Choral Tour of Europe

By Colleen Holmes, VEP Tutor

My husband and I just returned from a whirlwind musical tour of three European cities:  Budapest, Hungary and Vienna and Salzburg, Austria.  The highlight of the trip was a concert in Budapest which featured a performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” accompanied by a Hungarian Orchestra and four international soloists.  There were five choral ensembles singing the Mass with over 250 musicians onstage at the Italian Cultural Center.  Our smaller ensemble, “Bucks County Women’s Chorus” also performed a community outreach concert in a small nursing home in Bruck an der Leitha, Austria and a full finale concert in the Residenzplaz palace in Salzburg, Austria.

With this kind of choral trip, a tour guide is assigned to the ensemble for the duration of the trip to coordinate everything from meals to touring to rehearsal schedules and venues.  In our experience with these kinds of trips, the tour guide either makes or breaks the trip.  This year, our guide David was the best guide that we ever had.  He was Austrian and in addition to his native German, he spoke English, French, Spanish and Hungarian.  He was a Fine Arts Major for both undergraduate and graduate studies and had knowledge and enthusiasm for all aspects of the culture including music, art, architecture and history.  Musicians can often be a tough crowd and although he was much younger than almost all of us, he was patient, understanding, prepared and professional.  He also was honest about his struggles with our language and asked for help with words and pronunciation when he needed assistance.

My husband and I have travelled internationally on many occasions, but this was the first time that we were in a country with no prior knowledge of the language.  It is also my first trip since I began the coursework for ESL certification and started tutoring for VEP.  These studies have changed the way that I look at language acquisition and communication.  Our guide quoted a Hungarian author who quipped that Hungary was like a rock in the middle of the European sea: no linguistic connection to anything around it.  It felt very true with letters that we didn’t know or understand and an incredibly confusing money system.  None of the words sounded like anything that we were familiar with even though as singers we know a little French, a little Italian, a little German and a little Spanish.  Hungarian had no observable connection to any Romantic language.   We had that unsettled feeling on several occasions (especially at restaurants with no translations) but could usually get assistance.  It probably helped that we were in the big city and looked like American tourists.  Many Hungarians also speak German and the older people speak Russian too.  Budapest impressed us as a beautiful, old (but clean) city whose residents were filled with national pride for their country, food, music and traditions.  We sang to a packed house who wanted encores after two hours of pretty heavy duty music.

Another fantastic and memorable experience that really highlighted language and communication was the stop at the nursing home to sing.  As a career music teacher, I know that the chatter and visiting mean as much as the music does to the residents.  We began with a fun, traditional German folk song which was the inspired idea of our director.  Language barrier and all, the ice was broken.  David translated all of the introductions for the residents (which could have been cumbersome, but was entertaining because of his delivery), and it was a lovely event.  We concluded with “The Sound of Music” as we were in the neighborhood, and they treated us to a local beverage and strudel. There are plenty of strudel flavors in Austria!  The residents wanted to talk and visit with us after the concert.  Although the nurses and aides kept reminding them that we did not speak German, they went on and on.  The message was not lost on us.  We got it from the gestures, enthusiasm and tone of voice.  As is often the case with musical connections, it was all good.

Vienna proved to be less of a communication challenge because we spent most of the time in the center of the city where the language was German and the currency was the euro.  Menus had translations and many shopkeepers had limited English.  After about two hours and a general city tour, we realized that we needed a whole week to see all of the musical sights of this great musical capital and that we could handle it on our own.  We have studied and heard about the Viennese Opera House, the Philharmonic, Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and all of the great musical highlights of this city for our whole professional lives.  We will have to go back to really experience them all.  We did have a cooking class in Vienna with an international chef.  Cooking was easy with a language barrier.  It was all demonstration.  The food was memorable with my favorites being the trout mousse and the apple horseradish dip that I made!

Our last trip was to Salzburg where we sang our full concert in the Residenzplaz Palace.  A bus full of singers began with the “Sound of Music” tour in which our tour guide David proceeded to burst every balloon about Hollywood’s rendition of the Von Trapp Family story.  Apparently, Hollywood took a lot of artistic license in their version of events.  We did have an impromptu little chorus in the church where the wedding was filmed and visited many of the filming locations in Salzburg.

It was my first trip as an ESL tutor and a candidate for ESL certification and I have learned much in my studies about the challenges of communication and language.  It was a unique and wonderful chance for me to grow in my understanding of what my students need.  It reinforced my admiration and respect for their courage and determination as they work daily to learn and improve their skills in this difficult language that we speak.  For me, it was ten days of language challenges, for my students, it is daily and ongoing.  I have so much respect for their efforts.

English Morphing

By Donna Dello Bueno, VEP Tutor and Program Outreach Coordinator

A word is a word is a word…..or is it?  In the online newspaper, The Guardian, David Shariatmadari, a freelance journalist from the UK and a student of Arabic, Persian and Linguistics at Cambridge University as well as Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has a pretty good handle on why it’s not. According to Shariatmadari, mispronunciations (“expresso” instead of “espresso”) and malapropisms (using an incorrect word in place of one with a similar sound, such as Yogi Berra’s statement: “Texas has a lot of electrical votes,” rather than “electoral votes”) are fairly common.

This author claims that, although the Oxford English Dictionary considers the number of words in common use to be 171,476, drop that by tens of thousands for the average individual. And, he adds that “Error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm.” Think of the currently-popular “selfie,” which would have been “photo of myself.”

The technical terms (and their definitions) used by linguists for the gradual morphing of the English language are explored in Shariatmadari’s article. He talks about metathesis, rebracketing, epenthesis, and synscope….oops, I mean syncope. But although these linguistic terms are confusing, the examples are pretty understandable. Then there’s velarisation and affrication. WHAT?!

More important for us to remember as tutors of this ever-changing animal is that we have to meet it where it is. We tutor what we know and use. When it changes, some of that will become incorporated into our daily language, and we will teach it as such. We all tend to speak in the vernacular, which defines as “everyday language, including slang, that’s used by the people. The vernacular is different from literary or official language: it’s the way people really talk with each other, like how families talk at home.” And isn’t that the basic goal of most of the VEP-learner population? Even when my student and I encounter an Olde English word from Mother Goose rhymes, she learns to pronounce it, I define it and then say, “Don’t worry about it….we don’t use it anymore.” Then we move on.

Trust your instincts, teach what you know, investigate those items about which you are unsure, and enjoy the experience. Every tutor is not an English major or Linguistics expert, but each of you must be pretty solid or you wouldn’t have had the desire to teach our complex language in the first place!

Teaching English in Vietnam

By Larry Way, VEP Tutor

I returned recently from a wonderfully fulfilling though all-too-short volunteer experience with the Center for Sustainable Studies (CSDS) in Hanoi, Vietnam.  The organization Green Heart International is based in Chicago and has relationships with various NGOs (non-governmental organizations) around the world eager for volunteers.  They helped me to find a volunteer opportunity with CSDS.  My trip was a month long, but I spent two of the four weeks volunteering as an ESL instructor with CSDS. Were it not for my job and my desire to return to my wife, children, and grandchildren in the Philadelphia area, I would have liked to spend more time being of service to the students who are being helped so ably by CSDS.

My volunteer work involved the teaching of English as a second language.  I have some background in this area since I volunteer my time with VEP teaching English to Spanish-speaking residents living near me.  My knowledge of Spanish helps me to fulfill this task.  But I have no background in Vietnamese other the Vietnamese language lesson I was given courtesy of CSDS. And yet, I really believe that I became an effective teacher of English to my CSDS students and was really able to connect with them and advance their knowledge of English.

First of all, CSDS provided a native speaker of Vietnamese to nearly every class I taught.  These native speakers are called local supporters, and they help the volunteers when the concept being discussed can be explained in greater detail by using Vietnamese.  We used Vietnamese sparingly because, after all, these were English classes, but the few time such assistance was necessary, it was very helpful to have.  I have a physical disability that makes standing up for long periods rather problematic for me.  CSDS helped me tremendously by having another volunteer come to the classes with me, and she did all the writing on the board while we were both engaged in the lesson.  The students also gained the perspective of an American speaker of English as well as that of a European for whom English is a second language.

The main reason I traveled to Vietnam was to be of service to some young people of that beautiful country by helping them to improve their English skills, and perhaps enabling them to increase their employment opportunities in their chosen fields or professions upon graduation.  And in my small way and during my very short time in Vietnam with the help of an extremely efficiently run and effective organization like CSDS, I think I was able to be of service and to make a difference in the lives of some of these young people.  By the end of my two weeks in Hanoi, I really think that I was connecting with the students.  The classes went well, and there was lots of enthusiastic participation and engagement on the part of the students.  They were increasing their abilities and skills in English which was precisely the reason I volunteered for this work.

In fact, I continue to write to six of the students who want to continue to dialog with me and have me critique their written English.  Another student has asked me to recite stories and send him tapes of the stories for him to continue to practice his English.  I am happy to do just that and will continue to assist these students as long as they wish to do so.


By VEP tutor Connie Partridge

The question of transition comes up for tutors when we have been working with our adult learners for a while. As a former medical social worker, I can say that discharge planning begins as soon as the person comes under our care. This is a way of keeping our time together goal oriented. The role we have as a VEP tutor is less dictated by hard and fast guidelines. Yet we must keep our focus on our students – their needs and achievements.

For example, a student of mine once had to take a SEPTA train to an appointment in Philly. She had expected either her spouse or me to accompany her. However, neither of us was available. She went alone, got off at the wrong stop, found someone to help her and reached her destination as planned. Her self-confidence was greatly enhanced by this experience. Sometimes we need to allow our students to blossom with the skills that, together, we have cultivated. When this student had accomplished her two main goals: a driver’s license and citizenship, she began a different chapter in her life here. Her choices made it difficult for us to schedule regular meetings. We found this was a good time to discontinue working together.

Once you are no longer tutor and student, you have the opportunity to have the same range of relationships as with any other adult. We have the option to remain a presence in one another’s lives. One student describes me and my spouse as her adopted U.S. parents. Another we see infrequently at major life events. For yet another, our relationship is something in between those two.

While still tutoring, tutors would do well to remember the primary task is to assist the student in reaching his or her goals. You may have an opportunity to switch from speaking, reading and writing to preparing for specific exams such as citizenship or driving. It may be that the student would benefit from a new tutor with different perspectives. This might include someone with a new approach or one with specific knowledge of a particular profession or area of interest.

The experience of tutoring enriches our lives. A different student brings a new relationship, new challenges, new perspectives and a novel exposure to some country and culture.

Ask yourself: “What is best for my student?” Remain open to the possibilities.

Learning English – More Than Words Can Express

By Michael Cudemo

My wife asked me to assist her this past weekend at a volunteer event in West Chester supporting the Global Celebration Luncheon for the Volunteer English Program, or VEP for short.  My job was simple.  Please video the two student speakers who were giving talks about learning English as their second language.  Point the camera, hit record and don’t mess up!  It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my year.  It was genuine, inspiring, emotional and uplifting.  And, it made me feel a bit ashamed of myself.

As an American, I take so many things for granted.  Our country is very large, but the English language is a common link across all 50 states.  I take for granted my ability to order food, ask about a medication, enjoy a movie, or simply ask for directions.  And before my video camera were two very bright, vibrant women sharing their experiences with a joyful sense of accomplishment.  Americans can be a jaded and cynical lot.  These two genuinely grateful students cut me to the quick, and provided me with a much needed attitude check.

The first student was from China.  She learned English in school and felt prepared to come to America to succeed.  Upon arrival, she immediately learned that she was ill-prepared for her new environment.  It is one thing to read the definition of courage in the dictionary, and quite another to visually see the embodiment of courage in a polite smiling human being.  This woman in front of me had the courage of a lion.  She reached out to an unknown organization and said:  “I need help!”  She was calm, confident and full of promise.  And then she said something simple and poignant:  “VEP changed my life!”  You could feel the impact.  These were not perfunctory words for her speech.  They were moving and emotional.  The student was giving back of herself.  Her tutor’s eyes were welling up with genuine pride at his student’s accomplishments.

The second student was from Columbia.  Her speech was like a warm hug.  She beamed as she talked about how she could now participate in her child’s education.  She was no longer ashamed to order meat at the food store and ask questions of her child’s doctor.  She was an accountant, but she spoke with an orator’s words as her encouragement to other students lifted the room.  She thanked her tutor for inspiring her to get past her many difficulties.  It was the most intimate thank you in a public setting that I had ever witnessed.  The priceless gift of a tutor’s time was repaid with the most heartfelt phrase: “a thousand times thank you!”

There is an expression:  “no one learns more than the teacher!”  I observed a room full of volunteer tutors and motivated students this past weekend.  I saw teachers who were constantly learning and students who were constantly teaching by example.  A full heart results when one truly gives of themselves.  An open mind can rise above any fear to ask for help.  I experienced a small community of hope this weekend.  I left with great inspiration from students who said:  “Yes I can!”  And, as a final note, the next time your spouse asks you to volunteer your time on a weekend – say thank you!


By Kathryn Cudemo

My mother asked me if I could donate some time to the Volunteer English Program located in West Chester to take pictures for their Global Luncheon on Saturday, November 15, 2014.  I love taking pictures and work for free as long as cake is involved so this sounded good to me.  As I watched the tutors and students pour in with their food offerings, I knew I was going to do this event a terrible disservice.  How do you capture joy in a photo?  How do you capture shy, tentative behavior that is overcome with pride and accomplishment?  What does gratitude look like?  People who were once strangers are now fast friends.  They are now a team working together, one for the betterment of the other and everyone gaining in the process.  This can only be experienced; it cannot be seen.  A camera can try, but will never be able to fully capture the atmosphere in that room.  Have you ever tried to capture a stunning sunset in black and white?

This was not my first effort as a volunteer.  My family participates in the Angel Project through our local YMCA where you choose a child or a family and purchase their Christmas gifts.  I have the best memories of going through stores with my family buying those gifts.  It’s the best part of Christmas morning wondering if they had opened our gifts yet.  Did we make them happy?   Do they know someone cares?

My sister, Sara, and I worked for Habitat for Humanity in Coatesville when we were in high school.  We organized files, helped with data entry and packed up and labeled boxes when the office was relocating.  After the relocation was completed, and after Sara had completed her 40 hours for her project, she stayed on and volunteered weekends in the office for most of her freshman year.  She came home with heartbreaking stories about families who were denied housing because they made $75 a year too much.  There were also the wonderful stories that give you goose bumps about families who are told the building on their first home has begun.

The Global Luncheon was such a beautiful occasion that it made me think back to my very first effort as a volunteer.  When I was about eight years old, I began asking my mother if I could volunteer at our local SPCA.  She said I was too young.  I picked up the pace on the nagging.  By the time I was ten years old I had my mother on the telephone with the SPCA offering my services.  They had just raised their minimum age to 16 years, but suggested that I could “help” if my parents wanted to volunteer.    The next fundraiser was a wine tasting event.  The SPCA did not think this would be an appropriate charity event for a ten year old.  I disagreed.  You don’t have to drink it to sell it.  I was in!

“Help” is a four letter word.  Not when someone is asking for it, but when a child is offering it.  I always wanted to help and as parents know, all mundane, ordinary, ho-hum tasks can turn into hours of torment and chaos when a small child gets involved.  October, 2001 at the Dilworthtown Inn in West Chester, Pennsylvania was the venue for my first volunteer experience.  Volunteers were all given aprons with huge front pockets filled with packaged dog bones selling for $5 and $10.  Guests would use their dog bones as money for all purchases of food and wine.  Volunteers were told to wander around and make sure everyone had dog bones.  Game on!

I was given my own apron with the presumption that I would stay close to my parents, but I work best alone.  I hit that crowd like a kamikaze pilot.  It was like taking candy from a baby.  Everywhere I turned there were more “customers” and soon I had to return to the cashier to get more bones and turn over the green backs that were weighing me down.  I had to do this several times.  Time went quickly and soon the afternoon was over.  I was exhausted.  Little legs had to work double time to cover all the territory.

I hadn’t seen my parents all afternoon.  As I was turning over my last haul of cash, my father came up to me looking a bit irritated and even more perplexed.  He had not sold any bones at all and neither had my mother.  Everyone they encountered appeared to have all the bones they needed.  Then, my father discovered why he had been so unsuccessful.  Minutes before I brought in my last pile of cash, my father spotted a man about to pay for a glass of wine but had no dog bones left.  My father seized the moment and offered to sell the man the necessary dog treats.  The man hesitated and looked around.  Then he said, “I’ve been buying bones all day from a little girl.  She’s the only kid here.  She made me promise not to buy from anyone else.”  The man then wandered off to find me.  Loyalty.  It’s a beautiful thing.

Hence, my father’s irritation.  He had wasted an entire afternoon trying to help the SPCA only to discover that he wasn’t needed.  I had it covered.  They tried to keep me out.  Ageism is an awful thing – at any age.

On the ride home I explained that I had approached everyone by asking, “Do you want the $5 or $10 bag?”  Not one person turned me down.  It had not even occurred to me to ask if they wanted bones; just how many.  I then locked in all my loyal customers with a simple request.  You have my back and I’ll have yours.  I had no strategy.  I wasn’t trying to beat anyone.  I certainly wasn’t trying to make my parents feel bad.  I just wanted to “help.”

A desire to lend a hand, offer support and take a few pictures brought me to this special event for the Volunteer English Program.  “Doing for others” makes me feel good about myself.  I walk a little taller.  I sleep a little sounder.  I truly believe it makes my hair shinier.  So coming here today was for me and how it would make me feel.   I was in deep thought about how I could move closer to that dessert table and maybe grab one of those brownies when no one was looking.  I was certain when all these people got a look at the bounty on that table there would be a stampede for the good stuff and the injustice of not getting just one of those brownies was a serious concern.  Then I heard these two amazing speeches given by students expressing such deep gratitude.  This organization has so inspired them that they are willing to stand in front of a room full of strangers and say things like, “A thousand thanks yous” and “You’ve changed my life.” It’s truly very powerful being a witness to so much appreciation.  When was the last time someone thanked you for changing their life?  And if that’s not enough of a reason to get involved, let me remind you, they have cake.

Kathryn Cudemo is a graduate of Temple University Fox Business School.  She lives in Northern Liberties and works in Center City Philadelphia for a digital media marketing company.  She never met a cake she didn’t like and is available for volunteer events where cake consumption is not monitored.

Mother Goose

By tutor Donna Dello Buono

I haven’t been a tutor for that long…just a couple of months. And, due to the most pressing student needs, I wasn’t matched with someone whom I thought would be the ideal candidate for me as an inexperienced tutor; an individual at a more advanced level in English. However, the big lesson I learned in even this very short time is that it doesn’t matter. With a willing student, the program works, regardless of that person’s capabilities in English and regardless of my knowledge as a tutor.

I was matched with the loveliest of young Mexican mothers, Noemi, who has 3 strapping sons, ages 10, 8 and 4. Her husband works and she doesn’t drive, so her requirement was that she be given a tutor willing to go to her home with children in tow. I couldn’t even imagine how that would work, having to combine her babysitting with learning English. Well, Mom had that all under control. Her boys are so well-behaved, and they look after each other while we are meeting and also serve as a sounding board for her studies between our sessions. This will change soon with two sons going back to school and the youngest at home, but I don’t think that will present any problems at all.

Noemi tested as a “high beginner”. She can read English by sounding it out, but her comprehension is limited. She is challenged with areas of pronunciation, and we’ve hardly been able to conduct an actual conversation without hand gestures, pointing to rooms/objects for better clarification, and even, when desperate, calling on her oldest son to assist with a basic word or two that would facilitate her understanding of an entire concept. After our first meeting, I immediately bought each of us a Spanish/English dictionary, and it has been invaluable in getting across the one word that will open up the door for my being able to explain something in English and for her to truly absorb it. All that being said, we became friends from the very first session, when we hugged and she thanked me repeatedly for trying to help her. As we all know, emotions go beyond words in any language.

This brings me to the point of this blog. Some of Noemi’s major goals are to obtain the skills to communicate with her sons’ teachers, help them with their homework and also read to them in English. So, we’ve tackled the easiest one first….reading to her boys. We end every meeting the same way and on a high note. I asked Noemi at our first session to pick out a childhood book that she’d enjoy reading to her children. She brought out Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. “Perfect!” I thought. Not a novel or a complicated story, but a collection of small, manageable achievements. And, when she chooses one that rhymes, it helps her with English pronunciation even more. I’m not sure she understands what she is conveying, but there are pictures to help. This mom has already, in such a short time, met one of her meaningful family objectives. She chooses one nursery rhyme to conclude each of our sessions, reads it to me, and then reads it to her boys between our meetings. They help her to better pronounce the words as well as comprehend them. It has now become one of “our things.” Then we hug, which is also now one of “our things.”

Before I close, one more amazing event just happened when Noemi had to cancel our session at the last minute. She called me from the hospital, as her mother had been admitted due to stomach problems. Now, this may sound more concerning than amazing, but the hurdle we overcame as student and tutor is that she and I had the conversation with only each other over the phone…no child interpreter, no hand gestures, no pointing to objects, no dictionary…nothing but talking one-on-one. She was able to make me understand that her mother was being examined, she didn’t know when she would be home and asked if we could wait till our next scheduled day to meet. Then we reviewed the upcoming meeting time with clarity, even though it was a day out of our norm. MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT! The last point I made to Noemi before we hung up was that, aside from the unfortunate circumstances, she and I had just had a complete exchange, all by ourselves. That was just about the most rewarding tutoring session we didn’t have!