Monday, May 26, 2008

Learning English

In front of me sit a class of eighteen defeated, demoralised students. Their faces register shock, their slumped postures show their defeat. I flit among them, trying to reassure and clarify. “Teacher, teacher!” “Hanna, Hanna!” each time I stop and talk to one, the others cry out like baby birds.

The reason for this chaos is my attempts to follow the program, which requires that they make a poster based on the excursion we went to last week. I have just spent ten minutes explaining that they need to make a poster and give a presentation, enunciating each words like I’m speaking to the deaf. I have asked them to form groups of three. The result was this village of the dammed. In the middle of trying to put a group of eighteen adults into groups of three (“four? Why no four? We can four?”) which will not result in any cultural clashes but will result in some English being spoken I feel like a kindergarten teacher without the height advantage. As I dash from group to group making suggestions that are greeted with strained silence – did they understand or are there tensions I don’t know about? – a student asks if he can ask me a question. I look at him. Is he blind? Can’t he see I’m in the middle of something important? (He can’t). I say yes.
“When this class finish?”
I look at him in blank disbelief at this apparent rudeness and disregard for all my effort. In fact, I snap. “What kind of a question is that? What do you mean?” He repeats the question. In disgust I tell him it’s the same time as every day, what does he think? He looks upset. I continue with my efforts to make a group of unwilling adults do what I want. The next time I move past him he grabs me again. By this time my patience is paper-thin – they have known about this poster from the beginning, why all this reluctance? He starts to tell me his English is no good. I think of my yoga teacher and breathe through the rage. I try to listen through the blood rushing through my head.
“ I mean, how long the week? When this class end?” With a sudden rush of guilt there is deadly silence in my head. Oh no.
“The course, you mean when does the course end.” Blank. I try to explain. It is too late. He is hurt and upset by his teacher’s failure to be patient with his English. I tell all the students when the course ends, and what the word “course” means as a way to assuage my guilty conscience. It doesn’t work.
Welcome to the world of beginners.

Today I spent twenty minutes trying to convince a student he isn’t ready to go up to the next level. In the end his friends had to translate for him. His belief that he should go up even though he isn’t able to communicate with his teacher is astounding. There is an expectation out there in the world that learning a language is linear, like learning how to drive, that it’s a matter of checking the boxes. First, it isn’t. Second, get used to it. It took me years and years to learn German and I’m still learning. It will never be easy. It can be freeing and wonderful and help you to grow as a person, but easy? Forget it. A beginner student will need to do at least 100 hours of face to face teaching plus 50 hours of self-study to be able to express basic needs in English. In fact, it is unlikely that an adult will ever be able to express themselves in their second language as well as in their first, particularly about the things that are really central to their idea of themselves. They may become better at talking about a specific subject, if they learn about that subject in the second language. So for beginners, learning English is as much about learning to be realistic than actually learning new words and ideas. Beginners is the coalface, where expectations inflated by who knows what agent’s promises and a fancy school website, along with misguided notions of how easy it is, get deflated by the guardian at the gate. Who happens to be me.

After a day of feeling like a harridan – “you need to do your homework and stop speaking Vietnamese in class!” – it is important to reflect on the students who succeed. Another student who I told last time to wait is now ready to go up a level. He has improved out of sight. When I first taught him I asked him if he had a question. “Kwe-stion?” he said, completely bamboozled. Now he is one of the better students in class. It takes time to learn to deal with a new language, a new country, and I understand why people fight it. It came as a shock to me how difficult it was being in Germany, and I was with my family and I already had an intermediate level of German. It is important to remember that.

“Teacher! Teacher!” I smile, take a deep breathe and listen. They might have something important to say.


bluesky said...

A great site for ESL students is is a dual-purpose site for building an English vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most
impoverished places around the world.

Check it out at

Timothy Roberts said...

Hi Torshie,

Your job sounds incredibly stressful. You may find it comforting that I was an ESL teacher for 8 hours (2 classes) once, and was so terrible at it that the whole class pretty much turned against me & I needed a LOT of beer to make my hands stop shaking afterwards (maybe I mentioned this already).
Anyway, you sound like you're doing incredibly well! Your students would thank their lucky stars if they knew what truly dysfunctional ESL teachers were like.