#LanguageForResilience

By Posted on Location: 4min read
Valparaiso, January 2020
Care for one another.

The boy can barely keep his bum still on the chair. He has so much he wants to tell me, so much he needs to do, right this moment. His limbs move with such excitement and yet he’s only at school, sat in the corridor practising his English.

He is not an easy boy to teach. He’s bright and enthusiastic but seen as disruptive and undisciplined. He doesn’t fit in the system and so he’s hard work. It’s hard work for him, for the teachers and for his fellow students.

Students misbehave and play up for all sorts of different reasons

If you’d asked me when I was at school myself about classmates who couldn’t keep their mouths shut, I would have been quite disparaging. Emotional regulation seemed like a reasonably basic concept and I couldn’t understand why some people seemed not to have it.

Of course, as time passed my own ability to regulate my own emotions became rather tested, and my emotions, so strong and so true, dominated, blinding me, delaying me from having any perspective of how I was impacting other people.

To an extent, this is normal and happens to all of us as part of regular life

People burst into tears, they lose their tempers, they stamp and the stomp and then hold grudges or feel guilty and the emotions work their way out and life continues.

A child bursts into tears on one Wednesday in March, you don’t worry too much about it. A child bursts into tears every Wednesday in March, you start to worry.

Recently I completed a tiny little course on the impact of trauma in the classroom run by the British Council. Trauma, I know from first-hand experience screws up your ability to regulate your own emotions. It can turn a sensible, disciplined adult to a wailing screaming shouting violent mess in an instant without any warning whatsoever. It can also make a determined, hard working student lose belief and become apathetic to their studies.

Trauma effects that part of the brain that gives us the self-control to study

It effects the way we process information. That internal voice that we tend to need to remind us that we’ve put the washing in the machine and we’ll soon need to hang it on the line, falters. A student might be given a task, but it doesn’t mean they recall what they were told to do five minutes before or understand why they are here in this classroom learning these verb forms. Trauma plays games with the memory. Verb forms are irrelevant if your brain is still hooked on an event from the past, an event which haunts the present. Past and present merge and mingle and you’re sitting safe in the classroom, with part of your mind wandering through hell, and someone’s asking you when to use the present perfect continuous.

I have been thinking about trauma and classrooms and students who might want to learn but don’t know how to learn and teachers who want to teach, but who can’t reach their students.

I have been thinking of all this, and studying that course, because how I think is now defined by my past. I no longer wander though hell on a regular basis when I ought to be doing something else, something more productive, but the path of trauma is embedded, neuron to neuron, throughout my brain. I don’t wander that way anymore, at least not so often anymore, because I’ve learnt to look after myself.

Trauma results in an inability to self-regulate

Students who have been, or who are being traumatised may seem uninterested, unfocused, volatile, reserved, defensive, threatening, insecure or unaware. This, understandably, makes teachers insecure and defensive.

The same drama has played out in my own brain time and time again, the critic and the victim, the pain driven need to rescue and defend, the anger and the irritation, the wailing screaming shouting violent mess.

But I am not a wailing screaming shouting violent mess today. And I haven’t been a wailing screaming shouting violent mess for some time now. I’m uncomfortable and emotionally fraught. It’s been a few tough months and at times quite distressing, but fundamentally, emotionally, I’m looking after myself.

And it’s creating safety that makes the difference

It’s a steady, genuine care that is willing to be patient. It’s providing a stable environment, structure with routine and predictability. It’s acknowledging emotions rather than trying to box them up. It’s sharing relaxion techniques, learning how to be mindful, being quiet, listening and showing respect.

We all must learn to do this for ourselves and for others. We rarely know who has been traumatised and we cannot know which of us will be traumatised next. We can all though improve how we respond to people who cannot control their pain and who struggle to fit within our rigid system of acceptable societal behaviour. Which is why I did the course.

As for the disruptive child whom I had the pleasure of teaching

For me he’s a role model.

One day, in one of our conversations I asked him about daily routines. He explained, every morning before school he runs 5km attempting to manage his energy levels and do what he can to keep his bum sat on his chair.

Often, students are working a whole lot harder than we give them credit for.

El Coronel

The towers of San Gimignano
Tuscany, Italy, May 2018
On route to learning… Spanish.

A little under two years ago, I received an email confirming that from the following October, I would be teaching in a school in Spain. I had worked in Spain before this. I taught English at an immersion camp one summer. Spanish was forbidden. A few years after that I worked as an au-pair in the Catalonian region, a place where the children’s first language was Catalan, not Spanish, and where I was supposed to talk English. I learnt a pathetic smattering of Catalan words and the Spanish phrase ‘café con leche’.

On receiving my job offer for Spain, I went off to Italy for the best part of the following two months and so it wasn’t until the very end of July that I began contemplating that I was going to need to speak Spanish.

As a language teacher, I am fascinated by how we learn languages, or more precisely, how we fail to learn them. Although I was instructed in French for five years at school, and obtained an A grade, with maybe 300 hours of class time, I have remarkably little ability to communicate in French. This is not a unique situation.

I asked the adult students in a physics class here, in Chile, how long they had been learning English, for some the answer was ten-years.

“Perfect, we can talk in English.”

They shook their heads. Whilst they have sat through class after class, they haven’t obtained any skill with using the language. Put on the spot they couldn’t create a sentence. Their cheeks pinkened.

In the school in Murcia, Spain, students in the top classes who have been forced through the intense bilingual Spanish system can express themselves. They are capable of sharing their disgust at the idea that British schools have gender segregation for physical education in English, for example. Once they let go of their inhibitions start to rant about their Latin teacher, unfair exams and each other. The top classes. Teenagers who often go to school in the morning and private classes in the evenings.

Some students are different. I ask for their name and they roll their eyes. A few minutes later they’re interviewing me about British politics, tearing apart my taste in music or asking me about how to travel the world. These students are different. I ask them how they learnt English, and they shrug. With a bored expression they seem to ponder a moment, they had classes at school, yes, but so did everyone else in the room. Then it comes out. Either, they play video games – often online video games against native English speakers – or they are obsessive about music or they watch a lot of television in English. Whichever it is, they absorbed words in context and then actively sought out clarification.

I am not a musical person and I don’t watch a lot of television or play many video games. But I don’t need to, because I have the language in context all around me, every day, and I am forced to actively seek out clarification because, otherwise, I cannot make clear to Loreto when I’m going to be free for her to drop off her fresh-from-the-farm eggs so that I can make pancakes.

Although I teach them, I don’t believe that English classes work particularly well. It’s basic maths. The teacher can listen to only one student at a time. This means that the majority of the students’ mistakes pass by without immediate correction, by which point the urgency of learning the point has drifted away. Or, the students fail to make enough mistakes. If students were listening to each other speak, and learning from each other then maybe it would work.

But even then, by the time Thursday’s class comes around, Monday morning’s vocabulary has been almost entirely lost. Teachers correct the same pronunciation, inject ‘do’ into the same questions and rehearse the same few phrases over and over again.

When I was learning my times-tables we used to practice them every day at school, quickly, a five-minute bout of scary anyone-might-get-asked firing of six times eight, seven times two…

The students memorise what they have to for the exam. Then a week later then put it aside and start the next chapter with contains new vocabulary for them to rehearse for a few weeks and then not use again until the following term. They might be able to spell their first name, but they cannot recite the alphabet.

I think one of the reasons why so many students fail to learn is that they don’t start with a clear goal. For those who are driven by music, video games or film, I don’t think they start with a grand goal of speaking a foreign language. They start by wanting to know what they’re singing. Or they want to beat the bad guy in the game. They want to win. They have something specific that they want to understand.

I would say that not-coincidentally, several of my Spanish teenagers understood elements of Japanese or Korean. Nobody taught them as such, but they’ve filled their time watching and listening to videos. Where they have been curious, their brains have naturally put in the effort to learn.

So what was my goal when I first started learning Spanish? Something more specific than simply survive.

In August 2018 I walked into a bookshop in Leeds, went upstairs to the foreign languages section and looked at the selection of books available in Spanish. I pulled out Gabriel García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.

Reading it seemed like an impossible task.

Today, nearly two years later, I finished it.

Trying out different teaching techniques

By Posted on Location: , 4min read

This post has been hiding in my drafts. I wrote it just before the social unrest flourished into mayhem in October. It was written back when we taught students in real, chair and desk classrooms.


Unearthing a traditional Pachamanca cooked dinner
The connection is that I mention cooking somewhere in the text below…
Ollantaytambo, Peru
January 2020

“Ask her some questions.”

New class, new teacher, the same routine. Silence but for the rustling of backpacks and papers. Two minutes ago they were all looking at me, now the students stare at anything but me.

Then some timid voice dares sound. What sports do I do?

I beam an encouraging smile

It never changes. Every time we do this it’s just another awkward interview.

I gesture at the floor, “Now,” I say, “ I do yoga. I do yoga twice a week.” I gesture behind my shoulder. “When I was a child, I went ice-skating.”

A few more students ask questions, and then one young man asks, “What is ice-skating.”

I write the word on the board and draw an ice skating boot, all laced up. The students find my drawing amusing. I could have just given them a translation, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.

I’m on a mission to learn how to teach well

Teaching, after all, is very different from learning, and although I know something about how I personally learn a language. Teaching one is a constant challenge.

The sad reality is that many of my students won’t ever reach a conversational level of English. Before they get to me, many have spent ten years learning and forgetting the same things over and over again. When I ask them how their weekend was, they still draw a blank.

Although I have limited formal teaching education (for now), I do have a bunch of teachers who keep educating me on teaching theory.

One idea which has invaded my mind is the idea of scaffolding

I hadn’t heard such a word in the language teaching context until a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing some text for a fellow teacher. He’s all very serious studying for a masters in this stuff.

Scaffolding is giving the student a helping hand that gets them further than where they could get on their own. It’s practical support. It’s what an active teacher is likely to do, frequently on a one-to-one basis, although the rest of the class may well be listening.

To think about what it means to me though, I have decided to take my imagination out of the classroom and into the kitchen.

This weekend, at the English Club where I help out, we’re doing baking with the children

They range from four to eight years old, so have different levels of skill – both in terms of egg-breaking and English speaking

As a tiny child, I used to cook with the Mother or with the Grandmother

There are pictures of me happily baking, stood on a chair in my Grandparents kitchen, and pictures of me sitting on the kitchen floor with the cake bowl on my head as I try to lick out the last of the mixture.

Send a small child into the kitchen with the instruction to bake some buns and leave them to it, and you won’t come back an hour later to the sweet smell of fresh-out-of-the-oven baking.

And yet, with some assistance, a small child can do most of the work

They can measure out the ingredients and mix them together. You might not want them to operate the oven quite yet, but they can load the bun cases with gooey-mixture.

As the adult, your job is to provide a safe environment and guidance so the children can do almost the whole thing by themselves.

The same goes for the classroom

The space we want to be teaching in is just beyond where the student can function by themselves. It has to feel safe. Sometimes we need to just give an occasional prompt, other times we need to say more, like holding the wooden spoon with them to give them enough power to blend the mix. Sometimes the support is visual, as in a drawing of an ice-skating boot, or takes on a physical gesture, such as indicating that there is a change of tense that they should be aware of.

Once the student can do something by themselves, the teacher should stop prompting. You don’t want the students to rely on prompts, you want them to practice creating their own phrases by themselves. When the child can bake for themselves, you can leave the kitchen and just enjoy the cakes once they’re done. No need for fuss.

For me, this is tricky

There is a point where I have to keep my hands still, my mouth shut, or speak lazily, with my accent, at my natural speed and with the vocabulary that I would normally use.

For teachers in general, doing this work is exhausting. It’s active and intense

No wonder many teachers set an exercise and then withdraw. I guess this is where having a language assistant helps. I can go through the class, often pair by pair, listening and correcting and encouraging the students to extend their conversation a little further.

And yet, it’s not enough. Despite my drawings and my enthusiastic pretending to skate across the classroom, the same student may well have forgotten what ice-skating is by next week. If he remembers, it was his question, his curiosity, so there’s hope, the other students in the class are still unlikely to. Ten years of English lessons and they’re still on the basic building blocks of the language.

It continues to bewilder me how some students speak and others don’t. It’s still a mystery.

I’m now so cool I’m writing about modal verbs

By Posted on Location: 2min read
obscure grammar
Grammar can sometimes be a bit obscure. Just like the view when you climb, camera in hand, a big hill that supposedly looks over the entire city and the Pacific Ocean. But oh well. We shall keep trying.
La Serena, September 2019.

I often keep a grammar guide in my handbag

It’s a side-effect of my constant war with language.

I mean, sometimes I find myself having coffee and someone asks me an awkward question, like, “What type of word is ‘ought’?”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

It’s a real everyday sort of challenge

As is not always saying ‘like’ remembering I have the letters ‘t’ and ‘h’ somewhere in my mouth, and not greeting people with a friendly ‘How’s thee doing?’.

Of course, until the question is asked, I’ve no idea

When I was asked, in Spain, at one of the outdoor tables in front of the café – the one with the excellent cookies – I blinked. To start, I imagined the ways I use the word ‘ought’ but this didn’t help much.

I tugged out the grammar-guide.

“A modal verb used to convey potential or obligation.”

Grammar guides are problematic because you need to translate them into everyday speech to make their great wisdom usable. I cannot just tell a student that this word conveys potential. Not unless they’re already a bit of a language geek. And if they are, they probably know more than me.

I have to find ways the student can begin to use these modal verbs.

The truth is, a year ago, I had no idea what a modal verb was

When I started learning things like the conditional in Spanish, I didn’t know what it looked like in English. If you don’t know, don’t feel bad. I had to consult my grammar guide and the children’s textbooks to piece it all together.

Unlike English, Spanish has a sweet way of doing the conditional. It’s like my favourite tense, even though it has an ‘r’ in it so I can’t pronounce anything in it. I found that I was using it before I could describe it.

“Me gustaría un café por favor”

In Spanish, you conjugate for every scenario

There are many conjugations to learn. In English, however, you add extra words. These extra words are the modal verbs. They change the mode/tense of the verb. ‘Ought’ is one of them. So is ‘will’.

And if you’re reading this and you speak beautiful received-pronunciation standard English and knew what a modal verb was long before you turned 28, good for you. You probably didn’t need to read all this and you won’t need a grammar-guide in your handbag.

What does a language assistant do in a Chilean University

There are about seven students in the class and they’re chatting away, in Spanish, about something to do with a motorbike that I can’t quite follow. I’ve just arrived. The teacher will be late. The teachers are always late.

This class are learning how to tell me their name, their age and their telephone number. For some of the students, this is ridiculously easy, for others, it’s a major challenge. I have a choice – I could sit and wait for the teacher to arrive or I could speak.

I ask them what they’re talking about

It takes five minutes of back and forth, with almost the whole class participating as no individual has enough vocabulary, but I learn that our resident knight in shining armour, sat in the centre of the front row, helped a guy to safety after he’d fallen off his motorbike and fractured his leg.

Not bad for a class whose spent the last month learning, “Where are you from?”

Classes here are small and attendance is poor

The focus is on enabling the students to speak, rather than read or write. All examinations for English are oral ones. My focus, therefore, is entirely on conversation practice.

The first goal is to make learning English less of an ordeal

Fear might be a good teacher of instinctual response, but to speak a foreign language requires a higher part of the brain. You have to want to own the language. Otherwise, how will you work through the anxiety, embarrassment and humiliation of constantly getting in a muddle?

I pity the students. If my French classes at school had been taught with such a focus on speech, I would have hated it. Speaking a foreign language can be a horrible experience. One of the big appeals of physics is that it’s quietly learnt. Books, paper, pens. But in Foreign languages, your main tool is your voice. Everyone else hears your terrible pronunciation and when you forget a word, everyone else knows.

Yet, from a rational perspective, nobody cares much about you. Most other people in the class are too absorbed in their insecurities to care about yours. But this is a big leap of faith to take.

Therefore I see the first job of the language assistant to be confidence-boosting

Note this isn’t about self-esteem. I’m not talking about gold stars and congratulations for every utterance. I’m talking about presenting a challenge and guiding the students in achieving it.

Like the conversation about the motorbike

When I first told the students to explain what they were talking about, they deemed it impossible. Understandable when you’re in English 1 repeating ‘My name is…’. With time, they started clarifying the facts. There was one person involved, a man. He fell. On the road. Leg. Broken, no, little broken. Fractured. By the time the teacher arrived, we’d got to a whole anecdote.

The second role of the language assistant is to speak

You might laugh, but the English these students predominantly hear is their teacher, and most of the teachers speak with a noticeable Chilean accent. I had one teacher who last year accentuated his Spanish accent when he spoke English to his class to try and help them understand. I’m not convinced that this is a good solution. It’s a bit of a short cut and short cuts don’t always pay off. However, I am sure that it helps to hear many different accents.

I do speak differently when I’m teaching

My word choice is limited. The flow is slower, and I include a lot more t’s and h’s. It takes a conscious effort to speak like this and sometimes when I’m tired, I slur my words, apologise and start again in better English.

The third task is to correct

This is much harder than is sometimes presumed. When you’re listening to English as a foreign language as part of a conversation, what you focus on is the parts that make sense and your brain attempts to fill in the gaps to create understanding. When you’re listening as a teacher, what you need to note is the mistakes. Some mistakes are obvious. Others seem invisible.

You get used to hearing the language in foreign accents and adapt to the poor pronunciation. Some grammatical mistakes don’t disrupt the meaning of the sentence and are therefore harder to spot. Sometimes there are so many mistakes, you don’t know how to classify and sort through them.

It’s much harder to hear the mistakes when you are part of the conversation

Sometimes, therefore, all I do it sit in front of two people who are talking and make notes. This can be disquieting for the students I’m listening to, but does allow me to hear what’s going on. Since we do lots of roleplays, there are plenty of opportunities for me to attend to the oddities of their foreign English.

I’m finding that the teachers are faster at noting and classifying the errors

Probably because it is how they do their examinations. They’re practised at it because they’re used to teaching the same course, over and over. They know what they’re listening for. They’re comparing the mistakes to the mistakes of other students and the curriculum. Meanwhile, I’m comparing the mistakes to my idea of standard English.

Sometimes though, I ignore the rules of English

I let my adaptive ears process vs that sound like bs and the bs that sound like vs. Instead of fussing, I just let the students speak the stuff that’s on their minds. Sometimes this means conversations about motorbike accidents. Other times they ask sweet questions, like do I miss my family?  Although what they seem to want to know is nothing more complex than have I tried the local speciality, a hot-dog?

A day in the easy life of a language assistant

Monday happens as expected. Other than I turn up for my yoga class and nobody is there. The door is locked. I wonder if perhaps I’m the one missing something important, or if I’m the only one who’s noticed that the clocks have changed. I walk away none the wiser.

I walk home, listening to a podcast

It’s part of my plan to be less ignorant of the world. I’m taking in history and philosophy. Continuing my Cuban education by listening to a podcast on the Bay of Pigs. Widening my philosophical knowledge with an In Our Time podcast on Authenticity – in which the opinions of Jean-Paul Sarte and Simone De Beauvoir are discussed and I think, oh I know those names, I have just read about them in a book by a chap with the unlikely name of Mason Curry on the Daily Rituals of creative people. I do love it when my knowledge comes together like that. Snap. Connection made.

Like that wondrous moment when I realised that Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand and history took a whole new form in my brain. Snap. Connection made. Love it.

I go to class, but I’m not teaching

Instead, I find today I am in the unexpected role of making up numbers. The students do their exams (oral) in pairs, but this class has an odd number of students. I’m brought in to fill the gap.

Student: Hi.
Me: Hi.
Student: How are you doing?
Me: Fine, thanks. And you? How are you doing?
Student: Fine, thanks. What is your name?
Me: My name is Catherine. And you? What is your name?
Student: My name is Claudio. How old are you?
Me: I am 28 years old. And you? How old are you?

Level one English is hard

Every time I open my mouth to speak, I want to say something different. I want to ask “How’s things going?” Or say I’m “not doing too bad considering this horrid cold”.

Eventually, after exchanging the required number of questions, we get to the end.

Student: It’s late. I have to go. Bye.
Me: Bye. Nice to meet you.
Student: Nice to meet you too.

I feel a swell of relief to successfully get to the end.

After a quick check with the teacher that she will be there for the next class, I leave

The check is worthwhile as I discover that on Friday afternoon classes are cancelled due to something to do with the unions. I am not surprised. Tuesday classes are cancelled due to ‘una fonda’ (a barbeque/party). Nobody it seems wants to teach this week and the students claim to have spent the weekend resting in preparation for next week which is party week. The celebration of Chile’s independence (or not quite… but you get the idea).

I call my sister from a bench in the courtyard of the university

We have a good long chat. She explains the discrepancy between two pictures of the same cheesecake I received over the weekend. The first, from my mother, looked stunning. The second was a puddle. Truthfully, (verdaderamente: such a beautiful word but impossible to say), the cheesecake stood for ten seconds before collapsing. My mother sent me the perfect picture, but my sister’s shot gave a more honest story. At the end of the call, the Midget heads to bed and I go to my next class. Time difference.

The next class goes smoothly

I like the teacher’s desire to enable the students to form phrases of their own, rather than just learn to parrot a set speech. He’s enthusiastic and the student’s laugh at his jokes. They like him, this much is obvious. But they look like goldfish when they have to speak. I continue to ponder how one should teach English or any language. I have no idea how I’m learning Spanish. It’s just happening. But how do I learn to teach language to someone else when it seems to be just happening to me.

After, I drink terrible coffee and eat a hot-dog whilst listening to a story about a snake. This is Chile. The sun has set. I wander home, past more hot-dog stalls decorated with fairy lights. Another day is done.