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.


Fionnchú said...

They have these rather lame "Wicked French" (etc.) tiny cartoon books here; are there ones for English that you could use? Great Mad-Libs exercises-- now, that's a computer program for the labs worth reviving.

vilges suola said...

We have a long list of British airforce helicopter pilot slang compiled by a lecturer who went to the air force base to observe the students in their working lives after leaving us. I'm waiting for it to be set out in a list as I cannot remember it or find a context through which to present it otherwise. Meanwhile I'm teaching British Midlands Demotic for Muslims off the top of my head.

Sean said...

I've tried a few times to teach the double meaning of 'sick' with the following...

"I can't come into work today, I'm sick."

"What's wrong with you?"

"I'm in bed with my sister."

...with varying degrees of success.

vilges suola said...

Christ, that is brave. Or foolhardy. I wouldn't go there myself.

Argentum Vulgaris said...

I had to laugh, most of my students are men who work on oil platforms with foreigners and I get asked the most curly questions, but I do get to teach them phrases like "It's buggered, can't be fixed!" Then you get the repost, "No it's not buggered, that can be fixed, it's f*****d!" and that's from the student.


vilges suola said...

There's an excellent section in Swan's Practical English Usage on British and American taboo words, and I have long wanted to do a lesson on this, but never had the right class - too young or too serious or too devout. One day.

Marisa Constantinides said...

Love this post.

A little story to report: one of my DTEFLA trainees of long ago was asked (by his frontistirion owner) to teach a similar page from the infamous Xanthakis type of "Brush off your English" CPE rubbish. He chose the Swan pages as he found the X-factor too much to deal with.

One of the students' parents (adult CPE students) threatened to sue the school.

David lost his job.


Moral: If in Greece (or similar) beware of teaching taboo stuff even if asked by your DOS cos they ain't gonna help you in times of trouble.


vilges suola said...

Doesn't surprise me, unfortunately - I don't frankly know any organisation where it wouldn't be a risky thing to do. Cowards all!

Sarah said...

Excellent post! I teach Arab girls in the Middle East, where even the library editions of Swan are without the taboo sections. However, everyone watches films in English (or American, anyway) and the biggest laugh ever in my class was when someone showed a You Tube clip which had a swear word in it...

vilges suola said...

Sarah, glad you liked it. Maybe the best way to get students to learn something is to tell them they absolutely MUST NOT even think of doing so.

Gauss Jordan said...

A friend here in the US is taking an ESL class simply because someone pointed out to him that he speaks like most of us write. He doesn't slur together words correctly or use slang.

vilges suola said...

Hmm. Sounds like he won't be giving an especially natural model of spoken English in that case - tell him he'd better lighten up a bit!


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