Saturday, 13 October 2012


I am briefly but intensely busy, hence the lack of posts recently. I have a bunch of students from Thailand, and they are a delightful lot, oozing good humour and enthusiasm and pausing every lesson several times to take photographs. I have a group of mostly Chinese students for my MA module in inter-cultural communication, a mixed-nationality bunch of kids for a foundation course in English for Business, and three groupies. The groupies are visiting lecturers from universities in China who appreciated my lessons and lectures so much that they were turning up every day, until the centre director requested that they cool it. Now, being appreciated is nice, but being showered with praise and respectfully questioned at the end of each session if I were the Buddha makes me rather uneasy. It’s all front, ladies. In my mind, I’m just a putter-on of shows, a deliverer of well-honed shtick, a performer who can work an audience and squirrel away the punters’ insights and reactions for later exploitation. Like so many teachers I know, I live with a nagging fear of one day being found out. It’s very wearing since it never happens, but even after 30 years I still feel I’m merely getting away with it.  

The Thais are lecturers from a university in Bangkok with a name as long as your arm. Before they arrived, we had been led to believe they were all teachers of English who would need a mixture of language development and methodology: money for jam. It turned out that they are lecturers in a variety of fields from a university that proposes to cast its nets wider than Thailand, and will thus require its academic staff to lecture in English. So they sent them to us to learn how to do it. Ah, the naïveté of non-language teachers when it comes to the investment of time and effort demanded to learn a language to fluency! It’s truly touching. Most of these people would be hard pressed to conduct the getting-to-know-you stage of an interview, so imagining that they might progress in four weeks to the point where they could deliver a fifty- minute lecture on molecular biology is more than a trifle over-optimistic. Some of them appear to have learned entirely through reading and had probably never uttered a word in English before arriving here. Thai-isms in English pronunciation include simplifying consonant clusters, docking word-final consonants, and applying a swooping fall-rise intonation to the last syllable in a tone group, making every thought sound unfinished as well as incomprehensible.

Yesterday we rounded off a session on the use of the passive voice in academic writing with a running dictation. For those who don’t need to worry about this kind of thing, a running dictation is a japesome bit of nonsense for goosing up a heavy lesson and leaving ‘em laughing when you go. You stick a text outside the classroom door, one you have carefully crafted to exemplify the grammar you’ve just been thrashing. The students are divided into groups of four or five. They elect one secretary and the rest are ‘runners’ each with a number. The number ones go out of the room, read the first line of the text, memorise it and return to dictate it to the secretary. Immediately upon their return, the number twos go out to memorise the second sentence, and so on. The first group to complete the whole dictation wins.

A lad called On came back into the room muttering his sentence under his breath. ‘Freight-rongue ten ten!’ he said to me, grinning. Given the context, I was able to construe this immediately as ‘very long sentence!’ Christ, I thought. He has to give a presentation in front of the Dean before he leaves. I have ten days to make him sound like Noel Coward.


Personally, I don’t enjoy participating in games of any kind. Most just bore and confuse me, I mean cards, Jesus... However I seem to be in a minority here. I don’t know how valid an observation this is, but games seem to go down particularly well with students from the Far East, maybe because they find it pleasingly weird that classes can be so informal. I introduced Scrabble to a group of Chinese teachers a few years ago. They had never seen it before, probably because you’d need a space the size of a tennis court to play it in Chinese. They were utterly taken by it, passing around their cameras so that everyone took home a photo of their group seated proudly around a completed board. The running dictation usually unfolds in an atmosphere of mounting hilarity as people forget, garble and misunderstand, and have to go out again to re-read as time is running out. It failed only once. I had a bunch of rich, spoiled teenage brats from Spain. I set up the activity, and the first runners left the room, photographed the entire text on their mobile phones, returned, copied it out, and sat with arms folded, challenging me to keep them entertained, the little shits. I hope I never have to teach anybody younger than 20 again.

The Thai contingent is hitting Oxford today, the trip placing especial emphasis on the historic and venerable boutiques of Bicester Village. I didn’t know this had been arranged until after I’d given them a talk on Cambridge. We might be language teachers at our centre but we don’t do communication all that well.  

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