Credit: Haley Suh

Forget elementary English grammar books, banal conversation topics and grades. William Kelly’s "Slanguage" class, held every Tuesday at the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania, takes an unconventional approach to teaching English to non-native speakers.

Students Ling Xu and Song Han came into Thursday’s class —postponed from Tuesday due to the snowstorm — to the beat of U2’s "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Rather than staring at grammar textbooks, Xu and Han probed for grammar errors while analyzing the lyrics to the song. Thursday’s lesson plan also included analyzing a newspaper article from that day and learning a new list of slang vocabulary that included phrases like “B.Y.O.B.”

Recent popular conversation topics have revolved around President Donald Trump’s new policies and Kelly’s latest mission to Cuba, where he has been involved in the installation of water-purification systems.

Kelly purposefully tries to encourage a relaxing learning experience in order to minimize the stress of his students.

“We listen to music, talk a lot about Korean and Chinese culture, festivals and traditions in U.S.A and sometimes bake together,” Xu said. It’s relaxed and interesting. I love it.”

Kelly founded the class 20 years ago when he stumbled upon the Christian Association building after getting off at the wrong bus stop. After speaking with organizers at the association, he decided to hold a class that would serve as a “friendly place for foreign visitors” by teaching English and American culture.

Over his 20 years of teaching, Kelly estimates that he’s taught a total of about 600 students, predominantly from East Asian countries. He approximates that 60 percent of his students are from China.

“A big issue for my students is that they are intelligent, highly educated people," Kelly said. "Many of them worked at home, and they come here [to the US], and the Visa doesn’t let them work so one of the things they decide to do is work on their English.” 

Xu, whose husband works as a researcher at Penn, recently moved to the US from Germany. Similarly, Han accompanied her husband to Philadelphia from Seoul, South Korea.

“I think [the class] is a good way to improve my English and make friends in Philadelphia,” Xu said. “All in all, it’s been really helpful and Bill has done a good job. He is a very nice man.”

"We talk about American politics through some news articles and social systems such as the health insurance system in the United States," Han said. "It helps me to understand this society. On special days, like Christmas, Valentine's day, etc., we exchange our cultural experiences and do some special activity like baking King cake for Mardi Gras."

The classes are free for anyone who is interested, but students mostly come from the Penn community or occasionally Drexel University and Temple University.

Kelly’s passion for teaching the course comes from his experiences traveling all over the world.

“I spent time in other countries, and there were things that I didn’t understand, but people were very nice to me,” Kelly said. “We hope to create a friendly environment where students can meet each other, but also to equip them to better make friends with Americans.”

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