Friday, 30 January 2009

More Language Learning for Dummies

‘I have this private student and I can’t do anything with him. Τίποτα, μα τίποτα, σας λέω. Nothing, nothing, but nothing. He won’t learn anything, ΤΙ-ΠΟ-ΤΑ, E-NEE-THING’

Have you tried X?

‘Βεβαίως! Of course! NOTHING!’

How about Y?

‘Sure I have! Δεν κάθεται να μάθει! He won’t learn, he just won’t learn, he won’t…’

Why don’t you give Z a go?

‘I HAVE! Of course I have, he’s just…’

This is the sort of spiralling conversation you can get into at coffee after conducting a ELT seminar in Greece, unless you beat a retreat as soon as it ends. Someone comes to pick your brain about the problems she is having with her A/B/C/D class or recalcitrant private student, and whatever you suggest she try, you can bet she’s done it and then some. You cannot say anything of any moment, because you know nothing about the teacher or her students. If you probe a bit, you often find it is the teacher and not the student that is the root of the problem. Of course this is an insight you must not impart, especially if the seminar is organised by OUP and they are paying for the coffee and sticky cakes, your fee, your transport, your hotel room and your wine-sodden dinner tonight. ‘YOU are the fucking problem, sweetheart, I wouldn’t let you into a school to hoover the reception, let alone TEACH!’ No. They wouldn’t ask you back after that.

I recall just such an exchange as the one above with a boundlessly confident young lady of twenty or so. A boy of thirteen had been entrusted to her for private remedial lessons, and she was failing to get through to him, or as she saw it, he was failing to read her. It turned out she was using a book called ‘You and Me’, written for ten year-olds and featuring stories of clowns and birthday parties, and songs such as ‘A Red Balloon, a Blue Balloon’ and ‘Wiggly Wiggly Worm’. Lack of commitment on the part of a lad on the verge of a testosterone explosion should therefore not come as a surprise. This was not the young lady’s fault. She was barely more than a kid herself, and had no background in methodology. The school owner who passed the boy and the book on to her should have been sentenced to a year learning Inuktitut, using similar materials.

The idea that in language learning, ‘beginner’ equals ‘child’ is silly but widespread. A colleague who taught at the Bank of Greece discovered in her classroom materials left behind by a Greek teacher of Italian:

Io sono un ragazzo
Vado alla scuola
Questo è il mio libro

I am a boy
I go to school
This is my book

This had been presented to a group of middle-aged, middle-management bank employees. Did they feel patronized by it, as they had every right to? Or did they merely accept that as beginners, theirs was but to grin and bear it? I suspect the latter. If you suggested to the teacher that she might consider slotting new vocabulary items into the structures so that they read:

I am a bank manager.
I work in Athens.
This is my card.

I would lay odds you would provoke a squall of defensiveness. If French, as Henry Miller says in The Colossus of Marousi, is the language par excellence for garlands, Greek is second to none for self-righteous indignation.

Does it not seem obvious that language learning materials should be what they call ‘age-appropriate’, and reflect the concerns and topics that the student is going to need to think and talk about? Most modern EFL material from international publishers is well adapted to the requirements of specific groups of learners, but so much material for other languages is still stuck somewhere in the fifties. I have a book called Colloquial Albanian, from Routledge, dating from the last decade of the 20th century. It could have been written at the same time as the mouldering, fraying Latin text books we had at school, that went on about girls killing snakes in the woods, and wolves killing boys or boys killing wolves, just to demonstrate Latin case endings. Every development in language teaching since 1970 seems to have passed the author by. If you study it diligently from start to finish, you will have a thorough knowledge of the placing of Albanian adjectival clitics, which are four heavily-overworked particles that come between a noun and an adjective and reflect the noun’s gender, case, number and definiteness or indefiniteness – this is riveting stuff I’m talking about here. You will have a good line in tame, school-masterly jokes, which the author uses for reading comprehension. What you won’t be able to do when you get to Tirana is order a coffee, ask for directions if you get lost, book a hotel room, complain if it is not clean, order a meal, explain your symptoms to a doctor, book a ferry ticket, cash a traveller’s cheque or indeed anything at all necessary or useful to the visitor to a foreign country.

I mean, for God’s sake, what goes through publishers’ minds when they commission this stuff? ‘Minority language – fuck it, get some old bugger who’s been trotting out the same-old same-old for the last 35 years to cobble his materials together, and see who notices.’

Well, I did, and I am not impressed. So if Routledge want me as a consultant, they can e-mail me and we’ll see what we can arrange.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Mouseman & Co.

I’ve posted a lot about clueless students and inept trainee teachers here, so I had better redress the balance and celebrate some of those who, as they say, made it all worthwhile.

After twelve years as a trainer of teachers in Athens, I was invited to a big private school in the Peloponnese to be director of studies. I would have a staff of some ten teachers to knock into shape, and I had fantasies of creating a crack regiment of clued-up educational marines who could teach the socks off anybody else. They would know declarative from procedural knowledge, and why the distinction mattered. They would understand that language without context is meaningless. They would know that telling students about grammar is pretty much a waste of time unless it is used immediately for its intended purpose, communication. (No, grammar was not given to us just so we can test it.) In short they would be so savvy about applied linguistics that they would blow the competition out of the water.

Ah, the power!

Yeah, well. The cat and I found a very nice flat in the centre of town. I bought a vast supply of ear-plugs, because the locals ride around on scooters whose silencers they deliberately modify so that they sound like out-board motors. I was ready to begin. It was September, and kids’ parents were signing up their little darlings for the coming term. To my horror, I had been given a C class, meaning kids of twelve or so. I had never taught kids in my life, although I had observed dozens of trainees in Athens do so far better than I ever dreamed I could. I was therefore enormously relieved to see that for several days nobody was signing up for my class. I was new, male and foreign and obviously not to be trusted. The longer the list stayed at zero, the happier I became. In the end, though, a group of kids was assembled and I went in to teach my first ever group of twelve year olds. I was scared stiff.

Oh, they were wonderful! They were at an age where cleaning the board for the teacher is a privilege to be vied for rather than a demeaning chore to be contemptuously refused. We practised word stress with rubber bands. You give everyone a rubber band, right, and demo the pronunciation of a new word by holding the band between thumb and index fingers of each hand, stretching it on each syllable, wider for the stressed one: pro-nun-ci-A-tion oooOo. Then you say a series of words and the students concertina their rubber bands to demo the stress pattern back to you. OK, maybe you had to be there. It’s good schtick. Of course if you are twelve and male, the temptation to ping your rubber band across the room at your mates cannot be resisted, and teachers must allow for this. I accepted it as inevitable, but many Greek teachers wouldn’t dream of doing the activity for fear of losing control - their worst nightmare.

This age group, I found, tends to be very reasonable, co-operative and eager to please. It's in the following year, when DNA goes off on cue, that they become insufferable little shits. ‘His name’s Steve. He’s from England. He’s my Sir’ Yiannis wrote, re. me, for some task whose purpose I have forgotten. Now, how cute is that?

One day we were planning the writing of a story. The rule was that it must finish with the phrase ‘I’ll never go hitch-hiking again’. The kids in groups made illustrated posters of ideas for things that could go wrong for a hitch-hiker. One group of lads came up with:

Driver is Mr Steve. Holy Moly!!!*
Driver is a Mouseman.

‘What’s a Mouseman?’ I asked.

‘I’m Mouseman!’ said Andreas.

So he was Mouseman for the next two years. I never knew why he had chosen the nickname, but it was a beautiful fit, as he was small and cute as a button, although far from timid. He was the perfect language learner, if by 'perfect' you understand communicator rather than learner for purely academic pleasure. He coined new words, played with prefixes and suffixes, made multilingual puns. The –er suffix for the agentive was briefly popular:

‘I’ve finished, sir, I’m a finisher!'

'Sir, they’re cheating. (at Scrabble) They’re cheaters!'

'Yiannis is hitting me. Stop being a hitter!’

Then he had an ‘-able’ phase: ‘I hate this music sir, it’s very hateable!’ in reference to a CD I was playing in a lesson. He took to tacking the phrase 'I do believe...' before any proposition. If I corrected him or made a suggestion about his essays, he would point at me and croak: 'you're good!' in imitation of Robert de Niro in Analyse This. The essays tended to be accurate but deranged sagas concerning one 'Crazy Bob' and his trusty flame-thrower.

The multi-lingual pun of his that I most remember concerned the word κώλος, (kolos) Greek for ‘arse’. You can tack it to the front of any noun you wish to disparage: κωλοζωή (kolozoi) awful life, bitch of a life, κωλόγρια (kologria) disagreeable old woman, battle-axe. When I introduced the idea of collocations, Mouseman immediately started to call them ‘kolocollocations’. If you think this pretty much inevitable, consider the Greek education system in its dispiriting, prescriptive, humourless, rote-learning, hide-bound, time-serving misery and imagine what a joy Mouseman was. The following year he moved up into another class. The teacher believed in monolingual lessons and so merely discussed English in Greek, rather than using it as a direct means of communication, which is like teaching someone to cook using books instead of food, pots, pans and heat. The best she could say of Mouseman was that he was ‘a pain in the neck’. Well, bright kids often are when they're bored out of their skulls.

My crack regiment was never to be. Teachers in Greece are badly paid, and you cannot expect people to give up time for Inset if they will still be paid in washers however many seminars they attend. This is one reason I left. I met and trained some wonderful people, and met some brilliant school owners and teachers, but the dull, reactionary nature of Greek education got to me in the end, and I got out. However, just as souls are supposed to desire reincarnation, I occasionally want to go back and start again.


* In Greek, the words kyrios and kyria meaning 'Mr' and 'Mrs' can be placed in front of someone's first name. Nice touch, that, combining familiarity with respect.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

What-o-phobic Aphasia???

Mus Parvus Sleekitus Timidus Tremens

I decided it was about time I thanked those who have been kind enough to become followers of lathophobic aphasia, and also those who have bookmarked the blog and drop by fairly frequently. I thought it might be an idea to explain that mouthful of a title, too. Who is so lathophobic as to be stricken with aphasia?

‘Lathophobic aphasia’ means ‘the condition of being struck dumb by the fear of making mistakes’. The term was coined – or borrowed, I forget which - by writer and teacher trainer Earl Stevick in 1976. All language teachers have seen students so afflicted. It’s partly due to temperament, occasionally to passing mood, but perhaps most frequently due to memories of sarky teachers obsessed with some crackpot ideal of total grammatical accuracy, or to being raised in those cultures where they think that languages should be learned in respectful silence. I always thought ‘lathophobic aphasia’ was a pretentious bit of polysyllabic gobbledygook, rather like saying at this moment in spacio-temporal continuum for ‘now’, or respiratory non-participant for ‘corpse’. I have to admit, though, that it makes for a slightly snappier blog title than would ‘www.The Condition Of Being Struck Dumb By The Fear Of Making Mistakes.blogspot’.

Why did I choose it as a title? I didn’t really choose it. The minute I thought of starting a blog, the phrase just bobbed up from the murky bit of my brain where it had been skulking. I had been looking through the saved items in my e-mail account, where I have about six years’ worth of gripes, rants and in-jokes about English Language Teaching sent to friends, and I wondered if these might conceivably divert a wider audience. (This explains why so many of my posts are about Greece – bugger all happens in my life these days.) I got onto Blogger, chose the least showy template, and for the picture on my profile I selected not my mugshot, but that of the mouse you see above.

Post number three of Blog Mark One began: ‘I have always been fascinated by dreams’. The day after I posted it, that sentence struck me as shamingly banal. (‘Oh, you have, have you? Really?) So I clicked angrily on ‘delete blog’ and cast the whole shoot to the winds. Then I reflected that Bo had been kind enough to comment positively on the first two posts, and that maybe I was being a bit paranoid. So I started again. Choosing to hide behind a mouse and trashing the whole blog instead of just editing a post is getting pretty close to lathophobic aphasia, I reckon, so maybe the title was not as random as I had imagined.

Anyway, it is very nice to have some readers, a term I much prefer to ‘followers’, which is what Sun Myung Moon has. Only two ‘followers’ are known to me personally (ευχαριστώ, παιδιά) so at least I know people are not just humouring me. Looking at the stats-counter thingy I am pleasantly surprised to see that over half the regular readers are from the USA – I hadn’t expected this, as what I write seems very British to me. There are regular visitors from Poland, Brazil, China and Saudi Arabia as well, I mean, that is like rarely say cool? So thank you to everyone for stopping by. How does it make me feel? I think the term ‘gruntled’ ought to exist.


Here, à propos of nothing except that I love it, is Savina Yannatou with a heavy, sensuous rendition of the Turkish song 'Geçmis Güzel Günleri''In the Beautiful Bygone Days'.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

'Dreams, and False Alarms'

Under the influence of Anaïs Nin, I used to keep a dream diary. I wrote down every dream I had for 20 years, long after I ditched Nin’s humourless, self-dramatising journals. I did learn from her that if you take notice of your dreams, they become richer, more colourful and infinitely weirder than if you just ignore them. I have been extraordinarily pleased with some of my dreams but of course I don’t know who to congratulate for them: myself? Some mysterious ‘dream-maker’ such as Swedenborg thought responsible for his bizarre nocturnal visions? I have no idea. Once I beheld a vast plane with a mountain range in the distance. As I gazed at the mountains they became elephants, lions and giraffes sculpted from the rock. On the plane stood a temple, sumptuous with mosaics and stained glass, gold censers and lampadaries. I was floating up into the dome, hearing strange, urgent, beautiful but uneasy, restless music. On waking I thought ‘that was bloody good, that was, it must mean something.’ Some years later, when I first heard Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, the first movement of Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ I was reminded of the dream because the music I had heard in the Temple on the Plane was so amazingly similar. Pretty neat, huh? Still have no clue what it could have meant.

Sometimes the symbolism is so obvious it’s corny. I was not happy when I was a student at Cambridge, and a dream from that period had me wearily dragging heavy bags of books across the grass below the Raised Faculty Building, where a football match was in progress. The referee is my waspish French literature supervisor and I’m getting seriously in everybody’s way. In another from those three years I find my room in college is transformed into the kind of room I wanted and want still; a grotto full of wonderful Indian mirror-work cushions, Thai Buddhas, Persian carpets, kilims and tapestries. Gorgeous cats recline on the cushions. Unfortunately, they have crapped all over the place. Not so obvious, this one. No idea what it meant, if it meant anything.

If it meant anything. If any of them does. They may be no more than ‘an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.’ Once I dreamed my head was being stuffed into a hoover bag full of pubic hair. This was explained by the fact that the cat had decided to cosy up to me as I slept, and sprawled across my face.

I’ve stopped recording my dreams as regularly as I once did, because I decided they only seemed to have significance, they only pretended to portend. Surrealist paintings once fascinated me. They rarely do now. I hope this doesn’t mean I’m becoming as literal minded as my grandmother was... I seem to become less and less tolerant of ambiguity though. Bored with mystery, where once I was drawn. Duller, really.

In the grey-and-mud-coloured dreams of nothing in particular that go on largely ignored behind my eyelids these nights, odd things stand out. There are these sumptuously appointed rooms, nowadays minus the cat shit, that I find leading off my unsumptuous flat. There was this bank manager who took me through a door in his banal office and into the glittering chambers of a splendid deserted mosque, where I notice for the first time his dark-eyed, dark shaven Anatolian beauty and fall achingly in love with him. But then it’s really a dark, gloomy morning and there’s a bloody train to catch.

My bank manager... in yer dreams...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Scraping the Barrel

Cannot think of anything much to say this evening. I could tell you what I dreamed last night, I suppose, but I’ll spare you that and pass on a recipe instead. Who knows, I might be able to dig out a knitting pattern or two for you as well. Will it rain, do you think?

Anyway, you know how smoked mackerel is supposed to be good for you, stopping you from oxidising, stiffening up and going demented and that? Well, you buy the stuff every so often, don't you, but you don’t really look forward to it; it only gets eaten when everything else in the fridge is finished, the mackerel is two days past its sell by date, but you would feel guilty about throwing it away. It tastes like something marinated in cod liver oil and seasoned with fag-ash, and leaves you feeling thirsty, dyspeptic and belching whaling-station fumes. I have found a way to make it more palatable, though. Learn of the wise, and perpend.

You will need some chorizo. If you buy your chorizo at a supermarket deli counter, tell the fifteen year-old who serves you that the correct pronunciation is ‘cho-REE-tho’, not ‘cheRRIT-say’. Drill it a few times, and he might remember. Cut the chorizo into dice, and get some potatoes, likewise diced. Chop a small onion and cut up some tomatoes. Skin your mackerel and flake it. Now you dry-fry your chorizo until the red oil runs, then remove the sausage and set it aside. Next add the spuds and the onion and cook them through, allowing the potatoes to brown a little at the edges. Finally, add the mackerel, the sausage and the tomatoes and heat through, making sure your tomatoes don’t go to mush. Scatter some chopped parsley over. Here the recipe helpfully adds ‘divide between serving plates’, in case you had been considering tipping it into the tumble-dryer. Eat with a knife and fork.

This is a Spanishy, tapas-ish kind of dish and so you could do worse than drink chilled dry sherry before, during and after consuming it. You won’t need to worry about the booze affecting your brain because you are eating up your mackerel, just as you’ve been told to.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Beware the Babelfish

I was waiting at home for my sister and nephew who were coming to visit. The phone rang. I answered it, and a snooty female voice with jerky electronic intonation said ‘we-are-twenty-five-miles-from-Stamford-/-you-sweaty-shit-stabber’. Thus I realized belatedly that you can send an SMS to a landline, and that just as people think it a giggle to teach parrots and foreigners to cuss, so they may now delight friends and family by having school-mistressy robots relay toilet-mouthed messages. This is certainly more entertaining than running Greek names through an English spell-checker as we used to do in breaks, especially now that spell-checkers are less gullible than they used to be – you get ‘no suggestions’ now, instead of brave attempts, which is no fun at all. Nowadays I have a French dictionary on CD ROM, and if you type a French word or phrase into the display, a female voice will pronounce it for you. If you devote some thought to the spelling, you can get the lady to say all kinds of lascivious stuff in heavily accented English. (I must stress that I only do this occasionally, for ten minutes or so, OK?)

Babelfish can be quite comical too, unless you really want to know what something means, in which case the programme’s obliviousness of context, connotation and collocation often renders it pretty much useless. A message I Babel-fished from a Dutch website revealed that the writer liked ‘carved boys’, which sounds horrific, but of course meant ‘circumcised boys’. Not hard to deduce, that one, but here’s something I got from Babel-fishing a chunk of Chinese text:

‘Lives at home puts on make-up the entire audience shopping to add 1 Yuan to be possible resulting in to pick the beautiful wheat flour to paste the membrane or picks the pure fresh aloe to exempt washes the face pastes the membrane. adds 4 Yuan to be possible to obtain a following section commodity clothing clean (color stochastic) a sail woman with 15 piece of wet turbans (design stochastic) the happy companion.’

Got that? I have decided that ‘wet turbans’ are probably ‘shower caps’, and that pasting your membrane is in all likelihood applying some sort of cream to your face so that you don’t have to use soap – ‘to exempt washes the face’. The stochastic colour and design bit probably means that you get a choice in the colour and design of your wet turban. If you are thinking ‘who gives a toss?’ I sympathise, but you probably don’t teach Chinese students, who often write like this without the intervention of Babelfish. I have to spend quite a lot of time deciphering this sort of thing.

You no doubt know that whole web-pages can be Babel-fished. (Clicking on the referring URL for a visitor to this blog the other day, I found my posts rendered into clunky, hit-and-miss German.) I was once startled to see this headline on a page of Yahoo News:


Reuters Thursday July 26, 12.44 PM

There it was, in black and white, and other colours. I read on:

LONDON (Reuters) – Ever more Britons are naming their farts after celebrities and soap stars, the animal welfare charity PDSA said one Thursday, with Elvis, Beyonce and Posh ’n’ Becks among the favourites.

Drank for the second year running, the signal fart name for all breeds is Max, the veterinary charity found.

It took me a few minutes to work out that the Babelfish programme was set to translate French to English, and so it had scanned the text for French words and replaced ‘pets’ with ‘farts’, ‘on’ with ‘one’ and ‘but’ with ‘drank’. O happy accident!

People place such faith in Babelfish, though... The linguistically innocent imagine that computers really can understand. Here is an excerpt from an essay I was given yesterday. The writer is discussing the speed with which information can be accessed online, ‘…unlike the book, which walks on his stomach, creeping movement gait slower than a tortoise!’ Books are written, then ‘received by the printing press, for lying to a period of not only known to God and the established players in the science that he was even become obsolete information.’

The lovely lady who wrote this told me today that her approach to essays was exactly what I suspected it was: 1) write what she wanted to say in her first language, 2) whack it through Babelfish, 3) print it out and 4) hand it in, no messing. That the results are often quite inscrutable did not occur to her, such was her faith in computers.

If your education has focused only on your answers to questions rather than on the thought processes whereby you arrived at them, Babelfish must seem like the perfect way to get top marks. Just goes to show how wrong you can be. Your own home-grown errors are far more valuable to you as a learner. I can say 'is this what you mean?' and you can say, yes, or no, or partly. We can negotiate it, and I can tell you how I think the idea might best be expressed. If you could present me with a perfect essay after a term on a beginners' course you wouldn't need to (bloody) be here, (for Christ's sake) would you? Yeah?

Sunday, 18 January 2009

A Day in the Life

It’s eight o’ clock of a July morning in Southern Greece and the air in the school is like greasy, luke-warm stew. You enter the classroom and there you find ten or so fifteen-year olds whose silence and stricken, defeated bearing might lead you to suppose that their families have just been wiped out by an earthquake. The truth is far worse: they will have to stay here for a whole two hours, which is a hundred and twenty minutes, that is to say seven thousand, two hundred seconds, before it is ten o’ clock and they are released. (But only until tomorrow.) First thing is to cool the place down a bit, because your clean and freshly-ironed clothes already feel like cling-film, and you would swear that there are great flabby spuds and squashy carrots afloat in the room. You aim the remote control and activate the elderly air-conditioning unit, disturbing the peace of its resident cockroaches. The air stirs slightly; a stale, spooky waft of old churches. Then, because eight other teachers in eight other classrooms have just done the same thing, the air conditioner packs up and instantly it’s as if a hot, wet dishrag has been flung in your face. Nothing else for it, the sooner we begin, the sooner we dissipate this stony-faced gloom.

We make it through to ten o’ clock, and even the too-cool-for-school boys have occasionally been cajoled into looking as if they were interested. Teachers get a break before the next bunch of students arrives. I am the only English member of staff and so the only one who drinks hot tea in forty degree heat. I tip the chalky water and drowned cockroach out of the kettle, and brew up. Yes, I know it’s forty degrees. No, if you drink hot tea, you radiate heat and feel cooler. No, I bloody hate iced Nescafe.

Round two. ‘Sir, I’m ill, can we turn off the air conditioning?’

So long as we open the window.

‘But sir, there’s a draught.’

That is the point of opening the bloody window, it’s forty two degrees Celsius in here.

‘But sir, I’m ill.’

It is widely believed here that if you sit in a draft, change your socks, open a window or drink cold water on a hot day, you’ll be floored by fever and it’ll be your own silly fault, or mine, for abusing kids by opening windows in a heat wave.

You’ll live, I say, hard as nails.

We play alibis, which is a laugh, usually. Kids in groups imagine they were together the previous evening and must all have the same watertight story. The group is then separated and interrogated by another group of ‘police’ who try to trip them up to expose discrepancies in their stories.

‘Sir, I’m sitting with my back to the air conditioner. It’s dangerous.’

Turn round, then.

‘Now I can’t see the board.’

Your case is parlous indeed.

‘What does that mean?’

It’s finally twelve thirty. Ite, missa est.


They leave, squabbling about the alibi game. At least they are squabbling about something connected with the lesson.

Evening. The school has been shut up between one and six, and as it is on the first floor of the building, rising heat has been gathering and festering for five hours. You feel as though you have been brushed with melted butter and had a fan heater trained on you. This evening I have bagsed the computer lab. A bunch of fourteen-year olds are preparing for an exam in which they might be required to ‘write a report for a boss’. Fourteen-year olds do not write reports for bosses, so in an attempt to introduce the idea, I have given them in pairs a letter from me, pretending I am the boss of a travel company. I’ve asked them to imagine they are in England and they have to supply me with various bits of info about various cities, which info they will find online. Later on we’ll try to knock up a report. It’s not only the concept of report writing that puzzles them.

‘Sir?’ says Panagiotis, who is looking at the website for the Arundel House Hotel in Cambridge. ‘It says here it’s a ‘nineteenth century building’.'


‘So how come it’s got telephones?’

Eight o’ clock! Right, everybody sod off. They’ve gone before I can phonate the /f/, or the final phoneme of what I actually did say.

I live five minutes from the school. I take the stairs to my flat, avoiding the lift because once I spent three quarters of an hour trapped in it when the power failed, as it frequently does in summer. (People came to check on me periodically: ‘can you breathe?’ I considered not answering, to see if they would call the fire brigade to get me out quicker.) Home! The best part of the day is shutting your door on the rest of the world. First I cuddle the cat, then have a cold shower and after that I can finally dive into the sequence of icy vodka and tonics I've been fantasising about since six.

Αυτά, για την ώρα. That’s it, for now.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Memoirs of a Teacher Trainer I

Athenian cabbies would ask ‘so what do you do here, then?’ I would answer that I was a teacher trainer. I never really found the mot juste for this, because using εκπαιδευτής (ekpaideftís) for ‘trainer’ had conjured up bizarre images in the minds of some: teachers jumping through hoops, riding monocycles, dancing to a tambourine, using a litter tray properly, that sort of thing. So after a while I’d just say ‘I do seminars for teachers’. Sometimes this would not compute either. ‘What for?’ the driver would ask, ‘has the language changed?’ Όχι, όχι, no, no... I’d mutter about ‘new methods’ for a bit until the cabbie got bored and changed the subject. The next question would often be ‘is it true that London cabbies know every street in London? Really? Pláka mou káneis? You having a laugh?’

These ‘new methods’ are actually based on principles that have been in place for over a hundred years, but were news to many a teacher of English in the nineties in Greece. Lessons then were often conducted wholly in Greek, and focused exclusively on grammar. Students could parrot rules in Greek about ‘when we use the present continuous’ and give you a paraphrase of the meaning of any phrasal verb you could throw at them, but all this was like trying to teach someone to drive without ever allowing them on the road. An actual quote, I shit you not: ‘oh, I don’t let them speak. They might make mistakes.’

Mind-curdling grammar exercises made up the bulk of most lessons. Here is a task from a series of books that made it into almost every classroom. I invite you to try it.

Choose the correct form of the verb:

1. ‘Look! Diana ……………….. the candles!’

A. is blowing out
B. has blown out
C. will blow out

2. Stop talking, or ………………..

A. I kick you out.
B. I’ll kick you out.
C. I’m going to kick you out.

OK, time’s up. If you actually managed to narrow it down to one answer in each case, your language awareness needs sharpening. These tasks are impossible. In the absence of context, any answer is as good as any other. I used to have fun trashing this kind of tosh in my seminars, and trainees would join in with the gleefulness of the newly converted, but for a kid in a classroom, these are no fun at all. The brighter kids would see the ambiguities, but unless they provided the same answer as the teacher’s answer key, they got it in the neck, blamed for not being able to do an exercise that simply cannot be done.

Anyone who embarks on an introductory teacher training course of a hundred hours or so is soon up to the eyeballs in new ideas like context, concept, form and function, presentation, practice, personalisation, information gap, pairwork, skimming, scanning, etc., etc., and is often wishing heartily she had never started the damn thing. EFL is not for the light of brain, and anyone temperamentally unsuitable needs to be weeded out at the interview stage. It was this that I was not good at. I just couldn’t say 'no' to somebody’s face back in 1990-odd. The feeling was out there that any native speaker of English could become a teacher, and I interviewed loads of young ladies who said ‘my fiancé’s Greek, we’re getting married in October and he says I ought to teach English.’ One such was Angela.

Angela was an attractive and smiling young lady of twenty two or so and she wiz gauntae get married tae Dinos, and had no other topic of conversation. She got on her fellow trainees’ collective wick by going on about him and his family to the exclusion of all other considerations. I was spared this and only heard about it later, but I did soon realise that Angela was not one of my best selections.

1) Trainees in groups are given recordings of students of different nationalities, and asked to identify some of the ways in which non-native speaker speech deviates from their expectations of native speaker speech -intonation, certain sounds substituted or omitted, nothing too deep at this point.

‘It’s the way they say things!’ says Angela brightly. Well, of course.

2) A. is teaching a group of volunteer adult students and doing a lead-in to a short text about Einstein. She asks what they know about him. A Bulgarian bloke offers a brief but highly informed outline of the theory of relativity. When he has done, there is the slightest pause as A. considers how the hell to follow that. ‘Aye, that’s right’ she says.

3) We become a little more advanced methodologically and A is teaching a vocabulary lesson. Here’s what to do according to CELTA precepts: a) present your vocab items, using pictures, b) check understanding and pronunciation, and c) introduce a practice activity to help fix the words in memory. A. does a reasonable job of presenting a lexical set of animals, then comes on to checking the students’ understanding. In the input session, I or a colleague would have done a demo of how you might go about this: if your words are ‘she was made redundant / she got the sack / she handed in her notice, you’d ask for each one ‘was it her fault?’ ‘Whose fault was it?’ ‘Was it her choice?’ so as to get across the idea that the responsibility for the job loss is different in each case. And so A. wields a big picture of a crocodile and asks:

‘Right, what is it? It’s a crock-o-dial. Do crocodiles climb trees?’
‘No, they do not.’
‘Do crocodiles fly?’
‘No, they do not.’

Oh, God, I groan inwardly, where is this going to end? Do crocodiles drive Volvos? Do crocodiles bank at Nat West? Do they favour IUDs over Dutch caps? It’s going to take fucking weeks to exhaust the possibilities.

At length Angela is satisfied that her students know what a crocodile is – she is after all brandishing an A4 size photo, and none of them is under 45. Now she begins a practice task. Each student is given a card on which is written the name of an animal. The students must then ask each other e.g., ‘are you a crocodile?’ and see if they can discover what the other students are. Twelve well-upholstered, middle-aged matrons sit in a semi-circle and solemnly ask and answer one another ‘are you an elephant?’ ‘No, I am a hippopotamus.’ It’s not a sight I will easily forget.

Now, Angela had followed the guidelines to the letter, had she not? What she did was crap; perfectly executed crap, but crap nonetheless - a difficult concept to get through to the less agile brain. I can’t remember the feedback session. I think this means I handled it well, because anything I do not do well in human relationships comes back to humiliate me at three in the morning, and I get no bad vibes when I remember Angela. I just hope she never became a teacher.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Black Dog Days

Since adolescence, I’ve had a couple of periods of depression every year. The black dog days are always in December or January, and again in April or May, although these days I often get away with the latter period. It is not bipolar disorder, because I don’t have intervening highs where I sleep only two hours a night and pass the wakeful hours composing symphonies. When I’m not depressed, which is most of the time, I am even-tempered and, as grumpy, misanthropic, reclusive bastards go, reasonably sociable. When I am depressed, I am a pain in the arse and it’s just as well I live alone, because that way there is only me to be irritated by me.

The depression can be of two kinds. One is a complete cessation of emotion. There is no feeling, just dullness and indifference. Food has little flavour, colours look washed out and everything smells faintly putrid. The second type impinges more, a nagging anxiety, ranging in intensity from butterflies to wall-climbing paranoia. If I were given the choice, I would go for the former every time: you just sit it out like a spell of bad weather. The anxiety and occasional paranoia are harder to deal with, because I constantly have to remind myself that what I am feeling is not real. The anxiety exists of itself, no reason for it, and the mind keeps looking for ways to justify it. Walking down a corridor at work I feel I am the object of everyone’s contempt – but steady on, the corridor is deserted, there is nobody here to exude disapproval. A colleague’s routine ‘morning’ will sound to me like ‘oh, Christ, him again’, and unremarkable thoughts like ‘got to get my hair cut this Saturday’ or ‘need to renew season ticket this morning’ will cause my guts to roll almost as much as would the phrase ‘you will go to prison for twenty years’.

I am just now emerging from three weeks of depression of the second kind, feeling guilty, feeling in the wrong for no reason I can name, ‘mumblepaws, teary and sorry’, and I’m glad to see the back of it. I don’t think anyone else was aware of it, because these days I just wait quietly for it to pass, as it always does. I do seem to get away with much less depression than I used to, and I’m hopeful some day soon it might just stop for good.

They're Playing my Song

This is the Mari Boine song 'Vilges Suola' (White Thief) from which I took the nickname I use for this and other web sites. The language is North Sámi, the least endangered of the Sámi languages. They are sometimes called 'Lappish' languages but the term 'Lapp' is derogatory and to be avoided. 

I did once have the Sámi lyrics to this song, but that was in another country, and besides the computer's dead. I can't find them anywhere online, and don't remember them too well. The 'white thief' here is Norwegian society as represented by missionaries, politicians and teachers who attempted to wipe out Sámi language and cultural identity by denigrating it as backward and worthless, so that many Sámi kids, like Boine, grew up to regard themselves as inferior. The resultant anger is evident in the attack of the song, even if you don't understand the words. The last line (any Sámi speaker who sees this will, I hope, forgive and correct me) is something like 'badjelgeacchan haksu dien du fiina hajus', 'your arrogance stinks through your fine clothes!'  

I only chose 'vilges suola' as a nickname because I liked the sound of the phrase and because it was obscure enough not to have much competition as an ID - it is hardly very flattering. The You Tube video is a bit odd - no idea why it should feature Stonehenge, or indeed anywhere other than Sápmi. 

Anyway, the song is from Mari Boine's first album 'Gula Gula', which is worth a listen. (The title does in fact mean 'Listen, Listen'.)  

Gula gula, nieida, gánda,
Gula máttut dál du čurrvot
Manin attát ietnama duolvat
Gula jiena, nieida, gánda,
Gula máttaráhkuid jiena
Eana lean min buohkaid eadni
Dan jos goddit ieža jápmit

(Listen, listen, daughters, sons, hear the fore-mothers ask why you have left the earth exhausted, poisoned. Hear the voices, daughters, sons, hear the voices of the fore-mothers, the earth is our mother, if she dies we die with her.)

Saturday, 10 January 2009


Anja Lechner (cello) and Vassilis Tsabropoulos (piano) from the beautiful CD 'Chants, Hymns and Dances' . This is my favourite track. I can't say anything remotely intelligent about music, only 'I know what I like', and I like this very much. Here you can play about with your own bayatis and various other Arab scales and if you are like me, despair at the echoing depths of your musical ignorance. Meanwhile, I do like a nice tune, so here's one.

Friday, 9 January 2009

'No Action'

I've been having blood tests lately, since the results of a medical exam suggested I might be diabetic. I called today for the results of the latest one, and the receptionist said 'Dr Crippen's looked at the result and it is normal, he's marked it 'no action', none need therefore be taken, that will be all, and I bid you good day.'

So that's OK, then. I was hugely relieved, to be sure, but most unexpectedly I detected, in the primitive outback of my brain, the merest glimmer of a sliver of a soupçon of anti-climax. Disappointment, God bless and save us! Go figure. I had had none of the classic symptoms of unquenchable thirst and endless peeing. I'm not obese - I'm not even overweight. I had nevertheless pretty much resigned myself to being mildly diabetic, deriving comfort all along from such thoughts as, well, it might not be so bad, at all, at all - I'll have to cut down on the red wine, and that'll save money, and won't that be nice, drinking less and putting a bit more aside, being sensible and moderate for a change, eh?

Now there's no pressing need to do that, so in a couple of hours I'm off up to the Tobie Norris with a friend for a few glasses of Merlot, to re-accustom myself to the idea that I won't be giving it up any time soon after all.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Gutted, Gobsmacked and Bewildered

Last year a lady wrote to The Local Rag to deplore the ‘bad grammar’ so prevalent among the Youth of Today. ‘My old English mistress’ she said, ‘would have been horrified at such dreadful words as ‘gobsmacked and ‘gutted’. Whatever happened to ‘astonished’ and ‘appalled?’

I thought about replying, but decided against it. There isn’t much point in arguing with conservative ladies in The Local Rag on any issue, and especially with the Defenders of Our Language. Disagreeing with them on such matters is, in their eyes, a sign of irresponsibility – and him an English teacher as well! So here instead is what I would have liked to say.

First of all, chill, bitch - nothing has happened to ‘astonished’ and 'appalled’. You may still use them, and they can’t touch you for it. Second of all, as my students like to say, the matter under discussion is vocabulary, not grammar, a distinction any Defender of Language ought to be able to draw. There is nothing grammatically wrong with either of these sentences:

‘I was totally gobsmacked.’
‘Tracy was absolutely gutted.’

In each one we notice the speaker’s intuitive awareness that ‘gobsmacked’ and ‘gutted’ are ‘extreme adjectives’ like ‘starving’ and ‘amazed’, and that they must therefore be matched with adverbs that pack an equal punch. You wouldn’t say *‘I’m very starving’ or *‘I’m slightly amazed’, and so you don’t say ‘She was very gobsmacked’ or ‘I was a bit gutted’, even if you are Jade Goody. ‘Young people’ often know more about grammar than Defenders of Language do.

With vocabulary, there are considerations of connotation and appropriacy. Just clock the sheer slamming brute strength of these words! ‘Gobsmacked’ sounds so much more thoroughly, comprehensively astounded than ‘astonished’. It conveys with near physical force the idea that some event hit you out of the blue and left you reeling. ‘Gutted’ is so, well, visceral, that it expresses shock and desolation, in the part where you feel them, with several times the impact of ‘appalled’, a poor choice of synonym anyway - isn’t ‘devastated’ a bit closer?

This is not to say that you can use ‘gutted’ and ‘gobsmacked’ in all situations. Young people need to be made aware that they are best excluded from A level essays:
‘When Creon won’t let her brother be buried, Antigone’s gutted, she’s like what?’
‘Othello listens to what Iago tells him about his bird, that she's like a right slag an that, and he’s gobsmacked, innit?’

Highly inappropriate, although substitute ‘appalled’ in the above samples and the effect is no better. It makes it sound as though Antigone is determined to write to The Local Rag and say her piece, and Othello obviously proposes to give Desdemona a dashed good talking to.

Native speakers are often poor sources of information on their own language. Defenders of our Language should not be allowed near a classroom until they have been thoroughly reconstituted and purged of all notions that language use must be ‘correct’ and ‘nice’. In the last post I threw in the Greek idiom ‘δάγωσα το καβλί μου’ [dágosa to kavli mou] for ‘I’m frozen stupid’. It means ‘I’ve bitten my dick’. Before I published the post I wanted to check that I had got the right informal word for the male member, as there are several contenders. I texted a Greek friend to ask him what the exact idiom was.

‘Το δάγωσα’ [to dágosa] he replied, ‘I’ve bitten it’, this being the abbreviated and sanitised version. I pressed him for the full phrase: should I use καβλί [kavli] or πούτσος [poutsos] for the bitten member?

‘They mean the same, Steve. And it’s not an idiom, its slang’ he answered, and somehow I could hear along with the SMS a rather weary sigh at my ignorance and smutty mind. The implication that after twenty-five years I did not know that kavli and poutsos were synonymous irritated me mildly, for they are surely basic to any man-loving man’s vocabulary. I decided, after a period of smouldering had elapsed, to forgive the suggestion that I didn’t know what an idiom was either, as he had probably interpreted it to mean ‘proverb’. A later SMS said that he disapproved of the idiom because it was ‘street language’.

I know it's bloody street language. I’m all for street language, whether in the street, or in any other situation where its physicality and salaciousness and cleverness can be enjoyed. I would be quite appalled if the Defenders of our Language in The Local Rag got their way and we lost nice ballsy words like ‘gobsmacked’ and ‘gutted’. Fortunately there is no chance of that, and there are plenty more where they came from.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

You've Got to be Able to Take it...

Rivalling any gay porn movie for horniness is this nice bit of homoerotica from the homophobic US military of the nineteen fifties. It is all the hotter because the butch innocents that made it had no suspicion that they were producing many a gay man's fantasy*, and would have gone into meltdown had they been told. Pity I couldn't find an undoctored version, as the contributor rather rubs our noses in the irony towards the end: it's OK, we would have spotted it, honest.

*I'd like to have been that doctor.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Exigez l'authentique Bouillabaisse de Colchester

It wouldn’t take much to make me a restauranteur. If I just had the money, the talent, the knowledge, the vision, the staying power and the business brain, I’d be off. I reckon what Britain lacks, Jamie, are the Greek establishments known as ψησταριές (psistaries) and μεζεδοπωλεία (mezedopoleia). The former serve grilled meats, bread, salad, beer and wine, the latter small dishes of mezedes: little salads, savoury pastries, dips and cleverly contrived piquant dishes of meat and fish, to be eaten with bread and sloshed down with beer, wine or ouzo. Every Greek town has them, and they are usually cheap, cheerful and convivial. The food is simple, honest, predictable and not terribly imaginative, but it is tasty and healthy and so priced, at least until recently, as to make dining out a weekly possibility – more, if you are single and reasonably well paid, as I was.

Last week I went with my sister and her bloke (my partner-in-law?) to a pub in their Suffolk village that had served them some choice eats in the last few weeks. It was not especially cheap, but it was nice to know that such an establishment existed within walking distance. I arrived on an icy night after six hours on the train, lugging a suitcase the size of a sarcophagus, from which the fucking wheels had fallen off. I was ready for a log fire, a vat of wine and lots of herby, garlic-perfumed scran. First, there was no log fire. There were candles on the tables, but none was lit. There was no herby, garlicky perfume in the air, and the air was arctic. Other people sat at other tables, guffawing inanely in the way people at other tables always do. Obviously the owner was feeling the pinch, and making no secret of it.

We decided the lack of a fire and candles on the coldest night of 2008 did not bode well, but we missed another obvious clue to the decline of the place. I ordered chicken pâté, which was delicious, and then a fish stew the waitress referred to as ‘booley-base’. It was spelled wrong on the menu as well. The booley-base turned out to be plasticky crustaceans in thin watery stock, like kiddie toys left floating in the bath. I mean, if the staff cannot spell or pronounce an item on their menu, it does not suggest great familiarity with it. So is it my fault for ordering it or theirs for offering it?

On the next table sat an elderly couple and the woman’s father. She was interpreting the menu to the old gentleman. ‘It’s called Perkhan’ she said. ‘Perkhan, look, here.’ I thought I’d missed something, maybe some Persian dish that would have been much more satisfying than the booley-base. But she was talking about the pecan pie on the dessert menu.

Doesn’t this sound snotty… You can’t think about food in England without moaning about how badly fed we are unless we pay trans-nasally, how little we care about this most wonderful of life’s consolations and how we manage to make food yet another aspect of class, rather than a daily sensual pleasure that everybody is entitled to. There are posh, snobby restaurants in Greece of course, but many more where people of all classes are to be found eating the same stuff. There’s a national cooking style that everyone can trust, not an insecure stealing and muddling of other people’s styles such as we have to put up with in the English provinces.

Kaissariani, Athens. Almost every Saturday evening in winter, I went to a taverna there with a friend. I usually had pork tenderloin and she almost always had grilled liver. The restaurant advertised ‘the best retsina in the Balkans’ and the stuff was… sui generis. It came out of huge barrels where it had been stewing for God knows how long. Forget your Semillons, Pinot Grigios and Merlots. This looked sometimes like dry sherry, sometimes like Benylin. Sniff it and you got Zal, Tio Pepe, Kleenopine and Mr Sheen. Taste it and there was varnish, gob-stoppers and liquorice with various ‘flu remedies on the finish. You’d be amazed how morish it was. You drank this with your grilled meat and various salads and tsatsiki, and departed full, pissed, not much worse off financially, and digesting fibre that would go through your alimentary canal like a flock of pigeons. This is my vision for the gastronomic future, Britain, although we can do far better on the wine.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Work Experience

A short while ago I was Director of Studies at a failing language school somewhere in the Midlands. The reasons for the failure were many and too tedious to relate, but they did not include the work done by Marion, the principal, and me. Our combined efforts were always banjaxed by Géza, the mad Hungarian owner of the place, who could have done much to retard the effects of the second law of thermodynamics on the building, but who instead wanted always to compete with the local Arts Centre in organising exhibitions, talks and cultural events nobody local would have given a monkey’s about. Meanwhile the building crumbled, students stayed away in droves, and morale plunged.

Géza hit upon the idea of sending over a bunch of kids from his rather exclusive school in Hungary. They would, he decided, do a couple of weeks’ English classes, then ‘work experience’. As always he left the details to Marion. The kids would need to be allocated to host families, always a logistical nightmare, and then assigned to such local companies as might be prepared to take on sulky, petulant twinks who hardly knew any English.

‘How do you know they’ll be sulky and petulant?’ I asked Marion

‘Had kids from his place once before. They were buggers.’ she said. ‘Margot had a terrible time with them. They ran rings round her, standing on the bloody desks and mooning at her…’

I thought of tweedy, matronly mem-sahib Margot, a woman I suspected had not been born, but knitted by the Women’s Institute. She always addressed students in tones customarily employed for congratulating toddlers on doing a nice pooh. ‘There’s something about Margot,’ I said, ‘that makes the temptation to moon at her almost irresistible.’

‘Ooh, she’s a love,’ Marion said. ‘But I take your point.’


The kids duly arrived from Hungary, each with a set of operating instructions. These detailed what the kid would and would not eat, what species of domestic animal s/he must on no account come into contact with, what work activities s/he would and would not do (‘no lifting’ – and these were fit young teens.) and a list of allergies. Allergies seemed to be quite fashionable among the kiddies of the Hungarian newly-well-off. Almost all of them claimed to be allergic to something, and one boy was allegedly ‘allergic to everything.’ It was not hard to imagine how these kids’ allergies could be used as an all-purpose bone of contention between parent and offspring, a bargaining chip both parties could exploit when it was expedient. The parents were probably rejoicing that their little darling was someone else’s problem for a month. And they were certainly a problem.

First problem was, as always, with the host families. Groups arriving from abroad are extremely difficult to accommodate in a town as small as ours, because the families and students have conflicting specifications. Family A will accept no boys, while family B will take boys gladly but has three Rottweilers, and so a male student who is petrified of dogs cannot be placed with either. Just as he is finally allocated to a family that fits, the kid withdraws or the host family decides at point blank notice to go to Lanzarote for the summer. This sort of thing goes on for weeks before the students arrive, and costs a fortune in phone bills and frayed nerves. Students have no idea how close they have come to being accommodated in tents, on traffic islands, or up trees, as host families get fed up of being buggered about, and think it's just us playing silly sods. When the kids arrive and are taken to their new accommodation, there is usually a brief period where they all have urgent reasons for wanting to change; the stair carpet is of a colour that displeases them, the bedding of the wrong material, the house smells, two boys have been accommodated with a single man who is obviously a paedophile. These claims are usually ignored, and are soon dropped. The ‘paedophile’ was in fact a single man whose female partner was not home on the boys’ first night, and a phone call to the parents explaining that he was an anaesthetist calmed their nerves and appealed to their snobbery. (‘He won’t touch them. At least not while they’re conscious.’)

The next problem was the mismatch between the students’ expectations regarding ‘work experience’ and the grim reality. Géza had told the parents, but not us, that the kids would be placed in lawyers’ offices, accountancy firms, doctors’ surgeries and the like. But lawyers, etc., are not that daft. This is why kids turned up in business suits for their first day of flipping burgers, and why they were understandably pissed off. Géza was incommunicado at this point; knowing large amounts of shit would soon be hitting the fan, he preferred as always that others be left to sweep it all up.

Complaints from the kids about the work experience were not in the end as many as we had expected. Some delicate young ladies claimed that they had been locked in the cellars of a restaurant and forced to wash up until their hands bled, a tale that suggested a distinct unfamiliarity with what washing up involves. We almost expected them to start telling us they’d been set to breaking stones or picking oakum. Most of the complaints came from the restaurants, cafes and shops that had allowed the kids in. Some of the little bleeders had been as moody and petulant and prima donna-ish as Marion had predicted, and local businesses had been deeply unimpressed, and were eager never to repeat the experience.

Géza was eager to try again, though. The whole thing was reprised a few months later with another group, and with even fewer charitably disposed local businesses, but by this time I was out of that language school, and language schools in general, I hope and pray, for ever.

Thursday, 1 January 2009


Best wishes for the New Year.
Σας εύχομαι Χρόνια Πολλά και Ευτυχισμένα!


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