Tag Archives Teaching English

Like fire, storm or thunder… the written word

Summer in rural Peru
January 2020

I cannot read her work, so when a journalist friend tells me that she’s surprised when someone compliments her writing, I cannot judge for myself what she is publishing.

However, I am well-acquainted with her self-possessed use of the English language. You wouldn’t guess that neither of her parents speaks English from the elaborate emails she writes to me. Although, when free from the newspaper word-limit she’s undoubtedly verbose, her words captivate.

Words are magic.

Written words stimulate the imagination as much as any other external reality – fire, storm, thunder – and yet they can express an internal reality – hope, philosophy, mood – in ways which also provoke the imagination, engage with that astounding faculty and set it off to make more words, adding to the visible map of the mind. Writing helps us to see what it is to be more completely human.

Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English

I think by writing. My borrowed thoughts and beliefs get tested and made mine by my efforts to commit them to paper. When times get tricky, I reach to the written word. Through the written word I learnt to communicate about rape. My diaries hold the words I often don’t know how to say. Words like love, fear, grief, sex.

Considering that I was born with some mild disadvantage when it comes to the spoken word, it’s unsurprising that my linguistic confidence is so linked to pen and paper. Maybe Freud would say that after a childhood of having my h’s, t’s, a’s, u’s and f’s corrected (ridiculed), it’s of no surprise that I make my living teaching others to speak well. Or proper, as I would prefer to say.

My father thinks it mad that I am an English teacher. His daughter who started life with clogged up lugs and a lazy tongue, who couldn’t work out how many claps to fit in the rhythm of her own name, who, he jokes, learnt to speak after the younger one…

And yet, last summer my increasingly deaf grandfather complimented the clarity of my speech, quite taking me aback. But, he’s right. Not without toil, I am cleaning up my pronunciation: letting my day-to-day English slide towards what we call received pronunciation, standard, BBC or posh. I am challenging my substandard articulation and like a boy, whose voice is deepening, from time to time make sounds that surprise me. Sometimes I cringe to hear myself.

I’m not eradicating my language of the past, just reducing the ignorance that limited it.

I know full well that the way we speak forms and restricts our identities. I have no problem with teaching at the weekend as on the weekend to my Latin American students (even if I think it sounds ugly), but I’m clear that it’s not the way I speak. My students need a consistent, reliable English and there’s no point getting all uppity about one flavour of the language being better than another. Prepositions are tricky enough at the best of times. People are generally insecure enough about their language without having it picked-to-death by pedants.

I would correct their use of I am sat if they ever thought to make such a mistake, with the caveat that it’s not unsaid back home. When I teach, I do not pretend that there is one righteous English. And the more I teach, the more I fall in love. The richness is in the variety, the endless possibilities that tempts and taunts us. Yet I no longer feel at the mercy of the rulebook. My dialectical twists of grammar exist because I choose them to. I know more about English grammar than most native speakers. When someone points out that a word I say doesn’t exist to them, I no longer take it quite so personally.

Chaucer used a different flavour of English for each of his storytellers in his Canterbury Tales. Since then the language has grown, but the idea that we can each have such unique voices is still as true as ever. 

We each have our vocabulary – visible maps of our minds. Mine holds my words, whilst my friends each have their distinct linguistic maps. Idiolects mostly coinciding with the dictionary and grammar guides, but not always. Even within the closeness of family, my mother and I debate across the dining room table with phrases that the other would never say. I rarely invoke any Gordons.

The distinctiveness of our voice lays visible to others and yet we are oft-times unaware of it.

We might be perplexed by the words we do not understand but think little of those we do. We might have the ambition to sound like someone famous we’ve read, and realise we never will. I wonder if my journalist friend knows that Gabriel García Márquez was a brilliant journalist, though terrible at spelling

She listens to her language. During her voice messages, she frequently pauses to ponder which of a few words would be the most apt for her particular phrase. I’ve sat in awe, listening as she muses over regional distinctions between tiny populations in the 5-million-strong country of Finland. Her awareness of language, of identity, of the power of words, is a treasure.

Maybe though, she has no idea how special what she does is.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (when you don’t know your grammar )

By Posted on Location: 7min read
TEFL
The centre of Murica.
Río Segura, Murica, Spain, May 2019

No message.

There was a signal, so I sent a message announcing my arrival at the bus station in Murcia, in Spanish, a language I knew some words of but had never spoken.

“Yo soy aqui”

I intended to say, “I am here”. Translated it does mean “I am here” but, as any Spanish speaker knows, it should have been “Yo estoy aqui.” As it’s the verb estar (to be) nor the verb ser (to be) in such situations.

In ‘Spanish time’ my host arrived and waved me to her car

She spoke some broken phrases of English. More than I spoke of Spanish but that first day, neither of us could construct a sentence.

If you have since met the Casera, the rolling English you heard was not what I experienced that first day. You heard her speaking after months of living with a native English speaker in her apartment.

Therefore, we couldn’t say much, yet we somehow conversed for the next twenty minutes.

This was a swift education. When it comes to conversation, the most important thing is to have faith.

Very soon, I’m going to meet a Chilean man at a Chilean airport

I will have to open my mouth and speak.

Butterflies swarm in my stomach to think of it. We have two common languages, so it shouldn’t be a problem. From his writing, I assume he speaks beautiful English since his style of composition made me smile with some admiration. I speak Spanish, more or less.

He speaks Chilean Spanish; I speak Yorkshire English. Hiding behind the Andes, Chilean Spanish has developed its unique forms. Yorkshire is well, Yorkshire. I’m told my accent is lovely, but at least for the first week, unintelligible.

I speak non-rhotically, which is a pain when it comes to learning Spanish

Rhotic being a technical term meaning I drop my ‘r’. In Spanish this is a problem as every infinitive verb ends in a vowel followed by an ‘r’ and in many forms of British English (non-rhotic English) such ‘r’ sounds are abandoned.

Take the word ‘car’, which I pronounce ‘cah’.

And then apply this to the Spanish ‘hablar’ (to speak) and get ‘hablah’ which more or less is ‘habla’. I.e. he speaks.

You may wonder, ‘what the hell are you on about Catherine?’

Which is understandable. I wouldn’t have known any of this phonetic vocabulary, if I hadn’t spent quite so much of the last year searching to discover what this annoying letter ‘r’ is.

Despite hours trying, I have never been able to trill an r

But even the single r in Spanish is a harder sound than any r in my English. My pronunciation of ‘Gracias’ is wrong, not because I fumble over whether it’s a c or a th sound in the middle, but because my first syllable is fluffily soft.

From the feedback I have surmised from my students, I imagine my Spanish accent would work if you were casting the little sister of a Disney princess. It’s not the sound I was hoping for.

We take speaking for granted

When I speak in Spanish in front of my parents, I expect them to understand. They should understand me. They are my parents. When my mum stares at me as if I am speaking gobbled-gook, I wonder why. It takes me a cognitive churn to understand that she doesn’t get what I’m saying.

When I speak in half-formed mumbled English, they seem to know what I mean. If I mime, they tend to get it. They know me, they know my voice. So, I find it bewildering how when I’m speaking Spanish are there so many blank looks?

But we also take for granted our knowledge of our language

We instinctively know what feels right. Or, to invert that idea, we know what sounds wrong. We feel that someone is speaking our language as a second tongue before we know how they’re mis-forming the grammar or before we can identify where the pronunciation mimics their native language.

My Spanish students stumble at the difference between the ‘b’ and the ‘v’ sounds. A Finnish friend has a wider spoken vocabulary than me but speaks with an odd ‘v’, which gives her foreignness away.

As children, we absorb this language knowledge without realising we’re doing it

Grammar especially. Later, at school, some English teacher tries to explain what a noun, a verb and an adjective are, by which point we’ve been using them for years.

Then we start to study a foreign language. I did French and German at school. At this point, lots more grammar descriptors come into play, like verbal tenses and moods, and we become very confused.

French, German and English might have much in common, but their structure differs.

Learning German was not a success

Despite having had approximately 110 classes in the subject, I can’t say anything useful whatsoever. When I’m in Germany itself, I recognise some words but not much else. I don’t have any innate feeling about German and so, to me, it’s random sound.

When you don’t have any feeling about what is right or wrong in a language, you’re reliant on rules

You use your first language as a basis for the language you’re learning. Then, rather than learning the new language from scratch, you adapt the rules you know to the new language. My Spanish students ‘cook my mother’ because such grammar makes sense in Spanish.

I would say that my job requires some awareness of this grammatical web.

As an English language assistant, they tell you all you need is to be able to speak English

Which sounded like a wonderful way for me to teach and avoid my lack of formal grammar education. The marketing chaps stress how your role is to conduct conversations and focus on speaking skills.

While it’s true that from a feeling we know when a student says something we wouldn’t, it’s insufficient for answering why.

And the best students ask, “Why?”

At first, I figured I must be able to work it out. I’d think of a few examples and the student would nod. A few hours later I would be in the grocery store or cooking dinner and an exception to my supposed rule would pop up.

At which point, I had to hope I remembered which student in which class had asked the question. Then I’d need to admit I’d made a mistake, and then from somewhere work out a satisfactory explanation or the grammar.

After a few such incidences, I took the better line, “I don’t know. Let me check.”

Teaching English is a constant lesson in humility.

The English grammar experts were all around me

They were the teachers, whose English was sometimes odd in its form, but who had learnt grammar first, conversation second. And hence, they knew the rules inside out.

But this is not my only linguistic challenge as a language assistant.

Most native speakers don’t speak standard English

I don’t. When I’m teaching, I try to speak with clarity and standard grammar, but I refuse to adopt my ‘a’ or my ‘u’ into anything but what it is. My ‘r’, as I’ve said, is a hopeless case. I could not fake an accent, even if I wanted to.

It is only through learning grammar though that I can differentiate between my Yorkshire (my idiolect) and Standard English. This is important. I mustn’t trust my feelings. To say ‘I am sat on the sofa’ feels right but it’s not standard. Furthermore, I have no problem with double negatives or double contractions, although I try not to use them.

When a child uses a double negative, which is a common mistake for native Spanish speakers, I smile and tell them they sound like they’re from Yorkshire. I show them their mistake ask them to use Standard English for school. I couldn’t tell them they’re speaking wrong when it’s the same quirk as we have at home in England.

It’s not infrequent that I screw up

And I’ve given classes where I’ve caught myself speaking with non-standard grammar. At this point, I pause the class and wave my arms about a bit.

“You know how here you say ‘estamos’ as ‘etamo’ because it’s your dialect? When I said ‘I am sat on the sofa’ it was because of my dialect. It’s not standard English. Please do not do this in your exams. We should say, ‘I am sitting on the sofa’ as it’s the gerund here.”

But it’s important to recall what is correct varies depending on who you ask

I met one (Australian) English teacher who thought it was abominable to teach children to use contractions in their writing. I bit back the urge to say, ‘You shou’n’t never do what?’.

If a child put some double contractions into a piece of dialogue, I’d give them bonus marks.

I love beautiful language

Books with intricate sentences which wind stylistically in directions you didn’t suppose possible enchant me. Yet, what’s most impressive about language to me is how we can mangle it and still communicate. For eight months the Casera and I lived together. Neither of us fluent in the other’s language, we used whatever language allowed us to communicate. So what if we broke all the grammar rules and pronounced the impossible imperfectly, we conversed.

It all depends on faith.

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)

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.

Why I prioritise learning to listen

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.