Tag Archives Teaching English

Teaching the verb: to fall off (and other language challenges)

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A boat depicted on tiles on an ugly graffiti-sprayed wall in Cartagena.
Taken with my camera Sunday afternoon.

After resting for at least some of this last weekend, I am feeling much better.

And having freed up so much time and energy previously spent feeling sorry for myself, I can now speak Spanish.

I admit, it still involves a lot of waving my arms, but I’m speaking words without translating first from English. They spew out my mouth, sometimes nonsensically, often in a higgledy-piggledy mess, but they are vocalised. This I take to be a major achievement. It takes a certain willingness to make a fool of yourself to speak a foreign language.

Of course, I reserve my best acting for teaching my English classes. Today I was trying to explain to the twelve-year-olds how Guy Fawkes fell off the gallows and broke his neck… All I can say is that I blame my mother who has been my story telling mentor. I still have much to learn from her, but I’m putting in the hours of practice.

But back to Spanish. I’m fed up with my miniscule vocabulary and so I’m on a mission to learn the most common words in Spanish with great urgency. I need to learn everything twice because nobody here speaks like a textbook. I don’t blame them in the slightest. However, for a new learner the unique character of the local accent (and sometimes additional dialect words) provides an extra layer of challenge. For example, the textbook chapters on plurals are unnecessary for this region and studying them has been a waste of time. The people here don’t bother with the letter ‘s’.

Adios’ becomes ‘Adioh’.

So, whilst I can make myself more or less understood on an increasingly frequent basis, I still know nothing of what is being said around me. Occasionally I understand a few words. For example, I understood the other night that Charles Dickens had become a factor in the conversation, yet, all the same, I had no idea whether those around me who were passionately discussing him actually liked him or not.

But I’m learning, and I’m healthy again, and my students know that attempting to kill a monarch is a very serious crime. So everything’s good.

What is it like working in a Spanish school?

Sunset across the hills behind the town where I live.

I may not always know at what time I’m supposed to be where, and it’s unlikely anyone else will have a clue where I’m supposed to be either, but I am pretty much guaranteed to be met with a grin and a warm welcome. This is my first impression of working in Spain. The teachers only seem to get stressed during the mid-morning break, and that’s because it’s only for half an hour which is much too short a time to drink one’s café con leche and eat one’s tostada. That’s drink coffee and eat toast. The Spanish only get around to breakfast at quarter-past eleven, but that kind of suits me, although I have a hard time calling it breakfast and not brunch.

Despite not knowing where I’m going, or whom I’m about to be teaching I feel remarkably relaxed. You can’t get too stressed in the heat because you’d explode. You’re forced to slow down. In the classrooms, we often have the shutters down, with just enough of a gap for some air to get in. The sun is too intense. There are also fans high on the walls, circulating the air around the classroom, but if you’re in a room where the sun shines directly on the windows it’s uncomfortably warm. As I’m teaching I’m conscious that the more excitable I get, the more I’m going to sweat, and so I try to stay calm.

I am not so self-conscious here. My sensible brain thinks that doing an imitation of a dying sheep to a bunch of thirteen-year-olds would be most embarrassing and not a good idea. In practise, I am describing the North York Moors, I ask what animals you might find up in the hills, this develops, I find myself saying that it is very important to drive carefully in the moors because there are no fences and the stupid sheep wander across the road. You can see where this is going. Dead sheep impression occurs whilst my embarrassment is taking a doze.

The catholic cemetry.

And it’s bad enough that I’m demonstrating sheep dying (sword fighting, jousting and paddling in the sea at Whitby) to the children. I’m also in the classroom with my new colleagues, the actual English teachers. These sensible looking adults occasionally provide translations for the trickier words, but thankfully, mostly I forget that they are there. It’s hard work keeping the attention of a class of thirty children and keep an eye on the teacher, so I tend to forget the teacher and focus solely on the children. I only remember that they are there when I need to write a word on the blackboard. At this point I forget how to spell.

And at the rate I’m going, these children are going to know nothing about England, and everything about Yorkshire. I should be paid by the Yorkshire tourist board for my humerous sales pitches of our fine Yorkshire cuisine, exotic landscapes, fascinating history, and beaches that unlike the dozy beaches of sunny Spain make you feel truly alive. If you’re going to tell good stories, you have to tell stories that are about things you care about.

The sun in the evening makes the hills behind the town look orange.

Why I prioritise learning to listen

Poland, Teaching English
Stepping out of normal life, to be somewhere remote and just listen. It can be kind of special.

The Grandmother asked why would I want to go to Romania, a country I know nothing of, and do nothing for a week but converse with people who want to learn my language.

It’s hard to explain because it doesn’t tick the typical list of priorities that people have for their lives. I get a qualification, yes, but that’s kind of just a bonus. It’s not going to lead to a career, I love teaching English occasionally, but my ambition isn’t to be an English teacher.

It’s not just me though. In Poland, the woman I shared a room with had flown there from Canada. Not a girl in her twenties, a woman with a house and grown children. She wasn’t paid, she didn’t get an exchange of a qualification. She just wanted to spend her time listening to these people who were in the process of trying to change their lives.

Which is what I enjoy about it.

Some of the participants in Poland were people whose work had paid for their place and encouraged them to partake but a significant proportion had paid for themselves. Public speaking is terrifying to most people anyway, and speaking a foreign language which you know you’re not fluent in to a group of strangers takes some incredible nerve. At the end of the week every participant gives a presentation in English. You don’t turn up for a week of English immersion just because your boss thought it was a good idea. You can’t learn a language if you aren’t willing to commit to it. It takes guts.

There are many reasons people want to learn English, that as a native English speaker we take for granted. International business demands it. Travel is easier with it. Sales wants it. Machine manuals and health and safety documentation are written in it. There was a determination from those fed up of struggling through meetings in English, or having to have information translated.These were people who wanted to make change happen. If you speak English, you can have more influence.

One woman I met worked in a Polish only role in the lower levels of a big international company. When the chief executive gave speeches and talked about the company in English, she wanted to understand. She wanted to know what was going on. She cared.

Another oversaw implementing the health and safety requirements from a non-Polish parent company, and wanted to improve her English because she needed to convey Polish law and Polish health and safety requirements to the parent company in a manner which they could understand. Somehow she was going to make them listen.

And what about a grandmother learning to speak her grandchildren’s first language.

Or an office-worker who wanted to travel.

Or, one of my favourites, a woman training to be a coach. As the best textbooks on coaching are predominantly in English decided that she was going to learn to read them.

It’s an odd combination. You spend all day, everyday listening and talking. People open up.

Complete strangers sit and talk authentically and freely about anything on their mind: crumbling relationships, aspirations for their businesses, family, depression, death, neighbours, improvisational theatre, teenage drinking, moving to a foreign country, or the ordeal of having their son’s girlfriend to visit for the first time.

You learn more about a persons hopes and dreams in one week than you learn about many people you see regularly over years.