Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Guesswork, Practice Makes Perfect, Trying Not to Laugh, and Self-Satisfaction

Subtitle: English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Teacher Reading Glasses and Hearing Aids
I love my job. I didn't think that I would, but I find that I honestly enjoy teaching kids English. Sometimes it is painful and sometimes I feel ridiculous [especially when pantomiming everything from 'swimming' to 'goat'], but more often than not at the end of the day it's the teaching that keeps me happy here.
Quick: Think of the hardest parts of EFL teaching. What did you think of?
Most of us probably thought of trying to get the students to understand what we're saying. I'm sure lots of ETAs also thought of getting students to participate and to pay attention/be quiet. Both of these things are obviously true, but there is another lesser-known common challenge.
Quick: Think of the skills or characteristics needed to be a good EFL teacher. What did you think of?
Common answers are patience, enthusiasm, creativity, understanding, self-assurance, confidence, etc. There is another very important skill that I have learned to cultivate during my time here: putting on my EFL teacher reading glasses and hearing aids.
I was reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris yesterday when I came to a passage in his essay "The Smoking Section" and nearly fell off the bed in laughter. The scene takes place when he is visiting Tokyo and meets a young college student who wants to practice speaking English with him.
"What wild animals do you have in Tokyo?" I asked.
"Wild animal?"
"Do you have squirrels?"
No response.
I pretended to fill my cheeks with nuts, and the young man said, "Ah, 'sukaworra'!"
I then moved on to snakes and asked if he was afraid of them.
"No. I think they are very cute."
Surely, I thought, he's misunderstood me. "Snake," I repeated, and I turned my arm into a striking cobra. "Horrible. Dangerous. Snake."
"No," he said. "The only thing I am afraid of is moutha."
"The snake's mouth?"
"No," he said, "moutha. I maybe saying it wrong, but moutha. Moutha."
I was on the verge of faking it when he pulled out an electronic dictionary and typed in the word he was looking for, "ga", which translates, strangely enough, to "moth."
"You're afraid of moths?"
He nodded yes and winced a little.
"But nobody's afraid of moths."
"I am," he whispered, and he looked behind us, as if afraid one might be listening..
"Are you afraid of butterflies too?" I asked.
The young man cocked his head.
"Butterfly," I said, "colorful cousin of the moth. Are you afraid that he too will attack?"
David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, "The Smoking Section", 278-279
Sedaris describes my life as an EFL teacher so much more eloquently and humorously than I can. He describes the twin tasks of interpreting what someone who is learning English says and making predictions about the meaning of what they are saying based on cultural norms. Believe me, it is a skill and it takes practice. It's a skill that I use several times in every class. I call it my "EFL teacher reading glasses and hearing aids." It is tricky because any time your students find the courage to speak in English you want to congratulate and reward them, but when you have no idea what they said it's difficult to find out what they said without embarrassing them and thus discouraging further acts of courage.
One of my classroom goals is to have every student talk during each class period. With that in mind one of my daily warm-up exercises is Name and A..., an activity where each student stands up and says their name and then a word or phrase that fits into the category of the day. Categories we've used have been: animal, sport, fruit or vegetable, thing you would find at school, words starting with the letter 'S', verb, etc. There's a lot of wiggle room here and you can't predict the word they're going to say. A student stands up and says, "Wahyu, choh." Now my work begins. What does choh mean? You have to be able to think quickly. If you pause too long they start to get embarrassed. First things first, "can you repeat that please?" "Wahyu, choh." Hmmm. You need to be on your toes, if the speaker doesn't have your full attention it's a lost cause. The whole situation isn't helped by the fact that most Indonesians speak at a volume some distance below a whisper. Not only do I not understand, but I can't hear either. It becomes a a timed brainteaser. I think, okay, 'choh'... the letter 'c' in Bahasa Indonesia makes the sound 'ch' so, how about...'koh.' hmmm. What's our topic today? Animals. Ah-ha! Cow! Then you have to repeat what they said in the correct pronunciation so that they learn it, while at the same time making sure they knew they did a great job. "Yes, cow. Excellent!" Every time I guess correctly, I can't help but be ridiculously proud of myself. It's like a little test that I've passed. It's difficult not to laugh. It's not that I want to laugh at the students, rather I want to laugh in delight that I solved the mystery. But laughing makes them feel bad and for that reason I often have little teeth marks in my bottom lip at the end of a class.
You want to try one? This was one of my favorites. Same topic: animals. A boy stands up and says, "Rizki, chalk." What did he mean? Good luck!
The same thing happens when they write. Sometimes it is all about strange word orders. Store the I to go. What? Ah! I go to the store. Sometimes it has to do with strange spellings. We were doing a rhyming lesson and students were writing new verses to Raffi's Down By the Bay. I was checking how people were doing and came to a boy who had the word syem written on his paper. At first I was completely stumped. Syem? And then the guesswork began: 'Syem.' Hmmm. No idea. Um, 'siem'? No... Ah! 'Sy' in Bahasa Indonesia makes a 'sh' sound. 'Shem.' That is still not a word. 'Shem?' Ok. 'E' in Bahasa Indonesia is long 'a'. 'Sham'...Shame! Shame! Got it! Then the explanation begins. "In Bahasa Indonesia 'sy' sounds like 'shhh' but in English you write 'shhh' as 'sh'. So this word is spelled 'shame'. Great job!"
Sometimes you think you understand what they said, but you are really very wrong. I was teaching verbs yesterday and we were playing charades. The word was "take." After the students guessed it a kid in the back said, "Take me outta Indonesia!" At least, that's what I thought he said. I laughed and repeated it and said, "Sometimes I think that too." I didn't know why the students were laughing. Turns out, he said "Take means apa in Indonesia?" or "What does 'take' mean in Indonesian?" Not the same thing at all.
Same lesson, different class. We're talking about 'catch' and I ask what you can catch besides a ball. We come up with cat, dog, butterfly, etc. Then I ask a boy who doesn't look like he's paying attention. He says, "raccoon." I am floored! Do they even have raccoons in Indonesia? Where did he learn that word? "Wow! Raccoon! Excellent!" Everyone laughs. Turns out 'raccoon' sounds remarkably like a word in Bahasa Java that means approximately "I was not paying attention because I was sleeping." Nice.
Sometimes what they say sounds like something bad or at least something we would not say in the classroom. Back to that lesson on verbs. I decide to try out Simon Says in the last 5 minutes of class. So I write 'Simon Says' on the board. "Do you know how to play this game?", I ask. "Oh yes, semen!" yells one of the students. I'm still not mature enough to not blush when someone yells 'semen'. What on earth was he yelling about bodily fluids for? Oh yeah, just like 'e' is 'a' in Bahasa Indonesia, 'i' is 'e'. So, he thought he was saying 'Simon'. Oh pronunciation how you trap us all. And that is how I came to say, with a very purple face, the following to 36 boys, "um, actually, it is 'Simon'. Simon is a boy's name. You pronounce it 'Simon' because remember in English 'i' sounds like 'i' not 'e'. 'Semen' is not a boy's name. It is another word. It is not a good word to say in school. Okay? 'Simon!' Please do not say 'semen'."
Then we come to the cultural differences that Sedaris' story also illustrates. There is a game that we play fairly often called Sorts and Categories. It is simple and the kids love it. One of the topics that always arises is favorite animals. We're playing one day and a kid says his favorite animal is "dragon." "Dragon? Dragons are mythical creatures. They are not real. Your favorite animal isn't a dragon." "No," he says. "Dragon, why?" and he starts to flap his arms. "Do you mean a bird? Or a lizard?" "No. Dragon why? Like an ant." What? Okay, turns out he was saying 'dragonfly' as in, his favorite animal is a dragonfly. Which did not occur to me because most Americans would consider a dragonfly an insect and not an animal, but whatever floats his boat. Same game, different class, almost the same situation. Three boys tell me that their favorite animal is in fact a butterfly. What 18 year old American male would admit to anyone that their favorite animal was a butterfly? I'm going to go with none. "Why do you like butterflies?" "Because they are so cute!" Admittedly, all of my students use the word cute and pronounce it 'kuuuuuuuute!' because I said it like that one day in class, but seriously? Not at all what I expected. Similarly, my students informed me at Halloween that they are terrified of 'ghost birds.' Well, if I believed that dead birds became ghosts I guess I would be scared too. Turns out 'ghost birds' are owls ['burung hantu' in Bahasa Indonesia which directly translates to 'ghost bird'], but the students are afraid of them because they are like ghosts. My response was, "but what about Harry Potter? What about Hedwig?" "Still scared," they said.
Sometimes you just have no idea what they are talking about. Then, like Sedaris, I just want to fake it. "Oh, right. Good job!" But the kids sometimes know when you fake it and if you fake it then they don't learn the correct way to say things. This is where my knight in shining armour usually arrives. In almost every class there is that one kid who can serve as translator. For some reason or another he knows what his classmate is trying to say and he also knows how to say it so that I will understand. They are the students who help me keep the class afloat. They're the kids I turn to when I need help and about 75% of the time they pull through for me. They often become my favorites and I owe them a lot.
The answer:
Chalk was "cock" by which he meant a rooster.


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  2. Sas,
    I love this post it describes teaching perfectly - the ups and downs, joys and frustrations, in the end, it's all about the kids! Believe me, my students "speak" the same language, yet we often miscommunicate. Bless the kids that can use 'kidspeak' and help us all understand eachother... I can't wait to meet your students! Less than a month now...
    Love and Miss You,
    Mum xoxo