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Sabiha Goolab, solicitor at Minster Law, shares her experience in teaching English to non-native English speakers and the importance of communication. 

As a solicitor, being able to read and write is something I often take for granted and give little thought to. However, imagine what life is like for those who have not had the privilege of an education and who do not have the ability to read, understand and write basic English.

For my Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) day, I volunteered to help at Al-Hikmah Centre, a local community centre in my hometown of Batley. The organisation runs a variety of free courses and classes daily to help people of all ages learn and develop new skills. One such course is the ESOL course, which I had the privilege to participate in teaching.

ESOL stands for ‘English to Speakers of Other Languages’ which is a course teaching the English language aimed at non-native English speakers, looking to take up a new language or validate their skills. It involves teaching students to understand and communicate the English language at varying levels to include Entering, Beginning and Developing.

I assisted helping students at Entering level, who I later came to know understood little or no English.

I initially sat in the class as an observer. I found that all the students were mature adults, mainly women. Many spoke a mixture of Urdu and Punjabi. My native language is Gujarati and overtime I have somehow picked up the ability to understand and speak a fusion of all three languages, with the English language added into the mix. This helped me interact with them, so I was at a slight advantage from a teaching perspective.

The students were attending these classes for a variety of reasons, but the common ground was that none of them had had a childhood education. Some were attending the course following the unfortunate bereavement of their partner which meant they were now left with running the household and did not understand or know how to deal with household bills. Some attended because their children had grown up and with all the free time on their hands, they finally thought it was time they did something for themselves. Some attended because they felt frustrated not being able to communicate by emails and social media which is now the new norm.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I anticipated that even at ‘Entering’ level, the students would at the very least be able to communicate basic sentences. I was wrong.

The topic of the day was letter reading and writing skills. I realised how some students felt stressed just receiving a letter through the post. With the actual contents of the letter far from the main problem. Students were struggling with reading and understanding the basic format of a letter, such as the title and name of the person writing to them, the format of an address, and even other minor details on the letter such as a reference number and the date. Most of what I take for granted in understanding.

Regardless of this, I could see how dedicated and motivated the students were to gain knowledge, so that they could better themselves and I was inspired by their willingness and tenacity to learn.

I was equally inspired by the teaching staff, many of whom help run these classes entirely on a voluntary basis. I got an insight of how they were incorporating fun and exciting methods of learning such as games, songs, and keywords to enable the students to build confidence in speaking English. The teaching is demanding and tough, which I experienced first-hand on the day when I helped small groups, but I got to see real perseverance and commitment from these tutors which was admirable.

My CSR day made me reflect on my role as a solicitor and the art of communicating with clients daily. Sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of the difficulty certain clients may have with communication, whether it is at the basic level, or even those who are fluent in communication but could struggle with understanding legal terminology and the legal claims process in general.

I am grateful to Minster Law for providing me with the opportunity to get involved with real community work and to experience things outside the realms of sitting at my desk in front of a computer screen which I otherwise would not get to see or experience. If there is anything I have come away with from this experience, is to support and persevere, which I will endeavour to apply more into my daily job when liaising with clients who have difficulties communicating.