Monday, 26 April 2010

As she is spoke II

Mondays are a bit of a slog. It isn’t just because it’s Monday, it’s the group. I have seven blokes ranging in level from just about intermediate to almost native-speaker competence. Two or three of them are nearing the end of their stay and are impatient to be going on to the air-force bases where they will be working for the next two years. Meanwhile they must all be kept gainfully occupied for four hours on meaningful and level-appropriate tasks, tailored to their needs and with well-defined learning outcomes, plus an opportunity to reflect on the success or otherwise of the learning process and a discussion of how to build on what has been learned.

‘Well, I’m Donald Ducked if I know what the hell to do with them, in that case,’ I told the course co-ordinator.

She rifled through a file and pulled out an assortment of task-sheets. One was on British slang. If you don’t teach English as a Foreign Language you will be unaware of the blandness of the language presented in international course-books. All the big publishers want to sell all over the world, and books are assiduously purged of content that might conceivably bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty. One book I used to use a lot had a story in which the narrator got stuck into the gin and tonics at the start of a flight out of Copenhagen, and this caused him to fall asleep and wake up half way across the Atlantic when he should have got off in London. Later editions have amended the story and now he drinks lemonade so as not to horrify the Saudis. Anyway, this task sheet presented English as she is Really Spoke, and although I knew the students had been here long enough to have such words as bloke, lad and mate under their belts, there was enough that was new and dirty to put them all at the same level for once. For a taste:

I went clubbing in Derby last Saturday but the talent was crap. I find thick blokes with tattoos a real turn-off. I’m more into fit lads who also have a brain.

I broke up with my boyfriend last week. My friends had been telling me to ditch the prat for ages. He gives me a lot of grief. He tried to get off with my best mate, so I gave him the push.

Try getting OUP to publish that. We also had words like manky, dodgy, bugger-all and to fart about. Good stuff, and definitely good preparation for life at a British air-force base, I thought. It is not often one gets the chance to teach ‘taboo words’. In the eighties I worked at a school in Cambridge where our primitive little BBC computers (they ran on methylated spirit) had a ‘taboo words’ programme for those wishing to conduct research into this area. It had gap-fill exercises such as the following:

‘Can you lend us a fiver?’
‘……… off!’

‘Have you read that new novel?’
‘Yeah. It’s a right load of ………’

Students were presented with a selection of words their families wouldn't approve of to fill the gaps. I’d spend the hour scurrying round the room helping Japanese girls to get the answers right.

‘Pureeze? Heeya must write ‘shitto’ or ‘borrocku’?

‘I think both are appropriate for number two, and both ‘sod’ and ‘fuck’ would do for the first one.’



So after lunch today we got into British demotic, and it proved to be a laugh. I was surprised to find that Algerian Arabic has a verb obviously derived via French from the same root as British ‘skive’ meaning ‘to dodge work’ - possibly ultimately from Greek σκύβω [skyvo] to bend? (I might be talking out of my hat here, of course.*) Arabic also uses ‘tight’ to mean ‘miserly’. The men knew ‘a turn-on’ and thus were able to deduce the meaning of ‘a turn-off’. I have never mastered the blokish art of joke-telling, nor ever wanted to: joke-telling is to humour as pot-noodle is to gastronomy, if you ask me. Nevertheless in the service of education I compromised my principles and told one:

‘A bloke is driving through Leeds and he stops at the lights and asks a passer by: ‘hey, mate, do you know the Bradford turn-off?’

‘Aye, lad,’ says the other bloke. ‘I married her.’

And they got it! Hassan then offered a couple of off-colour jokes of his own and everybody got them, too. Now, understanding humour and word play in another language is a sign of real progress, and the sexual and the scatological do tend to stick around in the mind longer than the bland and the virtuous. I left everyone smiling – no mean feat for a Monday with group C.

I will not be using this task sheet again in a hurry, unfortunately. As I was on my way to the office this lunchtime, one of my Saudi students from another group greeted me. I hadn’t seen her since before Easter as she has been stranded in Jeddah by volcanic ash. Tall and gaunt, and draped entirely in black save for eye-holes in her mask, she looks as if she has just come from funneling molten lead down heretics’ throats and not had time to change out of her work gear. This is to wrong her, of course, as she’s a nice lady really, who just happens to dress like the Ghost of Christmas Future. Nobody - but nobody - in her group is going to want to know vocabulary for clubbing, boozing, pick-ups, insult and giving lads the push.


*Seems I was. Skive apparently derives from an Old Norse word skifa meaning 'to cut', and from it we also get English shive meaning to slice, or a slice. I still don't know how the Algerian Arabic word relates to this, if indeed it does.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Introverted sensing feeling perceivers

23/10/10 Please can someone leave a comment and tell me why this old post has been getting so many hits this week!

Over at Blogtrotter last month Fionnchú took time off from writing his excellent book reviews to discuss Jung-Myers-Briggs Typology tests, according to which all people can be classified using four criteria:

Extroversion - Introversion,
Sensing – Intuition,
Thinking - Feeling,
Judging - Perceiving

Different combinations of the criteria determine your type. If the questionnaire decides you are an Introvert Sensing Thinking Judging sort, you are an ISTJ. Once you know where you fit in among the types, you can decide what sort of career you should embark on, or should have embarked on if only you’d known earlier. I followed a link and gave it a try.

There are loads of sites where you can take a free test, and if you have time on your hands and are curious, I recommend trying more than one, because the initial results may not be to your liking. Here is my ‘Global Personality Test’ result from the computer at

messy, depressed, introverted, feels invisible, does not make friends easily, nihilistic, reveals little about self, fragile, dark, bizarre, feels undesirable, dislikes leadership, reclusive, weird, irritable, frequently second guesses self, unassertive, unsympathetic, low self control, observer, worrying, phobic, suspicious, unproductive, avoidant, negative, bad at saving money, emotionally sensitive, does not like to stand out, dislikes large parties, submissive, daydreamer, what a fucking sad-ass loser, Jeeezuss…

It then cheerily proposes I might like to copy a code in order to display my results on my web page. Thanks. It also suggests the careers I could consider on the very slim chance anyone would take on a person as patently unentitled to live as I appear to be. I’m told I have the makings of a school teacher, a singer, a stay at home parent or a hospitality worker. It’s hard to imagine where someone with a profile like that might be a hit as a hospitality worker – serving up fried gristle and Kool Aid on Death Row, perhaps, or handing round tea and macaroons after a funeral on a wet winter afternoon. As a parent, such a one would only be good for rearing a future suicide, or if the kid was more of an extrovert, a serial killer. I am counseled against becoming an academic, a comic-book artist or a D.J.


Well, us ISFPs (Introverted Sensing Feeling Perceivers) obviously need a bit of cheering up, so I looked elsewhere. Here is Life Explore:

"At work, ISFPs contribute by attending to the practical facts relating to the needs of people and all living things in their environments. They can infuse a particular knod [sic] of joy into cooperative nature. Because they pay attention to the humanistic aspects of the organization, they act in ways that ensure others' well-being. People enjoy ISFPs because they bring understanding yet adaptability to the realities of their work."

This is much better. I’m back at work tomorrow and I must ask if anyone’s missed the knods of joy I infuse them with.

Some of the sites will tell you which historical figures share your category. Marie Antoinette took the test, and she and I are right up there with the same results. If as an ISFP I want a celebrity role model, I can look to Elizabeth Taylor or Britney Spears for inspiration, but this might bring me closer to SimilarMind’s assessment than to the other, so maybe not. SimilarMinds didn’t have a single nice thing to say about me, whereas LifeExplore thinks the sun shines out of my arse. Speaking of arses brings me neatly to the assessment offered by one Joe Butt, who has this to say:

'The ISFP may employ Extraverted Thinking in external situations requiring closure. As is the case with inferior functions, such Thinking behaves in an all or nothing manner. Thus, as with other FP types, the ISFP's Extraverted Thinking is at risk for a lack of context and proportion. In most cases, persons of this type enjoy greater facility operating in the open-ended style of sensing, implying the opinions of feeling values in the indirect fashion characteristic of introverted functions.'

Well, I dunno. I think it would make as much sense if Mr Butt spoke out of some other orifice and said ISFPs have the best dress sense and will take a trip in the near future. Maybe I’m being too harsh on him. If anyone can interpret that paragraph, let me know.

Finally, here’s the 'Personality Page':

"ISFPs live in the world of sensation possibilities. They are keenly in tune with the way things look, taste, sound, feel and smell. They have a strong aesthetic appreciation for art, and are likely to be artists in some form, because they are unusually gifted at creating and composing things which will strongly affect the senses."

Now this is more like it. can get fucking stuffed, ‘cos we ISFPs obviously rock. Naturally, this is the result I shall believe.


Despite the cynicism expressed above, I have to admit that most of this stuff from personalitypage does describe me pretty well.

ISFP Strengths

* Warm, friendly and affirming by nature. (Well, sometimes.)
* Usually optimistic.
* Good listeners
* Good at dealing with practical day-to-day concerns
* Flexible and laid-back
* Their love of aesthetic beauty and appreciation for function makes them likely to have attractive, functional homes
* Take their commitments seriously, and seek lifelong relationships
* Likely to value and respect other's personal space
* Likely to enjoy showing their affection through acts and deeds
* Sensuous and earthy

ISFP Weaknesses

* Not good at long-range financial (or other) planning
* Extreme dislike of conflict and criticism
* Focused on enjoying the present moment, they may appear lazy or slow-moving at times
* Need to have their own space, and dislike having it invaded
* May be slow to show their affection with words
* Tendency to hold back their thoughts and feelings, unless drawn out
* May become overly cynical

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Velly Good-nice

I had dinner with a friend at our local Thai yesterday evening. We are regulars there.

‘You wan Jim Tonk?’ asked the owner, who knows me of old.

‘Yes please.’

‘OK. You wonk eye?’

‘Yes please, and a slice of lemon.’

When it came to paying the bill - ‘ping namba, preece’ - I had to explain to the owner that I had pressed the ‘enter’ button on the portable credit-card contraption twice, and feared I might have paid double.


‘Twice. Two times. Same button, two times.’

‘OK.’ He made some adjustments to the machine and passed it back to me. ‘Chai gheng.’

How long have you bloody lived here, I thought. This restaurant of yours has been here a good fifteen years and you even longer, and you still sound like one of the Flowerpot Men. Well, honestly. People ought to make more effort.

After thirty years of listening to non-native learners of English I can understand almost anybody from anywhere, but people who don’t do my job find it very irritating to have to decode this sort of thing. Think of the frustration involved in talking to a call centre in Mumbai. You don't want to be rude or racist, but that tense, quick-fire delivery can be very hard to follow. Two summers ago I had a Vietnamese boy in one of my classes. He was friendly, cheerful, polite and cute. I do like it when a wiry lad’s T-shirt parts company with his jeans to reveal a tanned, turned midriff and the waist band of his underpants, so he was nice to have around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a word he said. After twenty-eight years on the job, I’d finally met a boy whose pronunciation defeated me. If I had problems following what Ken said, imagine how his Arabic speaking classmates reacted.

Well, they behaved abominably. The day came for Ken to make a presentation and for his sake I was not looking forward to this. I don’t ordinarily like Powerpoint presentations, but at least in this instance the professionalism of Ken’s slides allowed me to make some nice comments on the feedback form when the rest were all criticism. The formulaic presentation-speak I had drummed into everyone came out reasonably intelligibly. Ken greeted his public:

‘Go half a noon, Effie Baddie’

Then he outlined his presentation:

‘I defy my playstation in Şri Par. In farce par, I’m disco a bow internet. In sicken par…’

By now the audience was getting a little restive and two young Saudi men were snickering, but as they were across the room from me, I couldn’t stop them without halting Ken’s presentation. He went on:

‘Sir par is concloot, my ping-yon for solfe off da prom.’*

The two Saudis by now were helpless, shoulders shaking in silent mirth, tears rolling down their faces. I could have killed them, but Ken ploughed gamely on. He reached the end, acknowledged the ritual applause, and sat down looking very dispirited. Poor kid, I could have hugged him, and not just because he was cute: he was hurt, and I decided to be pretty tough on the feedback forms of the two Saudi lads. I also had to be tough on Ken, though. If your pronunciation is lousy, you really have to work on the problem outside class time. Sorry, mate. Nice slides, nice abs, sexy underpants, can’t make head nor tail of anything you say.

If nobody had problems with English I would soon be out of a job, so I’m not complaining. I love the inventive things people manage to do with languages not their own and if I laugh, I don’t do so out of cruelty. There was a Korean restaurant just off Syntagma Square in Athens where a colleague, Ann, and I frequently had lunch in the early nineties. The manager was a very generous Korean who spoke to us in a kind of nonce English, odds and sods remembered from schooldays and strung together for the occasion. He’d pass by our table and deposit freebies, saying:

‘You drinka Chy-niece tea. Velly good-nice’

‘You eata Kimchi sarrad. Velly good-nice.’

I knew not to take it amiss when I went into the restaurant without Ann for the first time, and he said:

‘Oooooohhhhhh! Whear your fellow woman???’


* 'The third part is a conclusion, my opinion for solving the problem.'

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Yours for only $3.50

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Teaching Meme

I found this 'meme' on a blog somewhere. I don't usually go for this kind of stuff, but it's a quiet day, so what the hell, here is my version. ELT, by the way, stands for English Language Teaching, which is what I do.

1. I am a good teacher because... I’ve learned from my many mistakes, even though these still do come back to make me wince in the insomniac small hours. Also, I have learned from being able to observe scores of other teachers fuck up that we all make regrettable decisions in classrooms about management, materials, and relationships. Wherefore he who hath never caused a student offence with his insensitivity, pitched a lesson way too high or too low, or pretended to knowledge he hath not and thereby spoken untruths in class, let him cast the first stone.

2. If I weren’t a teacher, I would be... an unpublished writer, an unemployed actor, a frequent visitor to rehab or possibly all three. 

3. My teaching style is... humorous and energetic and very student-centred, meaning I do as little up-front teacher-to-whole class input as possible, preferring to get students working in pairs or groups on the task in hand, and circulating as they get on with it. I’ve been an amateur actor and director of plays, and despite being an amateur I did at least have a strong sense of audience, and have suffered the arse-numbing tedium that billows from teachers who lack any such sense. There are times when I feel my job is a branch of the entertainment industry and each gig needs its gags, its timing, its changes of pace and its music. This may sound unworthy of a university teacher, but attention spans are not what they were, and in any case for at least half the year we are trying to raise the students' level of general rather than academic English. There is a close link between theatre and language teaching, I reckon, as a classroom is a safe space for students to rehearse behaviours applicable in the outside world, such as making presentations, arguing about the meaning of a text, ordering in restaurants, asking directions, and so on. It's not a coincidence that so many EFL teachers are ex-performers of one sort or another.

I saw a job advert this morning in which Oxford Brookes were after a teacher whose job would involve ‘undertaking teaching responsibilities with a specific focus on the interface between language and society with an orientation to language as a social semiotic.’ 'Christ' I though, 'it sounds right clever stuff, does that. Tin’t fert likes o' me.' Then it occurred to me that it may just be an arsy way of describing exactly what I’m good at.

4. My classroom is... not my own. I teach in several rooms in several buildings as our ‘centre’ has in fact no centre. Room size varies from walk-in wardrobe to aircraft hangar, so rearrangement of the furniture is usually necessary to create space or intimacy, as required. Stern notices on the walls tell you to put the tables back in their original formation before leaving, but I tend to ‘forget’ if it's after lunch. See 6 below.

5. My lesson plans are... in my head and often improvised. In adult education you frequently follow where the students lead, and if some centre director does not trust me to do this well after thirty years on the job, s/he has my leave to get stuffed. I am not, thank God, required to produce a blow-by-blow plan for every lesson as some poor sods in other institutions are. A friend who taught at a College of Adult Education was required to make explicit reference to each of her students’ nationalities in every lesson, and details of how this was to be done were to be provided in every lesson plan. Fuck knows why this was required– some mad notion of ‘inclusion’ contributing to an overall ethos of ‘excellence’ dreamed up by some shiny-arsed management control freak, no doubt. I do occasionally write the lesson aims on the whiteboard at the start of the session, as this is taken as an earnest of high seriousness in certain quarters: British Council inspectors in particular are impressed by the practice. No student has ever complained or apparently even noticed when I don't do this, so I am slightly irritated by the importance observers of lessons like to attach to the 'menu'. Gives them a box to tick, I suppose.

Incidentally, if you join any teaching organisation that makes much of its commitment to the 'pursuit of excellence', beware. It usually means it is managed by control freaks who prefer admin above their chief joy.

6. One of my teaching goals is... to make sure I get the 15.17 train home every evening. This means, dear students, that you can forget about cigarette breaks in afternoon sessions and abandon hope of any activity requiring a CD player or a laptop between 13.00 and 14.50.

7. The toughest part of teaching is... Monday morning.

8. The thing I love most about teaching is... positive feedback from happy students, as you might expect from what I said in 3 above. E-mailed encomia, admiring word of mouth recommendations, prezzies – all very gratefully received. Makes me feel useful. Russian students should note that I appreciate vodka rather more than calendars from Georgia, Cossack hats, fridge magnets shaped like Kazakhstan, and that sort of thing. Once I thought of bargaining with the centre director when our Russian students presented him with a bottle of top-drawer vodka and me with, among the things listed above, a bottle of Kazakh brandy and an Armenian garden gnome. I was, selflessly, prepared to give up my gnome to take the vodka off his hands, but he wouldn't have let me make that sacrifice. 

9. A common misconception about teaching is... that anyone who speaks a language can teach it. Pisses me off, that does. If you believe this, you are welcome to come and try. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get twenty Saudi students to the point where they can discuss, with reasonable accuracy and pronunciation intelligible to a native speaker who is unaccustomed to foreign accents, hypothetical outcomes of a situation or situations of your choosing using the second conditional. You have 100 minutes, minus ten for a cigarette break – theirs, not yours. You don't get breaks.

10. The most important thing I’ve learned since I started teaching is... to stay clear of conferences. What there is to say on the subject of ELT has been said, over and over, and much of it is drivel. No point staying overnight in a hotel to hear it all get re-hashed, re-lit, re-heated. Unless of course the hotel has a swimming pool and a nice bar where you can ignore the conference and its insufferable delegates completely.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Solitary Pleasures

I left my reading glasses in a train or maybe a taxi on Monday and my new pair won’t be ready until Saturday, so I am grouchy as a bear with a sore knob at the moment. I have to read books with a magnifying glass and dial up the font size on web pages until they look like the headlines of The Sun. Not being able to read comfortably is so bloody frustrating, and reaching for a book is like pawing automatically and vainly at the light switch during a power-cut.

I was due to go to Greece on Tuesday the sixth of April. I booked the flight back in January. Over the last three weeks my enthusiasm for the trip has been waning and by last weekend it had evaporated completely. There had been the threat of hassle from the train and BA cabin crew strikes, now averted, but that was not the issue: it is the malady of not being arsed that I am troubled withal. I just cannot summon the will to get myself there. I was going to do a little bit of work in Athens but I have decided I don’t want to go back to Greece unless work is the only reason for my stay. It was the prospect of too much free time that put me off, especially while away from Athens. I can’t handle leisure away from home. I get bored stiff.

‘Αμάν πιά! You come in the Greece and you are feel boring? If it is possible!’

Well, sorry, it’s my fault no doubt, but there are some Greek pleasures that leave me cold, just as the British enthusiasm for cricket, pork pies, warm beer and Happy Slapping mystify foreign visitors to our own shores. Provincial Greeks especially have a knack for the enjoyment of doing nothing, and it’s a talent I have never developed. An hour on a beach, for example, and I am weeping with boredom. Beaches are such sweaty, gritty, salty uncomfortable places, I can’t be doing with them. Neither can I sit in a café shooting the breeze with friends for ninety minutes over half an inch of lukewarm ‘cappuccino’ with two inches of squirty cream on top. I finish my alleged ‘cappuccino’ in ten seconds flat and spend the remaining eighty-nine minutes and fifty seconds itching to get moving whilst knowing there’s nowhere to get to. I cannot take a siesta. If I sleep in the afternoon, I wake up feeling sick and groggy and stay sick and groggy until bedtime. In sum, I’m a total klutz at leisure unless it’s in the evening after a day’s work and I feel I have earned the right to it. The old, cold protestant work ethic never quite got knocked out of me, despite fifteen years in Greece

So I have rearranged things. I’m going at the end of November, when a week’s work in Athens will be a welcome change from the treadmill of the university. In the coming two weeks I will make some inroad into my pile of unread books and, as it were, stock up on solitude before the new term begins.


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