ESL Celebrates 25 Years

October 28, 2002

Nick Marinello

For the some 330 million people who have English as their mother tongue, acquiring proficiency in the language was child's play. For everyone else, English can be a fiendishly complex and often illogical language to master.

Yet talk to the staff at Tulane's English as a Second Language Institute and they'll tell you that due largely to America's international dominance in business, communications, diplomacy, and pop culture, English has increasingly become a necessary second language around the world. For the last 25 years, the folks at ESL have provided international students the opportunity to learn or improve their English, while at the same time helping to promote Tulane in the international academic arena.

"We've opened ourselves up to thousands of people across the world who now consider themselves Tulane people, even though they may have been here only a month," says Bill Lennon, executive director of the Center for International Students and Scholars.

Created in 1977 as a department within University College, ESL's initial charge was to provide language skills to OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) students who were given scholarships to study engineering in the United States.

Today, the institute is affiliated with the Center for International Students and Scholars and provides general and specialized programs to students from around the globe. "The students to whom we offer English courses may opt to study in the United States, but most are interested in improving their skills for studies back home," says Cathy Cake, associate director of ESL.

According to Cake, students often come to Tulane to prepare for upcoming standardized testing or to fulfill educational requirements. Cake says that Tulane's ESL program differs from others around the country in its flexibility and attention to the cultural aspects of learning English. At Tulane, the general ESL program is a year-round operation, with courses offered in ongoing four-week sessions.

Three four-week sessions will take a student through one of four levels of proficiency. Students may enroll in one session or complete one or more levels of proficiency. They receive grades and graduate with certificates indicating the level of proficiency attained. According to Cake, a typical four-hour day comprises instruction in grammar, oral communications skills and electives such as reading, composition, speech and even singing in English.

The five full-time teachers at the institute develop most of their own materials and draw extensively from cultural resources. We want our courses to be topical, up-to-date and reflect the culture of New Orleans and the South, says Cake, who adds that students are regularly taken to historical, musical and cultural venues around the area. The ESL program, which handles its own marketing, admission and registration, typically instructs about 90 students at any one time, says Cake, who admits that number has dwindled somewhat since the Sept. 11 tragedy.

Along with the ongoing general program, several special programs bring international students to campus. Each July and August, ESL holds a legal English session for students entering law school in the United States. With help from Tulane law professor Catherine Hancock and a few local attorneys, the program preps students on the nuances of legal jargon as well specific legal issues. In addition, students gain the experience of what it is like to be in an American law classroom.

According to Valarie Barnes, ESL special projects coordinator, ESL is always looking for opportunities to develop special programs and stays in contact with various international ministries and private agencies that can direct students to Tulane. This summer she hosted a group of English teachers from France who were fluent in English but wanted to acquire new pedagogic skills. "They wanted us to share our teaching methodologies and some of the challenges we face here," says Barnes.

The other reason for them to come here was to do cross-cultural investigation, so we did a lot of cultural seminars. Those included a lecture by Carnival historian Arthur Hardy and trips to the Presbytere and the Back Street Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood. Ingenuity and flexibility go a long way at ESL. Headquartered in humble accommodations on the Newcomb campus, the staff can usually count on some classroom space in Newcomb Hall but, admits Cake, we are low on the priority list.

Over the years, she says, she and her colleagues have taught in a variety of spaces offered by other departments. Still, Cake and Barnes can speak for their fellow teachers all of whom have terminal degrees in their profession and collectively hold 140 years of ESL experiencein saying the rewards outweigh the challenges.

"What makes it wonderful is working with the students and watching the lights come on," says Barnes. "They are lost at the beginning but then they get it. These are amazingly intelligent people who just don't have the language to convey their thoughts. Watching them gain that is beautiful."

Nick Marinello may be reached at

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