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Just me and English


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There are indeed problems associated with teaching a foreign language but at the same time there are delights. The latter proliferate if your students are adults and keen to learn and also if the language that you’re trying to teach is your own. In my case this happens to be English and I’ve learnt more about the language from teaching English than I would ever have garnered from a hundred dryasdust fussy grammar books. I sometimes felt like Mon Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Moliere, who suddenly finds he’s been speaking prose all his life and with me it was a realisation that I’d been using grammar all my life.

My first encounter with a live class was at a small school in a place situated on the south coast of England. Some schools sadly and to my shame spring up willy-nilly in this area and are blots on the escutcheon, pains in the neck and in a nutshell a complete rip off. I heard of one where the students had to assemble in a classroom and were mystified why the desk in the front was sans teacher. Instead there stood an imperious-looking loudspeaker from which emitted the teaching –no you can’t grace it with that noble nomenclature – instruction? – no even that would be exaggerating – how about information delivery? For that’s all it was. The poor students, well they weren’t poor materially because Mum and Dad were loaded and worked in foreign embassies thousands of miles away, but they were poor in the sense of wretched because they didn’t really learn anything and it was impossible for them to go home and complain. Still, I believe our leader when he’s finished sorting out the world, may one day get round to making his Education Secretary ban these joints once and for all. But I digress. The school that I went to as a novice was, I assure you, kosher, pukka and all round of a sound character. But back to my small school on the south coast of England.

My first achievement, bearing in mind my rotten sense of direction, was finding the right classroom. As I entered I saw the beautiful people from a land it would be invidious to call by name. Part of me wanted to gape and admire this assemblage of lovely individuals. Another part of me wanted to sit down with them pretending to be a late arriving student and just patiently wait for a teacher. But I got hold of myself metaphorically and metamorphosed into a teacher, albeit tentatively. My voice worked despite the dryness of my throat and I as well as the class endured the lesson. You improve of course, gain experience, widen your outlook, learn to manage and adopt techniques, become a shade wiser, sometimes get cocky and then figuratively fall flat on your face, grow humble, get to admire those who acquire your language ten times better than you could acquire theirs and in the end become quite a good teacher.

Levels and aiming at the right one and balance and striking the right one bedevil you. It’s so easy to be misled. A student knows a pop song off by heart. They use the vocabulary of the ditty and momentarily you think they are fully conversant with the language. Then to continue with the analogy of pop music, the record starts to slow down and you realise they haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. There’s a problem – reaction. Sometimes our friend will nod and agree with other violent inclinations of the head that (oh how I wish we had an impersonal pronoun that covered he and she and so I’ll have to resort to ‘he’ in a purely generative sense, you understand) signify sort of semiotically more than any other way that he understands. A warm glow arises in you. You say to yourself: By Jove he’s a good student or I’m a very good teacher! Probably you err towards the latter belief. Then with the utmost confidence to test your utter belief, you toss a question his way to give yourself the ultimate satisfaction and prove your teaching has worked and there is silence, a pause perhaps for reflection to provide a polished answer? Not a bit of it. He doesn’t have a clue what you’re on about. He’s well and truly egged you on and led you right up the garden path and not even taken the time to sniff the roses. In future you proceed with caution. You ignore nodders – they’re beguiling but really they’re just like the girls on the Lorelei rocks.

Then there’s the one to one, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. You can’t kid yourself here. It’s just you and him or her. Anyone know the meaning of that? There isn’t a question you can try because it’s just you and him or her. You don’t know a single word of his language and by the way things are going, the feeling’s mutual. You try pointing with your finger at something but our friend doesn’t really get the point and calls out: Ah finger! You know if you jerk your head, he’ll say: Ah head! And if you use your foot (although momentarily he may think you’re going doodle-alley and want to kick him) he’ll more than likely call out: Ah foot! The point is that you’re not doing parts of the body but gesticulating things in the room. But then you forget. This guy’s a doctor of medicine and knows all about the body. He’s more than likely trying to fix you up with a friend of his, who’s a psychiatrist.

But the beginners progress. They chat away. They say, not that I would know, that English is the easiest language in the world to learn to start with. To start with, maybe but it gets difficult once you start getting into it. It’s all those synonyms. It’s all those words nicked from other languages suggesting nasty little subtle different meanings. Then of course there’s the spelling. Our American cousins have made it easier but over here we’re stuck with the old ways. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw left some money in his will to reform the spelling. By all accounts his money is still accruing interest but it’s never got off the ground, no, as it were, interest of the intellectual kind. We gave up our shillings and went decimal but the euro is still a pipe dream.

As the beginners stop beginning and start advancing, the problems mount. The tenses. Oh my, how much pain they generate. The piles of heavy tomes of grammar that surround me in my tiny study tell me: It’s quite simple, old chap. There are only two tenses in English, past and present. Oh yeah! So what about the future, then? Ah well, that’s different because there is no future tense. You use ways and expressions to convey a future connotation. And then there’s the continuous forms, right? They are merely variations on the themes of past and present. But then here’s me having a conversation with some books – it’ll have to stop. Incidentally I must just tell you about my favourite tense (or variation on the theme) which is called the Present Perfect Continuous. I wax on about this in the classroom. I’ve even got a special name for it –the umbrella tense. You see rather cleverly it covers then and now and sort of waves in the direction of what happens next in the future. I’ve got a lot of time for it. It’s a sort of jewel in the crown of tenses.

And there’s teaching online. I’ve been doing this on and off now for about 7 years – most recently with www.english-test.net. Now this is civilized. You answer questions while you nonchalantly drink coffee. No pressure, no rush. Time for reflection and thought. No discipline problems. Mind you, you don’t know who’s listening/watching if anybody is. You give a measured response. You can read your answer to check for typos and style before you submit your answer. Sometimes you are rewarded with a reaction, sometimes you are ignored. That’s life.

So if you’ve read so far and if you have, thank you, I come to my question: Which method of instruction do you favour: in the classroom, one to one or online? Or would you rather just curl up on a sofa and learn it all in a book?

I'd really like to hear about the relationship you have developed with the English language.

Please, post your comments here: Just me and English
Author: Alan Townend