Ankara University Divinity School and opportunities in Latin America.

She’s excited that she will be able to do some teaching, too. “There’s something that happens in a classroom that’s magic,” Young says. “I like the story of the English language, and I like helping people achieve important life goals through their English learning.”

Visit William & Mary's English Language Program website for more information.