Grown-Up English: LOL Moments With ESL Students

Rifling through some blog ideas, I found a dog-eared page recording hilarious moments with my adult ESL students. I decided to focus on this subject, most of all because I need a break from the relentless bureaucratic red tape that I currently find myself stuck in. More on that later.

I’ll preface this post by saying that I adore working with adult ESL learners. Perhaps because I also started learning Spanish at an older age, I have admiration and empathy for adult students. I also find it easier to relate to older students than to malicious tiny tots. Simon Says, nursery rhymes, and coloring pages? Pass. In my book, holding a conversation, discussing current events, and debating views wins out any day.

People are accustomed to children spewing funny sayings. When a fully formed human makes an error, however, the result can be hilarious in its incongruousness. Other times the student and I have a laugh because of cultural differences between Spain and the US. Below are some of my most memorable moments from working with adults–enjoy!

Frozen Christmas

Will travel for underwear

My very first adult student was eager to start honing what she called “travel English.” I showed up to the class armed with travel-related vocab, and for our first activity suggested that we role-play checking in for a flight. She had other ideas.

“How do you say ropa interior?” she suddenly interrupted.

“Um…underwear” I answered, wondering where this was headed.

“Let’s practice going to an underwear shop!” she squealed. Then came the backstory. It turns out that this student had such sensitive skin that it drives her to search for undergarments in foreign lands. The UK has some terrific stores specializing in delicates, she informed me. Because of this, she loves visiting London. Thus, her desire to learn English sprang from the need to expand her underwear collection.

Suffice it to say, our next few classes did not involve anything remotely travel-related.

English, the language of love

A 40-year-old student of mine was actually an elementary English teacher herself. She lived at home with her parents, and was planning her first flight from the nest. In fact, the real reason she wanted to sharpen her language skills was because she had rekindled a romance with an old flame.

22 years ago, she had met a Moroccan man while on vacation in Paris. As if summarizing a chick flick, she told me of their glorious 24 hours together. Earlier this year she had traced him on Facebook, and the two had struck up an old romance. Mr. Dashing now lived in the United States, outside of Atlanta to be precise. Her dream was now to reunite with someone she had known in person for barely 24 hours. And find a job. In suburban America. (“Do you have a driver’s license?” I asked her later. “No–do you think I need one?” was her response.)

If this plan weren’t zany enough, she had some news for me at the end of our final class. “I hope you don’t mind, Cassandra, but I told my parents I was staying with a friend of yours. They would be horrified by my plan–they don’t know about my boyfriend. I know that this is crazy, but I have to try this. I have to do it for love.”

An explanation for brown eyes

Sexual innuendos

Summer break was particularly unkind to one of my adult male students. He used any excuse he could to cancel class–the heat, the AC, a trip to the beach. By the time we met back up in September, all of the progress he had made had withered like fruit in the August heat.

We were discussing traffic, and he asked how to say ‘start the car.’ “Isn’t there a different way to say it?” he queried.

“Well, you could also say ‘to turn on the car,'”I offered.

This student was a huge fan of repeating a phrase, of rolling it over until it clicked. “Turn on the car,” he repeated. “Turn on, turn on, turn on. I turn on the car. I turn it on. It’s turned on!”

He almost sounded like a car himself, one stuck in first gear and trying desperately to shift. We were in a cafe, and people were starting to stare.

Resuming our conversation, we can across a word my student didn’t know–‘steering wheel.’

“Can you spread it?” my student ever so politely requested.

Fighting down a laugh, I corrected him. “SPELL it. Can you spell it?”

Coupled with the previous “turned on” incident, I couldn’t suppress a smile for long.

Hermits and virgins

Of course, there’s a flip side to these humorous moments. Every time my students make a mistake, I can’t help but wonder how sillymust sound in my second language. I may grin at the things my students say, but I know that I also make hilarious mistakes in Spanish

Liked this post? Make sure to follow along on Facebook for more funny updates. Leave your own “adult” ESL tales in the comments below!


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  1. Love these 🙂 And I think that’s the beauty of it – I don’t feel so bad laughing now because I know people are laughing at my German too! 🙂

    • Cassandra

      It’s true! I think it helps us to be better teachers, too–we can definitely identify with messy language situations!

  2. Hahaha! These are hilarious. The lentils comment cracked me up! I pretty much only teach children, so I miss out on the real gems that adults can say. I kind of wish I taught private classes to grown ups now!

    • Cassandra

      I have known kids and adults alike to “Spanish-ize” words. Hence, “lentils”! Another student of mine always talks about his “family-in-love” (for “family-in-law”) which I feel is a pretty accurate, considering!

  3. Great post! I do love when they say something funny, it lightens up the class. I must sound funny to Spaniards!

  4. Lol I love this. I was lucky that about 90% of my adult students were incredibly good-natured, hilarious people so I always had so much fun in my lessons with them. It’s great when they can take corrections without being offended!

    • Cassandra

      It’s great when you can reach the point with students to explain why their mistakes are funny. And I think it helps them remember vocab and grammar, too! Recently I had a student who kept referring to the “trash bean.” Once I was able to review bean vs bin, the student understood her mistake and couldn’t stop giggling.

  5. What an awesome collection, I especially liked the one about the student who told her parents she’d be staying with a friend of yours.

    ..I’m embarrassed (not really) to admit that I’ve made the contact lens mistake myself, only the other way around. I’ve said I was wearing ‘lentejas’ before, making the mistake (not the first time and I won’t be the last) to assume the Spanish is like the French (‘lentilles’ in French is both lentils and contact lenses..).

    • Cassandra

      Oh!! That’s interesting how much the meaning–but not the spelling–differs between French and English. I can understand how you made that mistake, and it’s funny to think about the mistake being made in reverse ways!

  6. This gave me a good giggle! Reminds me of the many times I’ve been laughed at for my broken Spanish. 😉

    • Cassandra

      I’m glad it made you smile! Thanks for reading, Sarah 🙂

  7. These are cute! I’ve been witness to no shortage of mistakes in English, although I’m sure I’ve made far more errors in Spanish!

    • Also, I totally want to know what happens to your student going to the U.S. for love!

      • Cassandra

        Thanks, Kirstie!

        If I get an update from my student, I’ll let you know 🙂

  8. Hahaha these stories are hilarious!!!

  9. I like working with adult ESL learners much better too. At least they usually have a reason for being in class, as opposed to kids, who either flat-out don’t get why they’re there, or it’s only because their parents made them.

    The boyfriend story is CRAZY. Um…I think not having driver’s license might be the least of her problems! And the town hall and the virgin – well, only in Spain.

  10. Cassandra

    Ha, you’re right about the driver’s license. I thought she might need an escape plan, though!!

  11. Cassandra, your job is tough indeed! You need to keep it cool when you hear such things and not to burst into laughs 🙂

    While I typically don’t make mistakes in English (technically, my 3rd language)…I’m epicly funny in French.

    Recently, at a shop with my friend, I’ve asked if this milk contains “preservatives” (aka condoms in French). She couldn’t stop laughing for an hour.

  12. oh, I KNOW I’ve made some terrible slips! these are too sweet – more, more! 😉

    • Cassandra

      Haha, don’t tempt me or I’ll end up writing another entry! I do have a few more funny stories up my sleeve…

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