Monday, 30 November 2009

Then it Must be True




The subject of alternative medicine arose with my Algerian group today. Most had not heard of acupuncture or aromatherapy, and this is no great loss if you ask me, but they all extolled the benefits of cupping. In my ignorance, I thought this practice had been ditched somewhere around the time when the phlogiston theory of combustion went out of favour, but the students put me right. It draws out bad blood, they said, and is of especial benefit at full moon. It’s scientifically proven by the United States Institute for Proving Stuff and anyway, the Prophet (PBUH) says it works, so there’s an end of it.

I found this on a ‘Muslim health’ website this evening: ‘70% of diseases, pains and ailments are due to the blood being unable to reach certain parts of the body. Dry cupping (hijama) and dry massaging cupping allow the blood to reach these places.’ I don’t know where the 70% figure comes from. Maybe that is in the Quran as well. Also, 50% of people with high blood pressure will benefit from cupping performed on a Tuesday, while type 2 diabetics are better dressed and should take up an offer coming their way midweek.



Cupping draweth ill humours from the bodie; it putteth away ſlothe and ſuch ills as proceed of moiſt and windie cauſes. It afrighteth boggarts, and layeth ghoſtes of them that die in childe bed. It is of merveylous benefit to the ſhins, likewiſe to the great toe.



Arabic is the World’s Most Difficult Language, a Libyan student told me. I started to point out the very, very bloody obvious fact that difficulty in language learning is in the eye of the beholder. Oh, for fuck’s sake, it doesn’t take a genius… if the language you purpose to learn is very similar to your own, you are probably going to find it easier than one that is very different. Many a Chinese student has enrolled for three months in a British language school and worked his bollocks off, only to find that he has made less progress at the end of his stay than the little clique of Poles in the same class who spent the three months merely arsing about. When someone comes up with the ‘mine is the most difficult language’ rubbish, I usually suggest they have a go at learning Inuktitut, whilst struggling to bear in mind that any native speaker of that tongue finds it as easy as breathing. I didn’t get that far today. With Naima looking on and nodding approval, Abdulkarim insisted that this was not merely his opinion: it was in the Quran. Once again, there was an end of it.

When I got home I flopped in front of the computer and pulled up You Tube. Someone at You Tube must have known what sort of a day I’d had. Among the videos recommended for me was the one below, the first of two, in which Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience attempts, with slowly dwindling patience, to get a sincere but uncomplicated Christian lady to justify her beliefs. She simply doesn’t understand what he's driving at, and states and restates that she believes because she believes. In the end he pulls the plug on her, something I cannot do with my students. I just have to smile and think ‘don’t get involved’. 

I would not show such forbearance with a Christian student. A Christian would at least be used to disagreement and have a few counter arguments rehearsed. Much as I would like to call overseas Muslim students out on their blind obedience to the Quran now and again, I can't, or they will simply complain that they are being attacked and disrespected, and probably take their custom elsewhere. The university would not be at all pleased about that.

You might like to read The Heresiarch here A quote: 'Karen Armstrong... is as unshakeably certain that God is "compassion" as any Taliban commander is convinced that God wants to stone adulterers. She is just as convinced as he is that God agrees with her point of view.'


Saturday, 28 November 2009

And It Was Such a Lovely Old Word, Too...



Seen on 'Sissydude' - see sidebar for link.

Senator Stevie Speaks Out



Senator Steve Fielding of Australia is not in favour of gay marriage. Stevie is the leader of the Family First party, which exists to protect this fragile and endangered institution. Woofters and dykes obviously have no place in the party because they have no families - as is well known, they are created on other planets by some mysterious agamogenesis and then beamed down from alien spacecraft to lurk among us. They masquerade as human beings whilst ceaselessly hatching godless plots to destroy masculinity, marriage and family, and everything that you and I hold sacred. Fact: every time two arse-bandits are permitted to tie the knot, four hundred and seventy three straight couples file for divorce as a direct consequence. This in turn leads to binge drinking, erectile dysfunction, child abuse, increased use of the word ‘fuck’ on the telly, and Gok Wan.

But why are you listening to me? Senator Steve is a master rhetorician, and he puts the case against same-sex marriage far more eloquently and elegantly than I could hope to:

''A bloke cannot marry his brother; it is not right. A woman cannot marry their sister; it is not right. A bloke cannot marry a bloke because it is not right, and a female cannot marry a female because it is not right. I don't support this.''
Pwned, all you supporters of Godless faggotry!

*****

Hat tip to the Reverend Ackeroff

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Huh?



Testing time again. Part of the test had questions on sports vocabulary. The students were given sentences such as the following:
Our school has just got a fantastic new football p...............
and invited to fill the gap. The expected answers here, of course, are pitch or player. I can't, off hand, think of any other words that would do, and certainly not ones that would be known to the group I teach. Therefore I am puzzled as to what Yasmina had in mind when she filled the gap thus:
Our school has just got a fantastic new football pispot.

Suggestions welcome.

Rollcall

Not my habitual classroom manner, this, but one I am sometimes tempted to adopt.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Gurus, Twerps and Huggy Bears




I have recently found the blog of The TEFL Tradesman, and reading him and his debunking of TEFL-oid softness in the head has reminded me of the kind of Teaching English as a Foreign Language woo-woo that my present job protects me from. For instance, between January 8th and March 2nd 2007 in Vermont, you could have done this course for teachers, had you been present. (Otherwise, let’s face it, you couldn’t have.)


Being Present: The Key to Seeing, Accepting and Understanding
This course explores what it means to be present, the impact being present can have on any situation or relationship, and the skills we need to develop to be more present in our work. The major focus of the course is the experiential application of presence within our work context. Through reflection we examine how presence or lack of presence influences the situations and relationships of our context. We also share insights into what supports us to be present in the moment or what is missing when we are not present. A selection of reading assignments support the experiential and reflective work

It may seem perverse to share this with you now that the course is over and done with, but I do feel we all might still derive profit from reflecting dynamically on how our absence from this course has affected our lives and those of the people around us. In what way – or indeed ways – has my being nowhere near the venue in Vermont impacted those to whom I am a teacher, a brother, a son, a good customer for Johnny Walker Black, or that shady figure from the upstairs flat? Fact: I was not there. Recognizing this as a reality situation, how has my life developed from that point? In what ways, what directions, have I grown as a sentient being following my absence from this event?

This sort of arrant twaddle is the teaching equivalent of reiki and aromatherapy, and people who get bored senseless with presenting the Present Continuous over and over are sometimes tempted to become practitioners. In Greece in the nineties it was easy to become a TEFL guru. As the Greeks say; ‘είσαι ο, τι δηλώνεις’ - you are whatever you announce yourself to be. Have a set of business cards printed that say you are a teacher trainer, and immediately that’s what you are. People who methodologically didn't know their arse from a hole in the ground, and who would not soil their hands in a classroom full of testosterone-crazed teenage boys would give - nay, vouchsafe - seminars on allegedly up-to-the minute TEFL methodology and fall prey to the allure of being big fish in a small pond. This condition (which I have termed microlimnic ichthyomegaly) is characterized by belief in one’s own press, a deep love of the sound of one’s own voice and an attitude of unbearable patronage to anyone on the shop-floor. The bona fide teacher trainers all got lumped in with the wannabes in the minds of teachers and school owners.

TEFL gurus tend to go for ‘humanistic’ methodologies, as opposed to the robotic methodologies everybody else uses. You might think that a humanistic approach would involve pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of your students, and then doing what you can as an intelligent, sensitive and well-trained teacher of your subject to help each student get to where she wants to be. Well, that’s not going to get you onto the seminar circuit, is it? Offer to put teachers in contact with their innermost souls, attempt to convince them that ELT is part caring profession and part Path of Spiritual Unfolding, and you might get a few more bookings. You can help your students to contact and tap their inner whatsit as well. Some ways to do this that I have seen recommended include:

  • Hugs and physical contact.
  • Writing words with the index finger on a partner's back. Partner guesses the word.

Imagine how well this sort of stuff goes down in Muslim countries. If you are thinking that anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would not propose these activities in such an environment, well, it was in Malaysia that a colleague of mine saw TEFL guru Mario Rinvolucri demo the 'back writing' technique. So much for sensitivity. And logic. What's the bloody point of that anyway?

  • Dance, preferably Greek, or anything else that requires holding hands.
  • Composing doggerel.
  • Mime and drama techniques.

Avoid these with your intermediate English for business group, though, or they might just feel you are wasting their time. If you are not a rookie who accepts anything a guru says as gospel, you probably will exercise some judgement here. Still, always remember that as a teacher you are a free bird flying over your imprisoned and stunted fellows, and it is your duty and privilege to (con)descend and untie their wings.

When I was but a trainee on the RSA Dip TEFLA back in nineteen-eighty something, a seminar leader had us sit in a circle, and ‘to emphasise our groupness’, requested each of us in turn to look at the person to our left, and say publicly just what we liked most about that person. Well, the group dynamics were not such as to permit this sort of mutual wanking, and half of us sent up the activity mercilessly, to the irritation of the other half who were inclined to take it seriously. ‘We’re not used to validating one another,’ one nice lady said, in a tone that managed to combine both impatience and forbearance. (Stop it. Spoiling it for others.)

I wished I had been sitting next to the Leader himself, so I could have turned and said ‘y'know, what you’ve just got to love about Jerome is that he’s a pompous, humourless little twerp and quite unrepentant about it,’ but such opportunities are rare in this life.

I started occupying EFL classrooms (cannot call what I did teaching) circa 1982. I did a four week TEFL Certificate course in 1987, and thus initiated, served a year’s apprenticeship in a language school in Cambridge before starting on the year-long in-service Diploma in TEFL. At the end of the diploma course, and at no point before, I felt entitled to call myself newly qualified. Who can be arsed to go through all that any more? Look online and you can find any number of companies offering ‘TEFL weekends’ that claim to equip you with all the skills you will ever need in something like twenty hours. Some of these are taught by young ladies who have a Certificate and three years experience, which today makes them almost venerable. In 2007 I had an interview to become a tutor on such a course, and was invited to observe a TEFL Weekend at a hotel in Leeds before I could teach one on my own. Sigh. I’d taught any number of 20-hour jobs in Greece, although I never claimed they were more than the merest tip-of-the-tongue taste of TEFL - after all, what of lasting value can you learn about anything in 20 hours? If they’d sent me a course outline I could have put it all together in a weekend at home, but they were not to know that. So I went up to Leeds.

The course tutor was a large huggy-bear sort of bloke. He had a large plastic box full of ‘realia’, the toys, balls, food containers, bottles, plastic fruit and veg and other assorted odds and sods that are useful for teaching concrete vocabulary items. I knew exactly what the weekend had in store, and groaned inwardly. I introduced myself and he asked me not to reveal that I was an observer, but to pass myself off as a course participant. Fucking great, I thought – pretending to be a greenhorn for two long days. The thirty or so real participants trooped in, and the tutor began trying to memorise names. I began to feel very anti the whole thing, as these people were going to do voluntary work overseas and EFL was not their main concern. Then the tutor said in his best animateur voice:

‘Right! Now, can we push all the chairs back against the walls, and all the bags to one side, and I want everyone to make seven points of contact with the floor!!!’

‘I’m out of here’ I thought, as people started giggling and trying out various ways of complying with that last command. I grabbed my coat and shot off to the station where I threw myself onto (rather than under) a train home. Yeah, yeah, I know I didn’t really give the course a fair trial, I know the tutor was wholly professional and good at what he was doing, but warm-ups like that just make me freeze over.

I do hope that at some point in those fleeting twenty hours, a little time was devoted to cultural sensitivity. The countries these people had chosen for their service overseas tended to be the poorest and most religiously conservative parts of the developing world. If any bright young Caucasian vivacity fresh off this course thought it was accepted practice to kick off the first lesson by having the students grovel on the floor in front of her, she might not get back to Blighty whole.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Praise Ye the God of Wood



If you are tempted by internet porn and so fear for your immortal soul, rejoice and be exceeding glad, for help is at hand. We are indebted to the saintly Reverend Ackeroff at Unthinking Anglicans for this good news. Covenant Eyes is a competitively priced software package that will warn you if you are about to open a porn site. The most up-to-date versions will simultaneously cause your laptop to zap six hundred volts through your scrotum. Thus if you notice there is a website called http://www.bollocksandcocks.com/, and are curious as to what it could be (‘Lock Sand Cocks’???) Covenant Eyes will warn you that this is a porn site and then make damn sure you don't enter it, or ever consider entering it thereafter.



Actually no, sorry, it doesn’t. I made all that up. What in fact it does is more sinister. It records all the websites you visit, then e-mails a report every so often to persons of your choosing. You can arrange for your pastor, boss, buddies, students, wife, mother, or anybody you want, to be bombarded with detailed reports of your browsing habits, so they can keep constant tabs on you. This is to keep you pure, or at least contrite.



Honey, I guess I’m kinda disappointed Satan made you visit bull dykes and dildoes again, but only six times this month, so praise the Lord! I really do like so feel privileged that you gifted me with these five-hundred page bulletins every week. See, with God and the software, you can be strong!


Yours in Jesus,


Grandma.


(P.S., hon, for an additional fee, could they make the fonts bigger? I'm getting eye strain. )




With all these people eagerly perusing your surfing reports for mention of bum, tit and dick, praying for you and ticking you off, you are forced to be accountable. Of course you can disable the software any time you'd prefer not to be.



There is a Covenant Eyes blog, ‘Breaking Free’, full of deeply moving stories of how men who couldn’t get enough porn were delivered from their obsession after installing the software for a very reasonable sum, payable monthly. The company aims to grab the consciences and wallets that species of competitive male Christian that sees a man's life as a constant battle between virtue and temptation, and in order to hook such men, it presents us with some heroic, hairy-chested stuff:



‘When I was young, the first time I read the temptation story in Matthew’s Gospel, one clear impression stood out in my mind: this is a showdown; it is like an epic battle of good vs. evil. As I read, it was like watching a gripping movie…’



When you let temptation win, boy, do you feel far away from that male bonding with the Lord!



‘I remember when I was buried deep in porn addiction: it seemed each day was a fight to avoid the inevitable. At the time I didn’t understand why my body would seem to take control. There were so many nights I would walk zombie-like to Internet porn or phone sex in search of my fix.’



The value of the service that Covenant Eyes provides - and at such affordable prices, too - is easily appreciated when we consider the damage done to the hearts and minds of men who develop 'internet Porn Onanistic Disorder', or iPod:


“. . . I didn’t recognize I had an addiction until I had surgery and masturbation wasn’t an option for fifteen days. On day three, I was literally shaking, and I began to connect the dots. Other symptoms: irritability, inability to focus (’staring at walls syndrome’), mood swings, headaches (sometimes quite strong), sense of pressure in my genitals, flashbacks, paranoia, self-defeating thinking, depression, hopelessness, and fear that I will never have sex because I’ve learned no social skills since diving into porn eight years ago as a teen.”

As may easily be concluded from this, indulgence in pornography may lead to outbursts of extreme Drama Queenery, even among the straight. (By the way, Covenant Eyes, staring at walls is not a syndrome, even if you stare at more than one wall.)

The image of sexual desire as a gluttonous beast that will attack unless kept shackled, blinkered and starved is a common one among Christers. The site http://boysunderattack.com/reaching.html ('Reaching for Teenage Boys' - the site owner sounds quite an innocent) aims to reassure adolescent lads on all manner of problems they might encounter when growing up. Bodily changes are dealt with matter-of-factly, but the author sends out such mixed messages on the topic of masturbation that any kid reading this stuff is likely to be seriously confused or, better and more likely, to simply junk the site.



‘It is a balancing act for every male: Every teenage boy has fantasies and lusts and will explore the connection between these, their sexual nature and masturbation…The more frequently you masturbate, the more fantasy you require to get an orgasm each time. [Sez who? You're making this stuff up!] This option becomes a vicious circle - the more you feed your lust, the more it demands to be fed! Ideally, you should aim to delay masturbation until the hormonal pressure builds inside you, then, very little, or ideally, no fantasy at all is required to produce ejaculation!’



That paragraph fills me with the desire to take the writer by the ears and bash his head repeatedly against a concrete floor. It’s OK to pull your cock, BUT you must wait until you can hardly hold back, and then splat, it’s over in seconds and no more pleasurable (though less messy) than a bowel movement. No enjoyment is permitted, or even envisaged, of an activity unique to humans, with their ability to refine their pleasures and cultivate the imagination. No encouragement is given to a young man's exploration of present solitary pleasure and its application to potential joys with a future partner. He is advised to be as cold-blooded and oblivious as a fish squirting sperm into the water.





'Let's see if we can create a few...'

Being an Evangelical Christian must be rather like spending a lifetime holding your breath. Here is one Tim Challies, author of Sexual Detox, a title that immediately gives you some idea of Tim's view of sex.



‘This is the very nature of sin, isn’t it? Sin is always progressive in nature. If you give it an inch, it soon seeks to take a mile. Sin is never content, but always seeks and desires more. Have you ever been scared by your sin? Perhaps there was a time that you saw how a particular sin was taking you over. Maybe you had thought you were in control of your sin but suddenly found that, almost in an instant, it had increased to the next level.’



I often think many problems would disappear if only people would stop talking. To become possessed by demons, you must first believe in the possibility of demonic possession. Once you have been persuaded that jerking off and looking at porn is a sin and an addiction that is taking over your life, you have bought into this discourse and porn sites and Christian sites will work together to feed your guilt for as long as you buy their line. Why not just drop the ‘sin’ nonsense and see porn as an appetizer, a wank as a pleasant work-out for the imagination and the male plumbing, then mop up and go and mow the lawn or finish grouting the bathroom?





Thursday, 12 November 2009

You Ought Never Shoulded To Have Must


EFL teacherly stuff, this. Some of you might want to go and play somewhere else.


I was taking the register with my Algerian group yesterday morning.

'Faisal don't come this morning,' said Cherif. 'He's diseased.'

I took this to mean that Faisal was a trifle indisposed, rather than gangrenous or syphilitic. At first I thought he'd said Faisal was deceased, but this could be discounted a) because of the casual delivery and b) because 'deceased' is not an item of vocabulary I would expect this group to have encountered.

Faisal turned up late explaining he'd had a bout of the shits. He did not put it like that exactly: I think he told me in French. Anyway, he's alive and reasonably well. Someone else had to leave at the break.

‘I go to the bullies,’ he said.
‘The bullies?’
‘Yeah, bullies’ registration.’
‘Ah, police registration, Ok.’

We had to do grammar yesterday. Let us turn our attention, gentlemen, to modal verbs. The primary modal verbs, for those lucky people who need not concern themselves with this sort of thing for a living, are:

CAN, COULD, SHALL, SHOULD, WILL, WOULD, MUST, MAY, MIGHT

Then there's a bunch of hangers-on known as ‘marginal modals’:

OUGHT TO, HAVE TO, NEED, DARE

It might have been Henry Widdowson, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of London, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Vienna, and quondam Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Essex, who said 'modals are a cunt' - or maybe my memory is faulty here. Whoever said it was right, though. This area is a minefield, as every modal verb has several meanings plus a baggage of formal peculiarities that distinguish it from 'normal' – known to their friends as ‘lexical’ - verbs:

He writes / * He musts
He wanted / * He musted
He’s trying / * He’s musting
He doesn’t know / *He doesn’t must
Does he know? / *Does he must?
He won’t tell / *He won’t must

The asterisk denotes an illegal form, and obviously the potential for errors here is considerable, but – and I can’t help thinking this is unfortunate – most of the possible illegal moves remain unmade. You could get such pile-ups as:

*Sorry, I don’t will can to come.
*Teacher, shall we must to write this down?
*Goddammit, I shouldn’t ought to have musted!

But you don’t, in my experience at least, probably because the above manglings are just too complicated semantically. By the time students are ready to consider formulating in English the concept that last sentence attempts to convey, they are experienced enough to know it’s probably more like ‘I shouldn’t have had to’. Pity.

Here is a little taste of the semantic complexity we are dealing with here:

Meanings of ‘can’:


Doris can juggle and ride a monocycle. (Ability)
Can Bertram come to the party? (Permission)
She can be a right old cow sometimes. (Possibility)

Meanings of ‘must’:

Darlings, you must come to Capri this year! (Invitation phrased as an obligation)
I must lose a few pounds. (Obligation)
He must be loaded – look at the car he drives. (Logical deduction based on evidence)

Many a course book in use around the planet presents all modal verbs and all their uses at once, thus guaranteeing that large numbers of students will never sort out the tangle. There is in some countries a view that language learning should be made as difficult as possible, or at least that no attempt need be made to grade, to contextualize, or to demonstrate meaning, rather than endlessly explain it. Talking about English modal verbs in Arabic might give students the feeling that they are really being pretty damn clever, and the teacher who has mastered them can certainly feel very superior, but such learned discourse is not, in most instances, going to produce learners who can actually speak. It’s like sitting in a classroom and talking about driving instead of getting out onto the road. In any case, if you do check understanding of the language you present – by no means a universal habit - you have your hands full making sure that everyone agrees on the differences between ‘permission’ ‘ability’ ‘possibility’, ‘obligation’ and ‘deduction’ and so on, before you even start. That in itself, believe me, is one hell of a task, and I shall never again attempt it, even with the most advanced of groups.

Well, my Wednesday Algerian group is not advanced. We did fine with ‘can’t be’ must be’ and ‘might be’, all presented via a magazine article illustrated with a photo of three attractive young ladies, one of whom says:

‘People think I might be a teacher or a hairdresser. When I tell them I’m a policewoman, they say ‘you can’t be a policewoman! You’re too short!


You see? Some discussion of the text before reading, some guided speculation about the three women’s jobs based on their appearance, to be confirmed or rejected on reading, and the meaning of these verbs is pretty clear without the gales of explanatory hot air many Arab, Greek, Korean, Chinese, Japanese etc., etc., students get from their teachers. You just need to ask a few questions to tidy things up. ‘Are people sure she’s a teacher? How do you know?’

Good! I felt pleased with the progress the students made, and smug for having facilitated it. Such consummate professionalism, such linguistic and pedagogical sensitivity – we adjourned for lunch early as my reward. However, a disinclination to spend lunchtime photocopying instead of going round to Marks and Sparks for fruit, coffee and wine, meant that I didn’t look or think far enough forward in the book, where we get into how you avoid:

* ‘I don’t will can’ and
* ‘I didn’t can’ and
* ’I haven’t could'

by replacing ‘can’ with ‘be able to’ when talking about the future and past. I rashly attempted to present all this, wishing I had not started. It was a lost cause, the students showing signs of acute mental indigestion. A sure sign of failure is when you start getting into explanation mode with students who don’t have the language to follow your explanations, and detecting that this was about to happen, I ditched the bloody modals and had to busk for the remaining ninety minutes, a bloody long time to must, sorry, have to improvise. As ‘tis well said, ‘modals are a cunt’.

I was well pleased with today, though. I have a class of Saudis and Libyans in which the ladies and the gentlemen always sit on opposite sides of the room, the nine ladies all huddled around one table, gassing in Arabic and treating the lesson as if it were the telly in the corner, to watch or ignore as they please. So I decided to rearrange the tables into a horseshoe shape to split up the ‘knitting circle’ as my two colleagues and I have named the ladies’ table. This afternoon we did an activity in which students mill around the room talking to as many people as possible to complete a survey. I suggested Khalid and Abdullah go and talk to the women, and they bravely crossed the imaginary dividing line down the middle of the room and did just that. And before you knew where you were, there were males and females intercoursing all over the place. Great stuff.

*****

Unfortunately, this proved to be rather like the Christmas Truce. Next day, it was business as usual.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Soup and Senectitude




People have been making me feel old lately.

The British have long claimed that you may take it as a sign of your advancing years when policemen start to look young. I can’t say I have noticed this particularly, especially as policemen are a relatively rare sight on our streets nowadays, and in any case they are called ‘community support officers’ or something equally polysyllabic and daft. I don’t take much notice of them.

There are other criteria for assessing degree of senility, I have observed. Do you amass supermarket carrier bags, storing them neatly folded or tied into bows in a bag that hangs behind a cupboard door? Do you save plastic yogurt pots, convinced they’ll come in one day, until you have no more room for them, and then throw them out before starting again? Before retiring for the night, do you set the table for breakfast, with the cups upside down on the saucers? If you are male and gay, do you touch up your grey chest hair with ‘Just for Men’ Moustache, Beard and Sideburns colour? I’m not really all that old, and I only engage in one of the activities on this list for the time being, and do you know, it works a treat.

Extreme irascibility around the young is a definite sign that one is well into middle age. This evening on the train, three sixth-form college students were sprawled on the floor of the carriage vestibule. They were bright kids, but Jesus Christ, the grating bloody fucking awfulness of their manner of speech. ‘Say, y’neigh, I’m sort of like this, and say, obviously of course, Megan’s like thaaat, and say like Jack’s like whaaat?’ all delivered in a high-pitched, nasalized yap so infuriating that I was forced to rise and put an end to their pointless young lives. No, I didn’t. That was just a brief wish-fulfillment fantasy. I moved down the train until I could no longer hear them, meaning that I had to walk to the far end of the next carriage and sit next to the bog.

A young colleague, Emma, came out with a surprising criterion for senescence yesterday. She has acquired a blender, and the other day she made some soup.

‘I felt reeeelly old!’ she said.

Baffled, I asked why.

‘You don’t make fucking soup at twenty three!’ she said, as if it were as sure an indicator of decline as a hip replacement op.

‘So when should the urge to make soup come upon one, in the natural course of events?'

‘Well, I’d reckon forty-ish.’

At this point another colleague entered the room.

‘Dave, how old were you when you first made soup in a blender?’ Emma asked him.

‘Forty,’ he said, without a second’s hesitation.

‘There you go!’ Emma said.

Right. Come to think of it, I bought my blender in 2003, at the age of forty-four. It was my second, its predecessor having gone missing in a move some twenty years previously. So although I was obviously a young fogey who made soup back in the eighties, after a soupless interregnum I returned to the activity in the fifth decade, just as Emma’s theory predicts, and thus I am inescapably middle aged.

Sod.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Of Whupticks and Nunnies



Professor Geoffrey Pullum over at Language Log links to this article about kids, Lego, and the human need to have names for all objects in the immediate environment. If a specific Lego shape has no hitherto agreed-upon name that you know of, you can give it one: ‘one of those four-er flat hinge-y bits’ will designate it perfectly well.

Reading this reminded me of my niece when she was two. If she lacked the word for an object or action, she simply coined one. Once, when she was sitting on the floor poking holes into a lump of plasticine with a drum stick, she told me ‘this is a chommer.’

‘What do you do with a chommer?’ I asked

Dumb question. ‘I chom fings wiv it,’ she said, indulgently.

On another occasion she had invented a mode of progression involving linking the hands behind the knees, descending into a squat, and from this position, leaping forwards across the dining room. This is easy when you are two.

‘I’m whupticking’ she said. ‘Mummy, you whuptick over there, and I’ll whuptick over here.’

Another little girl of my acquaintance, who always had her Linus blanket trailing behind her, had a habit of rubbing all four of its satin edges in rotation over her mouth and nose. This was especially necessary if the blanket had been washed or replaced. ‘I’ve nunnied it now,’ she’d say, on completion of the process. The blanket was now impregnated with her essence, among other things, and thus truly hers.

I had a private vocabulary as a kid, now largely forgotten, probably because it was never spoken aloud. There’s a smell, one that develops in those noisy party blow-outs after they get a bit damp with saliva, and I must have been about five when I christened this smell ‘min’. It is instantly recognisable to me still as the smell of a sneeze or certain damp, plastic kiddies’ bath toys. It also explains my dislike of the name ‘Minnie’ as a diminutive of Jasmine, unfortunately applied to another little kid I know.

Anyway. In January I shall probably be forced to listen yet again to Greeks telling me how the boorish nations of the north (and the Albanians, that barbarian breed of criminal Untermenschen) ‘stole’ words from Greek because the concepts enshrined in those words would otherwise be inexpressible and inaccessible to them. I shall have a go at presenting this evidence from children’s linguistic creativity in support of the view that concepts must exist first or there would be no need for language at all. Language does not shape your mind, your mind shapes language, and some people are simply better equipped than others to mould it, regardless of ethnicity.



Friday, 6 November 2009

Oral Lex



My lower intermediate group had little oral tests today. Each student was asked a few questions about their home town, present studies, leisure activities and plans for the weekend. It’s incredibly frustrating for an adult, articulate in his native language, to be reduced to stumbling through a five minute interview on topics of such mind-numbing banality, and until informed otherwise, most of them thought they had loused it up. In fact, they all did very well. The very things that they think show ineptitude – paraphrasing, coining new words when the right one escapes them, self-correcting – all these are perfectly serviceable strategies for the circumstances, and much to be encouraged. The point at this stage is not to wow the interlocutor with eloquence, since obviously you cannot aspire to this, but merely to assemble more or less the right words, and in the right order near as fuck it. Everyone succeeded, and I take my hat off to them. I take my hat off to me and my two colleagues as well, ‘cos they couldn’t have done it without us.

Before the tests, we did a little work on the /p/ phoneme, non-existent in Arabic. Most Arabic speakers substitute /b/ for /p/, and thus go on Fridays to the mosque to bray, and take strolls in the bark at the weekend. I asked Jamal what he had planned for Saturday. He was going with ferrends for drink any coffee, he said, and afferter was attending some event the bark.

‘What’s happening in the park?’ I asked.

‘This weekend it’s the Porn Fair’ he said.

A Porn Fair in the park, and a good Saudi boy openly announcing his intention to visit it? I don’t think so. I had to request clarification.

‘Yeah, Porn Fair. You know this week, fiffeth Noffember, it’s was be Porn Fair Night, right?’

Gotcha. Now this is in fact an excellent example of progress, although if Jamal knew what he’d said I doubt if he’d think so. Just possibly because of our earlier work on the /p/ /b/ contrast, he’d managed to produce the /p/ phoneme in word initial position bossibly, I peg your bardon, possibly for the first time. OK, so it wasn’t the right phoneme for this occasion, but what the hell, next time it may be, and that’s how you improve.

*****

For non-Brits: the 5th November is ‘Bonfire Night’, celebrated with fires and fireworks.

Apologies to all for the ghastly post title.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Diva Goes Down




My Libyan Diva nabbed me in the corridor yesterday morning to plead with me to allow her back to my group after it was decided she should move to a lower one. She had spent one day in the lower group, and the demotion had caused her great mental and spiritual anguish, it seems.

‘Oh, yesterday, I go my house, and I very cry!’ she wailed.

It was tempting to say ‘no, listen, yesterday I went home, and I cried a lot’, but I have always told trainee teachers to react first to what students say and not how they say it. If a student says ‘sorry for late, I am had an accident of car’ the humane instructor delays pointing out that the Present Perfect is not formed with ‘to be’ as its auxiliary. So, on hearing that The Diva went her house and very cried, I offered sympathetic noises, which she drowned out with more pleading and promises to try harder.

‘All my friend, it’s be this class!’ Well, yeah, it’s a sort of ladies’ social occasion at the moment with loads of Arabic chit-chat and a little English chucked in when anyone can be bothered. I wonder they don't bring their jewellery to polish. This is going to get stamped on big time, darling, believe you me.

‘I came back, I make very try! This down class, it's very sad to me.’

Her manner recalled that of the beggars in I used to see in Greece who would climb aboard the intercity buses just before departure and spiel tales of heartbreaking privation, disease and bereavement before passing the hat round. It was not what you expect from an adult at a university - well, not my idea of appropriate adult behaviour at a university, but I'm beginning to see I'm a bit old-fashioned.

Just as I was running out of kind noises and reasoned arguments against her suit, the course director came by, and La Lybienne began to work on her as well. Now, colleagues of mine have had their knuckles rapped for expressing impatience to students who give them the sort of asinine prattle I had just been giving ear to: ‘they are paying customers, you know!’ but the director just said ‘your level is lower intermediate, you need to be in a lower intermediate group, I don’t want to hear any more about it.’ There. No messing. I should have said that ten minutes before, but would probably have got bollocked for it.

Now look again at these:

‘Oh, yesterday, I go my house, and I very cry!
‘All my friend, it’s be this class!’
‘I came back, I make very try!’


This lady, back in her home country is – wait for it – a teacher of English. I am still puzzling over a phrase in an essay she wrote the other week: ‘My husband is blow away, but I very love he.’ If anyone can make sense of that, answers on a post-card, please. I have already considered, and dismissed, the possibilities that he had a violent outburst of temper, that he was a victim of a terrorist outrage, or that he farted in bed.

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