Belief sits at the heart of language learning (but fear is what rules)

Street art in a neighbouring village to the one I teach in. Fear is ever present in language learning.

It’s not the most welcoming environment. Even when there’s a blue sky outside, the corridor remains cold. The child opposite me wears a coat. I say child. He’s fourteen, when I was fourteen I didn’t feel child-like at all.

 He tells me he hates history. I nod, I’ve heard this story before. It’s a symptom of one of the Spanish government’s ‘wonderful ideas’, as if Spain didn’t already have enough confusion about its own history already. This is a trilingual school so history here is taught in French.

How, the boy implores, is he supposed to write a page answering a history question in French? He can’t string together five French sentences. There is anger lining his voice, but also defeat. He thinks it is impossible. He believes he will fail history

The thing is… I don’t believe him

I listen and at no point say, ‘you’re wrong’. For him, this is a serious and painful topic, so I avoid smiling, despite finding it delightful how as he rants about French his English begins to flow.

I sympathise with his teachers

I doubt that they’re going to fail him in history. He’s bright. If he’s going to fail, then half the class is doomed. And the teachers don’t like to fail half the class, it looks bad on them.

Imagine though, training to be a history teacher, and then the job market changes. The best positions are going to those who can teach in a foreign language. You’re raising a family, working full time and add language classes in the evenings. You pass your exams, but when you’re teaching you feel the difficulty of expressing yourself. You can’t tell stories anymore. Humour doesn’t work. The classes struggle and get lost.

It’s not an easy role to take on.

But my focus is on the student in front of me

I don’t believe that he can’t write a page in French. He’s been studying that language for at least eight years. That’s seven years and seven months longer than I’ve been studying Spanish and if push came to shove, I could write a page on a historical topic in Spanish. If you gave me a few weeks I might be able to do it in French too.

I admit, I would need some verb tables if it was going to be in the correct tense, but I could write a page. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would exist. I could do it. A handwritten page is only a few hundred words.

The boy however believes he can’t and that’s a problem

Without belief he’s going to sit, uncomfortably, on the splintering green chair in his classroom. He’ll stare at a white piece of paper, pen in hand, and write as little as possible. Tension will squeeze his stomach. A metallic taste in his mouth. He’ll grip his pen tight.

If grows up to be like the twenty-something-year-old Spanish young men I know, then this fear will follow him into the future. When faced with a live, fast-speaking, slang-using French person, he’ll panic. His fight, flight or freeze response will wipe out his French language skills. His brain will scream ‘abort’.

I know this feeling

I spent years learning French at school. Yet the only thing I can ever think of to say is ‘Je ratisse avec un râteau’ which I learnt working on a French farm. I can’t pronounce the phrase because I have never mastered the damn ‘r’. The sentence means ‘I rake with a rake’, and is, more or less, useless.

I’ve seen this same mind blasting fear make sweat drip from the foreheads of wide-shouldered, swaggering teenage boys. I’ve witnessed it time and time again. I’ve felt it myself time and time again.

The opposite of fear is belief

Shortcuts don’t work.

Yes, a few shots of tequila or a bottle of wine can help. I know some women who go from being unable to construct the present simple to being comfortable with future conditional after a drink. Men, typically, need a glass or two of beer, and for all the women to scarper. But these children I teach aren’t looking to only be able to speak whilst intoxicated. They need language skills for job interviews.

They need to belief in themselves

  • The child needs to believe he can speak French.
  • The teacher needs to believe they can teach in French.
  • Because without belief, everything becomes dredged in a thick gloopy fear.

Which would be sad, because this bright, articulate young man could do with a decent history education.

So, the next question is, where can you get belief from? (Or why is my Italian and Spanish better than my French)

Practicing for the Cambridge First Exam (or something like that)

A striking wall in Cartagena. A bright burst of colour in a city of crumbling buildings held up by scaffolding.

“What is the most important thing you learnt in primary school?”

Blank.

That was the look of the teenagers faces staring back at me. After a second or two, they asked me to repeat the question.

They understand the English, but they were not sure that they had heard right. It was afterall a bit of an odd question. Not typical small talk, nor even the sort of question you might receive in a job interview. It was a practice exam question, and some of the exam questions are plain weird. To answer them you don’t only need language skills, you need an imagination too.

Take a question I had to ask today about a photograph

It was in reference to a picture of a smiling girl stacking supermarket shelves. She wore a green apron and had her blonde hair tied high in a neat pony-tail.

“What do you think this girl enjoys about her job?”

I smiled at the teenagers who looked up at me and blinked. It’s an expression I am becoming rather familiar with as I reach the odder questions of the Cambridge speaking exam list.

“I know, it’s a ridiculous question, use your imagination.”

They concluded that the girl in question did not actually enjoy her job, it seemed implausible that her career ambition was to stack shelves. However, she was smiling. So, my students hypothesised that she had plans for after work, a party perhaps.

I let my imagination go wild when I was faced with a picture of a man in a black t-shirt singing with great enthusiasm. I needed to encourage the students to spew out English words. Sitting dumbfounded by the awful photography won’t give them a mark that reflects their language skills. I pointed to a dower looking woman in the audience. This, I suggested, was the singer’s sister. I suggested that she would have preferred to be in bed, but instead she was at a rock concert supporting her brother. Furthermore, the event had come about as a result of a mid-life crisis. The man, fearing the best of his life was behind him, had decided to take to the stage. One of the students pointed out a nearby member of the concert audience, who wore a grimace, and suggested that this was the brother-in-law. We all laughed.

But back to the primary school question

Some students gave answers involving academic subjects.

“I think that the most important thing I learnt in primary school was basic maths.”

Others focused on describing their language skills. Particularly their foundation in Spanish and beginnings in English.

However, the ones who had more time to think tended to vie away from the subject orientated answer. They prefered something that was more orientated around social skills. One explained primary school had taught him to behave and equipped him with the skills to study. Others mentioned working with others.

Then there was the pair who decided to explain what, in their opinion primary school should have taught them.

“Emotion”

“No, not emotion… not my emotion, to understand your emotion… more… I don’t know the word… empathetic”

“Empathy?”

“Yes, empathy.”

The student’s concern was that there are too many extreme views in the world. People causing problems because of a lack of empathy and understanding of others. Empathy, she believed, was something that needed teaching at primary school. They should be learning to relate to one another and develop more moderate views.

I asked for an example

“I am,” she told me, “a feminist.”

And she proceeded to go on to explain that some people thought that by this word she meant that that she thought women were superior to men. She was adamant that this was not her belief. Her tone was calm, but had an edge to it suggesting that this was personal.

Gender equality, and tackling gender based violence is a big thing here. The other week, the students went on strike as part of a campaign for gender equality. On Sunday I cut through a march against gender based violence as I headed across town with my parents.

In the school corridor we talked for a while about the word feminist

I explained how my father (I quote him often) is a feminist but that he avoids the word. He prefers, I explained, to choose a terms that are more obvious in their promotion of the equal value of both sexes and all genders.

The more I speak to these teenagers the more I find them remarkable

I’m lucky that I get to have this odd, privileged opportunity to hear the individual, intriguing, complex beliefs of these young people. Often, they fight with the limits of their English vocabulary to express themselves and their opinions. It’s impressive. I’m tired when I come home from work, because it’s not a job where I sit back and let it happen around me. That wouldn’t be within my character and the teenagers deserve more than that. They deserve empathy.

Fish, lost in the chaos. Cartagena.

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

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 cemetery.

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 humorous 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.

A walking tour in Bucharest (or thoughts on making friends with temporary colleagues)

Bucharest

Bucharest, August

It’s hot and I’m sweaty. My legs and arms are covered in bites. I’m used to bites that swell momentarily, and then disappear, but perhaps it’s the foreign insects, or perhaps it’s the foreign heat, but these are less helpful. They itch, breaking my resolve to meditate without fidgeting. I downgrade my ambitions of serene perfection for vaguely keeping my eyes shut most of the time. I didn’t even bother this morning. Not that I’ve had much time. I woke too late. And made a mad dash to be at the University Square for eleven.

The kind guy also living in this apartment made me coffee. It was strong. I added more boiling water and tried to gup it down when I should have added cold.

I arrive with a few minutes to spare. My tour companions are a mix. The guide herself (Walkabout Tours) was excellent. Easily one of the best walking tour guides I’ve had. She was bubbly and professional. Amazingly, somehow, she managed not to look too upset at our inability to really gel as a group and laugh or ask questions. We’d met each other at the same time as we had met her, as strangers, but were fast trying to form bonds as we knew we were working together for the next week. In practice, we’re wary of each other.

When you’re with travellers who have spent just a month or two away, there’s often an over-enthusiasm with the desperate need to be friends. You’ve been travelling long enough to actually miss home, and long enough that the people back home don’t really get what you’re doing. You feel disconnected and alone. In its own way, it’s quite adorable. With travellers who are perhaps a little older and have travelled longer, there’s often a more cautious approach. Despite the difficulties, you’ve worked out that loneliness is manageable and new people (like sugar or alcohol) are merely a distraction that perhaps makes you feel momentarily better. I know this is stereotyping, and just a generalization, but it’s also a safe assumption.

We act knowing that in a week we’ll all say goodbye. Be wary of commitment now, and you’ll find it easier to carve out your own space later in the week and easier to admit the truth which is that friends here are friends for now (which is not bad – just something to be aware of).

As a side note, although I say this, I do stay in regular contact with a number of people who I’ve worked with, either in teaching, being an au pair, or in the case of the Finnish Photographer, carpentry.

On this tour though, ambling through the streets of Bucharest when most of the population is wisely indoors, we’re all English Teachers. It’s a weird social mix. Most people have already done a program like this one we’re doing together, typically in Poland where Angloville, the organising company is based. There are more men than women. The age range is a little younger than me to older than my parents. I’m comforted by the variety. Americans, Canadians, Australians, a chap from New Zealand, a guy who lives in Switzerland, another lass from Yorkshire – we make an odd bunch, but I enjoy the company and conversation.

As we walk the streets of Bucharest, we learn about hidden, relocated churches; a revolution sculpture nicknamed the potato; the reconstruction of buildings post-communism; the area known as little Paris (influenced by a little brother relationship with the French post-independence); the palace of telecommunications (the post office); an alley decorated by umbrellas hanging above, giving a gentle respite from the sun; and we eat lunch.

And in a short few hours, I find myself belonging to something.

An Art Workshop in Rural Romania

The teenage girls hug and kiss me before I’m allowed to leave. They’re excitable, trying to outdo each other in their displays of affection. I’ve known them only a few hours, and I can count the words most of them have managed to say to me on one hand.

There’s one girl though, A, she’s eighteen, and a little more reserved. She wants to be a photographer, and she shows me some pictures on her phone, including a beautiful portrait taken by her older brother. He’s her role model.

This girl comes from a village in rural Romania. Although it’s in the school curriculum, children in rural areas rarely get to do art in school. If they want to do art, they must provide their own material, and these girls cannot afford paints. Indeed, when this series of art workshops began, the children stole the half-used tubes of acrylic paint and battered brushes. It took time for them to understand that the paints were theirs, but needed to be kept together to be used.

We painted together all morning, creating an elaborate entrance for the festivities that mark the start of the school year.

The building we’re houses in is crumbling in places. It was once a small part of a large compound which was owned by a rich man (the main building is architecturally beautiful, albeit wrecked now). The rich man gambled the property away. Communism happened. The window frames were stolen away for fire wood, and the stone to build homes. There are decorative flowers made of sliced toilet rolls on the walls of the studio.

We pause for a break, and A invites me to accompany her to the ‘magasin’, the village shop. She explains the compound, points out the building that was once a hospital and takes care to guide me across the road. All this she does in broken English. She asks if I have a boyfriend, husband, baby. She has a boyfriend, he’s being a bit of a jerk.

We reach the shop and she buys me a bottle of water. I don’t need a bottle of water, and I feel bad for this girl who has comparatively so little buying me a drink. I can’t however say no, as I quickly realise that the entire purpose of the walk is to make sure I have something because I am a guest and this is Romania where people go out of their way to help.

Before I leave, one of the adults who speaks only a few words of England grabs me for a photo, and then makes my friend translate for her something dear to her heart. Romanians, she says, are not gypsies. She echoes a sentiment that many Romanians have stressed to me. The semi-nomadic Romani (the gypsies) and the Romanians are two distinct people. They’re physically different and culturally different, and when you’re understanding Romania you have to understand this difference.