'Woman on My Head'
Papers about language, teaching, Dante, Buzzati (& a few translations)
Teaching English to Absolute Beginners
Today’s blog is a guest entry by Joan Taber, a highly experienced educator, and someone with a lot of worthwhile things to say. Have a look at her entertaining and informative blog here. Joan also maintains a fascinating series of academic papers on ESL, language, and translation that is well worth reading. Today, she’s talking to us about teaching English to students who have no ability in the language whatsoever. How do you start? How can you help them to improve? Take it away, Joan Taber.
Teaching the basics
People often ask me how I go about teaching English to students who have no English-language background. For me, the best place to begin is on a trusty page of commonality--that is, the world map. Here, north and south are in the same position in any language, the equator always runs through Ecuador, the poles are “frrreeeeeezing” (at least for now), “the ocean is blue,” but Greenland isn’t always green.
With the help of the map, “Where do you come from?” is transformed into a real place. Students are invited to “come to the map,” point to their country of birth, announce whether it’s north or south of the equator, east or west of the Prime Meridian. I show them where I’m from, where my mother was from, where one finds the most beautiful people (Italy, of course), where the climate is “sooooo hot,” where ordinal and cardinal directions lead to every part of the globe.
Using the map
So, during the first forty-minute lesson, students can distinguish directions, indicate “near” and “far,” acquire the lexicons of map study-continent, country, city, river, ocean, color-and travel-airplane, airport, train, taxi. They get a feel for syntax: “On this map, Europe is red and Africa is green.”
They learn idiomatic expressions related to climate--it’s hot, it’s cold--and feelings: “I sad I go from El Salvador.”
“Yes, you were sad when you left El Salvador.”
Joan on textbooks
I’m fortunate to work in a school district that gives me the liberty to teach without prescribed texts. However, I have been stuck in teaching positions where I’ve been handed a “textbook” of sorts and forced to use it as the sole teaching prop. If that happens to you, you’ve just got to shut the classroom door and cheat.
If you’re nervous about keeping your job, then search the text for ways to transform phony dialogue into real situations. ”I see the yellow bus” can become a virtual bus ride. Have your students “board” the bus, ask if a seat is free, ask the driver where to get off, bump into someone and say “Excuse me.” At the very beginning, you can provide students with written prompts in the form of cloze dialogues or a few cue cards.
Joan on grammar
I think it’s against current academic law to utter words such as “adjective” or “verb.” In fact, just whispering the word “grammar” might incite a mob of theoretical academics to throw rocks through your classroom windows.
If you’re just starting out your teaching career, please remember that some of us need to understand structure. If we’re over the age of eight or nine, we’re simply not equipped to learn language the way we did as babies. We need it all-reading, listening, speaking, writing, acting, repetition, and grammatical explanation, yes, even at the beginning.
There’s nothing wrong in saying, “In English, the adjective comes before the noun” or “In English we don’t have our years; we are our years.” (Babelfish or IGoogle translators can be helpful with this, but never assume they’re completely accurate.)
That world map is your springboard into language acquisition. You can rearrange and group desks into continents or countries, create cultural and culinary feasts with your students, conduct “map Olympics” and dole out gold and silver medals made of chocolate. You can turn your classroom into a solar system, a theatrical stage, or an airplane. Or, you can follow the text, and your students will be able to say: “The big yellow bus goes to the little red-brick school.” (Okay, I admit to hyperbole, but I think you get it.)
When we were children, my younger brother, God bless him, caused a great deal of worry because of his restlessness, unruliness, and completely indifference to his studies. After various punishments had proven ineffective, and after having set off a large firecracker in the middle of class with the excuse that it was carnival time, he was expelled from school and our father felt obliged to put him in boarding school.
Nothing in the world frightened us more than boarding school. Each time we passed under the large gloomy building, the two of us would try to catch sight of one of those poor wretches on the other side of the windows. We didn’t have the slightest doubt that they were miserable. To us, they seemed like strange inhabitants from another world. The very mention of the words boarding school gave us the shivers, even more so than other words such as prison, penitentiary, gallows, noose, which, for us, belonged to the same general category.
I understood immediately that Carlo—that was my brother’s name—was alarmed at the news, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to admit it. On the contrary, he laughed defiantly and confidentially told me that it wouldn’t take more than a week at the most, before he would run away. “I tell you, I’ll croak rather than stay inside that place.”
Just in case escape wasn’t possible during the first days, my brother worked out a plan of secret communication. Every afternoon from three to four, I was to stand outside the wall that surrounded the school; in fact, that was their daily outdoor recreation hour. To signal his presence, Carlo was to whistle the first notes of a popular song. I was supposed to answer him with the same tune. At this point I was to go to the main gate, which was hermetically sealed and reinforced with a metal panel that prevented anyone from looking inside, but perhaps it would be possible to exchange a few words from there.
And if Carlo couldn’t manage to get to the gate? In this case, he was to write a message on a slip of paper, fold it into a wad, and toss it over the wall to me. Or, as a last resort, he was to communicate the situation to me by whistling various, agreed upon tunes. To simplify things, we decided on six different tunes that would mean, respectively: I will escape this evening; unforeseen difficulties; they’ve discovered me; everything is okay; going from bad to worse; throw me a cigarette.
But it was also necessary to anticipate that none of this would be implemented and that Carlo would be forced to communicate with me via regular mail, which was, of course, subject to censorship. Therefore, we established a secret code made up of conventional phrases. For example: “The food is good here” meant “I’m starving to death.” “All the teachers are good” meant “They’re a bunch of skunks,” and so on. There were no phrases to express favorable conditions inasmuch as it seemed absurd that anything good could exist in boarding school.
That wasn’t all. Because our imaginations had ascribed a diabolical cunning and severity to the headmasters of the boarding school, we agreed on a very important rule: aside from the double entendres that we had established, I wasn’t to believe one word of anything that Carlo, for the sake of propriety or otherwise, might write to me. In case he had other information that couldn’t be written in code, it would be preceded by the expression, “Brother dear” (instead of “Dear brother”), and followed by the words, “So then...” Finally, if, in his letters or in conversation, he denied or voided this secret agreement, it would mean that he had been forced to write or to talk like that against his will, and I wasn’t to believe him.
He left the house one Monday morning while I was still sleeping and, for this reason, I didn’t see him. But, the next day by three o’clock in the afternoon, I was already on duty by the wall. I had prepared three small paper cartridges to throw over the wall, each one with a cigarette inside. I waited in vain. It was raining that afternoon and there was no outside recreation at the boarding school.
It was also raining the following day. But I had some luck. While I stood on the sidewalk with my umbrella open, waiting in case the boarders would be led into the courtyard despite the bad weather, I felt someone staring at me. Looking around, I didn’t see anyone at first. Then, looking up, I saw him. (From a first-floor window—opened, who knows how, Carlo was looking at me.) He was wearing the school’s gray uniform and holding himself motionless with a equanimity not at all like him. Perhaps he had been there for a few minutes. Why hadn’t he called me right away? A little whistle would have sufficed.
“Carlo, Carlo!” I called in a whisper. It was doubtful that he hadn’t seen me. How absurd! He had seen me all right! Seen me and observed me for a long time and without batting an eyelash. For what reason? Behind his back, invisible to me, perhaps a “prefect” was watching him? But then, without smiling, he raised his right hand, making a gesture that meant: “Wait, don’t get upset, stay calm.” As if it were I, not he, who had to be patient!
He stood by the window for a few more seconds and then disappeared. The windows, their lower panes frosted, were closed. Very confused, I went away. Anyway, I wasn’t worried about his projected escape from the boarding school. For me, one thing was certain: within a few days, Carlo would be expelled. I knew him too well. It was out of the question that those teachers would be able to put up with him for any length of time.
To keep my promise, however, I returned to the school everyday around three in the afternoon. On the other side of the wall, I would hear the children’s voices, a few quarrels quickly extinguished, some rare laughs. But I couldn’t distinguish my brother’s voice. I waited for him to make himself known with the agreed-upon whistle, but he never appeared. Then, I tried to whistle. Nothing. It was like that for four days. Was he ill?
Finally, on the fifth day, after several attempts to catch his attention, a wad of paper thrown from the courtyard landed in front of me. I opened it. Someone had written: “Everything is okay. Your coming is useless.” It wasn’t much, but I breathed a sigh of relief. At the earliest, perhaps this evening, Carlo would try to escape.
But a day passed, two, three, and no alarm sounded from the boarding school. Carlo hadn’t escaped. Then, I received a letter. “Dear brother,” it said, “I want to let you know that I am very happy here and everyone is good to me. Many things, which earlier I saw under a false light, have been cleared up for me, and therefore I see my future in a very different way. Don’t worry about me. They reported to me that you come to the school everyday in the hope of seeing me or speaking to me. Since I understand your affection for me, promise me not do it anymore. A hug from your brother, Carlo.”
I was flabbergasted. It seemed like some horrible joke. This was a letter from Carlo? Aside from the fact that he had never written so correctly, not one of those words could have been his. And the tone was all the more surprising because I could find no hidden meanings in it. There wasn’t even one phrase of our secret code. But, still more disconcerting, was the postscript: “Perhaps you might remember that before coming to boarding school, I had spoken to you about using a coded language to give you news of me. Absolutely do not attach one iota of importance to that foolishness. Besides, all this would be useless because I enjoy the greatest of freedom here.”
A forged letter? No, because the handwriting was beyond suspicion. What then? How could Carlo, with his indomitable cockiness, have changed his mind so soon? Not only his mind, but even his character seemed radically transformed; as though he had become someone else, an entirely different human being.
I don’t know myself why that inconceivable change awakened a mystifying horror in me; it was almost as though I had been told that Carlo was dead and a stranger had take his place. Without wondering if it was a good idea or not, I couldn’t help but tell everything to my father who, indeed, laughed at my fears. But, I noticed that even he seemed profoundly struck.
What agonizing days waiting to see him again. It took almost a month before he was allowed to spend a Sunday at home. Never will I forget that morning. At the appointed hour, the doorbell rang and I ran to open the door. All it took was one glance. The face, the body, the tone of voice were Carlo’s, but inside there was another: well-behaved, quiet, reasonable. Even his motions, under some somber magic spell, were calm and composed. He, who had never been able to take a step without smashing something!
“And, so?” I asked him.
“And, what?” he asked.
“But, didn’t you swear that you’d run away from school?”
“What does it matter?” he said. “I didn’t know then how it would be”
“But, do they treat you well?”
“Well, of course they do.”
“And they never punish you?”
“Punish me? Why? What an idea!”
And he made a slight, compassionate smile. And he was gazing at me. And it seemed that in the depth of his eyes there was an ambiguous shadow, some unspeakable secret, the true explanation; something that he couldn’t reveal to me.
Neither has he changed since then. After three months he left the boarding school; and he went on to another school. We went on vacation together. Never again was he the same boy he had been. He grew quiet and subdued, dedicated to his studies, full of courtesy when he spoke, disciplined in a way that was almost obsequious.
He grew up, he became a man. And when I would ask him what they had done to him during his first days at boarding school, he would give vague answers or indicate that he really didn’t understand the question. But always with a shadow of apprehension in the depth of his gaze, as if his true life had been cut short on that faraway day and now he was obliged to play a part that was not his, and he was absolutely unable to explain to me why.
He is almost forty. Today he is the father of a family, has a good job, is a model citizen esteemed by his colleagues and supervisors. We love each other. Yet, each time I see him again, there wells up in me the mad hope of seeing him—even large and fat as he now is—turn a somersault, say bad words, throw rocks at a window. In short, I hope that he returns, my real brother who was lost on that remote Monday morning. No, he doesn’t make faces or say bad words; he sits in his armchair with great dignity, opens the newspaper, reads the articles from cover to cover.
“Listen,” I sometimes say to him, thinking perhaps our old confidence will resurface, “but there, at the boarding school, do you remember if you were really happy?”
“Certainly,” he responds, “extremely.” And he looks at me with that indefinable pain.
“Why?” I still ask myself on those nights when I can find no peace. What did they do to him in that accursed school? What means did they use to extinguish him, to change him into a larva? Why doesn’t he rebel? Why doesn’t he have the courage to speak?