How Hard Can It Be?
Posted on January 10, 2012
When I started teaching English as a second language, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know whether I would be pointing at a plant and saying ‘green’, pointing at my smiling face and saying ‘happy!’ or repeating ‘hello, goodbye’ over and over again. I did think to myself, ‘how hard can it be … teaching people my own language?’, but beyond that, I didn’t really think of how things would proceed. I ignored the more obvious questions of, ‘I can speak my native language, but can I teach it?’ and ‘where does one actually begin when teaching a language?’ and jumped in. In hindsight, not knowing how little I knew was probably a good thing. Had I known how little I knew – in the beginning – and how often I had had to completely fake it, I may never have jumped with such gay abandon. I may have been far too tentative and far too nervous and the students would have smelt it, like sharks smell blood, and eaten me alive.
You see in some cases, and in some countries, teaching English may well involve 2 hours of teaching kids how to count, or a few hours of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I would like a coffee.’ But not here. Here, people start learning English at school. By the time they have finished, they have been learning English in a school environment for ten years. Most of them know the grammar, many of them better than English speakers themselves. (I shudder to think of what teaching English in the Netherlands or Scandinavia, where they don’t dub film or television and where the people speak near perfect, accent-less English is like.) Most of them don’t really want to know how to order a coffee, they want to know more. They want to perfect their grammar and move onwards and upwards towards total fluency. Or even worse … they are totally fluent and want to get even better. They want to speak like native speakers.
To be a language teacher means you really have to get inside your own language and know it inside out. It is to be intensely familiar, on a whole new level, with your mother tongue. Your grammar has to be perfect, or close to, all the time because your students are going to write down and repeat what you say, or catch you out, or prove you wrong, or double and triple check to see if you are absolutely sure that is the only preposition you can use in that sentence. Sure, as native speakers, we should all know the basics – although many of us don’t, including those with journalism degrees writing for daily nationals – but knowing the basics isn’t enough. You need to know the answer and you need to know why it is as it is, or why, out of several possibilities, the answer you are giving them is the best possible one. Why this tense now and not that one? Why this preposition here, but in an almost identical situation, that one? Why should I put this word in this position in the sentence, and not in that one? Why can’t I say this? Am I wrong, or is it just not ideal? What makes it less ideal than your suggestion? Are you sure?
Beyond the complicated, bendable, nit-picky, sometimes bizarre grammatical basics of the fluid, flexible (and fantastic) English language, there are other things you will be called upon to do as a language teacher. You may have to help bankers understand legal documents; write a speech for a company’s CEO; teach suits the terms and systems specific to the business world; teach civil servants the language, terms and processes specific to the sector of the government they work for; make people aware of cultural differences and how to deal with them in different situations; teach pronunciation in the ‘how now brown cow’ kind of way; prepare students for university entrance examinations that consist of data analysis and essays. Often you must maintain the energy necessary to keep one single class interested and informed for 5 hours straight, or coax someone to speak, as grammatically correctly and as clearly as they can, for 90 minutes.
To be a language teacher is also to be something of a trivia vessel. You have to know a lot about stuff (or at least hoard facts as you go along). Stuff about your own culture, stuff about places you have been to, stuff about literature they studied in high school, films they have seen, songs they have heard, historical moments they are curious about. Not only because, quite often, you need to encourage people to speak by speaking yourself, but also because when it comes to one culture’s curiosity about another, people ask the strangest things. And then, of course, they almost always ask ‘why?’
And finally, to be an Australian language teacher – or indeed to be an Australian anywhere in the world – is to be constantly asked if you have eaten, ridden, seen, touched or owned a kangaroo.
Fucking kangaroos. And yes, I do teach my students how to swear. Sometimes. And only in a grammatically correct and socially appropriate manner. It is a valuable English language skill.