Monday, September 8, 2008

I only make it look easy

Over the past month, I've been teaching a woman who will soon head off to a European country for an extended period of time to work in the head office of her company. To prepare for this time, she is taking a series of 5 intensive lessons with me. We spend two hours on Sundays practicing possible real life conversations.

When I say "real life conversations", I don't mean small talk or actually having a chat, I mean short exchanges at the drug store, train station, office, etc. If you've ever taught from the plethora of textbooks on the market for learners of English as a second language, you know that these are the least popular lessons in the books. In fact, when I used to work at Nova conversation school 18 years ago, teachers would repeat the same lessons 6 times over with students before teaching the lessons centering around pragmatic exchanges at the market, a hotel, etc. While the content was useful, it was often a teaching cul-de-sac for the teachers and repetitive and uninteresting for the students. Even doing the dialog once where you're essentially saying, "Hello, I've got a headache. Could you recommend some medicine?" and getting a response and thanking the other person isn't all that interesting. Doing it enough so the student gets it down and can say it correctly is a slog through deep mud.

My particular student is advanced in level, but imperfect in her speech patterns. That is, she's too high level to need a textbook to tell her what to say in a particular context, but her grammar is sloppy enough that she needs to practice. That means we really couldn't use a book. The lessons have been just me using all the power of my brain to continuously come up with new scenarios to practice until she grew weary of that one and wants to move on to another. Imagine if you will how many one to two minute exchanges I have to take part in to fill up 120 minutes of time. Add into that that she wasn't even interested in any preamble to the lesson with chat. She just wants to dive in.

I'm sure from the student's viewpoint that I seem to be effortlessly tossing out scenarios and taking part in practice, but I only make it look easy. I was really exhausted by this as it's been a lot of improvisation. I had a fairly long list of real life situations and she had 4 that she had come up with, but I still was almost out of steam by the end. There just aren't that many things you need to do and she rejected some of the scenarios I had written down (like going to the bank).

People think teaching is easy because all you do is follow a book or just make small talk. It's not in the least like that. Books offer frameworks which you have to expand upon. Smalltalk only gets you so far, and it takes you a shorter distance the better you know someone. Students have goals and you have to be able to make a plan to meet them. It's not throwing things at a wall and hoping they stick or flying by the seat of your pants. You have to be able to think on your feet and make sure you're smoothly traveling down the right roads. You also have to make it look like you had the route perfectly mapped out all along or the students lose confidence in you or don't respect you. If you stumble, pause too long or lose your focus, the students know you don't know what you're doing at that moment.

Anyone who thinks that teaching is easy should have to sit through the same sort of grueling 2-hour sessions of short, pragmatic conversations I've been going through. Their opinion would change less than halfway through the lesson. I guarantee it.


Helen said...

Just a quick question...has she been overseas before? I'm just wondering because the banking system in Japan is very different than it is in Canada and I imagine in Europe too. She really might want a refresher on how to use a bank machine or fill out/in a deposit/withdrawal slip. Even a little chat about the differences between the machines could be useful. I'm a little surprised that she would turn down your advice/suggestion.

Have you spent any time going over menus/restaurant etiquette? That's one of the hardest things for my husband when he's abroad. Just decoding a menu is tough...even when I'm there to help.

Sorry...don't mean to step on your toes.

I actually like the little real life scenarios, I do a mean waitress one (complete with gum chewing!) but I agree, 2 hours of it is a bit much.

Good luck!

Orchid64 said...

Helen: You are so not stepping on my toes! I appreciate any advice that'll make it easier.

The student has been abroad for travel before, but not for business, and she can communicate okay for the most part. Her TOEIC score is in the 700's.

I can't say too much about her situation because I don't want to reveal enough to spill private data (or allow any third party to guess who I am from my blog), but the situation is really complicated. She won't have to go to a real bank because the office she'll work in has a cash machine located in it (though she does not work in any industry related to finance). She can ask for assistance from coworkers in using the machine (which is part of what we practice - requests of coworkers).

We did cover restaurants, though the etiquette issue is complicated because she's not going to a country with a unified culture. In fact, none of the 4 languages spoken in it are English, but it is the common language. So, there is no uniformity of manners or etiquette as there is the possibility of a mix of 4 cultures. We discussed some basics, but it's hard to do more than that.

I can't role play in any way which assumes any particular behavior on the part of the staff she deals with because of the cultural variations, though I did make some situations tough for her where it seemed possible.

Thanks for your advice! I'll take any help I can!

Emsk said...

Okay, I can guess where she's going, but won't say any more. But it might be a good idea to find something online relating to English spoken by non-natives as they don't sound like the language spoken by their 'host' lands, for a start, and this must affect the English they speak.

For the most part, these people do speak pretty good English. I ahve a student from this country whose antive language begins with the letter G, so tomorrow I'll ask him about cultural differences between the various people and their languages and what might be useful to someone who's relocating there for work.

Orchid64 said...

Thanks, Emsk. Any input you have would be very, very appreciated.

I can tell you that she is going to live in a predominately "G" speaking area and her work environment will definitely be all English (though the headquarters is now in this other country, the company was originally in England). I looked up the country in question in the book "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands" which outlines cultural differences for many countries, but the information is relatively generic.

Emsk said...

So, there are a couple of things I can tell you about the culture of this particular neck of the woods. For a start every G speaker speaks some English, some fantastic, some not as bt still pretty good. The student I spoke to wasn't exactly forthcoming when I explained why I wanted some advice for a Japanese person living in their midst - he seemed to think she needed tourism advice! But he did point out one thing - never start eating until everyone else has their meal in front of them because it's not taken kindly to. I remember in Japan things were different in that respect, but G-speakers, either from their native land or the other European countries where the language is spoken, are particularly blunt which might make your lady feel uncomfortable.

It's a shame she's not furnishing you with much opportunity to branch out in your sessions. There are bound to be more people coming to my work from this part of the world to learn Enlgish so I will keep asking questions about what might be useful language to work on.