Greek education is test mad. Few teachers are able to see testing and teaching as separate, and so very few students can either. What are the effects of such a learning culture? How can it fuck things up? Here is a worst-case scenario.
First, in such an environment, teachers are only interested in answers, not in the mental process their students go through to arrive at those answers. Learning is therefore a hit and miss affair for those kids whose curiosity and critical faculties lie dormant. They think ‘I got that right, I got that wrong’, not ‘how did I get that right? What did I do to get that wrong? How can I make sure I get the process right in future?’ If your students’ thought processes don’t concern you, there will obviously be no acknowledgment that processes are happening and that they can be midwifed and nurtured.
Well, them’s mighty fancy words, ain’t they?
Spring 2004. I had a small group of six teenagers, all of whom had failed Cambridge First Certificate and were going to attempt Michigan Certificate, an exam they believed to be easier than FCE because it consists of multiple choice questions with which you can ‘play lotto’, as they put it. They expected that lessons with me would proceed as follows:
1. We do a test from the practice book.
2. He’ll read out the answers, we go ‘sostó!’ (correct) or ‘gamóto!’ (fuck it!) then total up.
3. We ask him for the meaning of a few words just to keep him happy.
4. We all get the hell out.
None of this requires the language to pass through anyone’s brain, let alone take up permanent residence there. What is needed to help bring this about is the kind of activity that will get the students to USE the language, but this is what they don’t want to do. ‘Oh, they don’t want to communicate,’ teachers would tell me, as though I were some naïf greenhorn full of big ideas. ‘They just want to pass the exam.’ They could never see the stupid contradiction here: they want to pass the exam without being able to do the very thing the exam sets out to test.
Anyway, one day early in our acquaintanceship, we played a game to practice recently taught relative pronouns, who, that, where, when. Merely knowing of their existence is of little use – it’s like owning a pack of cards but not knowing any games to play with them. There’s a pile of twenty-odd cards face down on the table. On each card is a word: it might be a thing (pencil sharpener) place (police station) time (Easter) or person (taxi driver). The first person to play takes a card and has to define the word: ‘it’s a thing that you use to… ’ ‘it’s a place where you…’ ‘it’s someone who…’ ‘it’s a time when’ and the first person to guess the exact word takes the card, keeps it, and then takes another card from the pack. The winner is the one with the most cards at the end. With any luck it might even be a laugh.
Paris plays first. Linguistically, he is not the sharpest tool in the shed. He frowns with intense puzzlement at the card like a caveman who has just found an i-Phone. Long silence. I smile encouragingly. I raise a quizzical eyebrow. I make eliciting gestures. I clear my throat. I tell a decade of the rosary, then play 'Bohemian Rhapsody' on the CD player. He's still thinking.
After about a geological age he says 'I have one, and I play it every day.' A perfectly satisfactory opener, even if it did take a bit of time to encode. But 'I play it' (το παίζω / to paizo) is Greek for ‘I jerk off’. This cracks everybody up, and Dimitris bellows 'YOUR DICK!!!', Artan says, ‘yeah I have one, and I play it every day as well’, and Stavros roars ‘Kyrie*, how do you say 'το παίζω’ in English?’ and Litsa and Anna look down their noses at all this laddish ribaldry. Saving the girls' presence, I teach the boys to wank, sorry, ‘to wank’, thinking, well, he did ask out of genuine curiosity. Brilliant! All the contributions from the lads thus far have been in English. The possibility of teaching English for Onanistic Purposes occurs to me:
Simple present for habitual action, with adverb of frequency:
How often do you wank?
Present continuous for action in progress at time of speaking:
Are you having a wank in there?
Present perfect for recently completed action:
Have you had a wank today?
Deontic use of modal verb for advisability (Advanced)
How frequently should one wank?
I'm only joking. Well, a bit. Obviously the parents would have had a fit, but I submit that such a discussion would have been genuinely useful in fixing grammatical forms in the minds of horny boys, but possibly not the girls, who in true Greek provincial style have been told always to be ladies. (‘Η μαμά μου λέει να είμαι πάντα κυρία.’ 'Mother says I must always be a lady'.)
Later in the term, we played another game to practice conditionals. This was another of the ‘pick a card’ variety. This time each card describes a hypothetical difficult situation or dilemma. ‘You have invited all your class to a party, except one boy whom nobody likes. He asks you why you have not invited him. What would you say?’ The card-picker reads out the situation, and everybody notes down how they would react if they found themselves so challenged. The asker then chooses one of the other players and says how he thinks this player would react. If he’s right, he gets a point. Well, this was far too complex a procedure for this group to adhere to, and the game element was abandoned in favour of a free for all discussion of the situations. ‘You find a wallet in the street. It contains 600 euros and the identity card of the owner. What would you do?’ For the lads, this one’s easy – pocket the cash and chuck the wallet and ID card in the nearest skip. (A good opportunity here, which I missed, to teach the expression ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’.) Litsa says sententiously that she’d take the wallet and the cash to the cop-shop and hand them in. This piety elicits the scorn of Stavros, who hoots that knowing her, she’d do no such thing, and as he elaborates on what she probably would do, Litsa gets indignant and bottom lip trembling, she bangs the desk with the flat of her hand, bawls ‘ego eimai sostos anthropos, Stavro!’ I’m a decent human being!’ turns away and bursts into tears, to much male mirth.
It was a pity that this was a monolingual group, with such young participants. If Litsa and Stavros had not shared the same mother tongue, and been a year or two older, she might have given him that piece of her mind in English. The indignation would have been a genuine reason to communicate, and a brief negotiation to repair the breach would have been a valuable exercise linguistically and socially. This genuinely motivated language production and exchange is what we are always trying to elicit, usually far more peaceably, of course.
My fellow EFL teacher and blogger Fionnchú over at Blogtrotter was kind enough to write an appreciative review of lathophobic aphasia by which I was immensely flattered. I would like to correct one impression, though, an impression I might have given without wishing to. I rarely did dull lessons flogging finer points of grammar to kids. Indeed, I tried as hard as I could not to – they had had more than enough of that sort of thing. On those occasions when I resorted to grammatical hard-core, it was because I occasionally got fed up of the kids’ resistance to what I saw as more useful and enjoyable ways of assimilating vocabulary and structure. If you are punch-drunk with school (‘This is my fiftieth lesson this week’ one girl told me at eight o’ clock of a Friday evening. She wasn’t joking.) it is a relief if your teacher can be manipulated into doing a bit of talk-and-chalk grammar preaching, because then you can just switch off and ignore the poor sap for a while.
*‘Kyrie’ = sir.