Teaching English as a Foreign Language (when you don’t know your grammar )

The centre of Murica.
Río Segura, Murica, Spain, May 2019

No message.

There was a signal, so I sent a message announcing my arrival at the bus station in Murcia, in Spanish, a language I knew some words of but had never spoken.

“Yo soy aqui”

I intended to say, “I am here”. Translated it does mean “I am here” but, as any Spanish speaker knows, it should have been “Yo estoy aqui.” As it’s the verb estar (to be) nor the verb ser (to be) in such situations.

In ‘Spanish time’ my host arrived and waved me to her car

She spoke some broken phrases of English. More than I spoke of Spanish but that first day, neither of us could construct a sentence.

If you have since met the Casera, the rolling English you heard was not what I experienced that first day. You heard her speaking after months of living with a native English speaker in her apartment.

Therefore, we couldn’t say much, yet we somehow conversed for the next twenty minutes.

This was a swift education. When it comes to conversation, the most important thing is to have faith.

Very soon, I’m going to meet a Chilean man at a Chilean airport

I will have to open my mouth and speak.

Butterflies swarm in my stomach to think of it. We have two common languages, so it shouldn’t be a problem. From his writing, I assume he speaks beautiful English since his style of composition made me smile with some admiration. I speak Spanish, more or less.

He speaks Chilean Spanish; I speak Yorkshire English. Hiding behind the Andes, Chilean Spanish has developed its unique forms. Yorkshire is well, Yorkshire. I’m told my accent is lovely, but at least for the first week, unintelligible.

I speak non-rhotically, which is a pain when it comes to learning Spanish

Rhotic being a technical term meaning I drop my ‘r’. In Spanish this is a problem as every infinitive verb ends in a vowel followed by an ‘r’ and in many forms of British English (non-rhotic English) such ‘r’ sounds are abandoned.

Take the word ‘car’, which I pronounce ‘cah’.

And then apply this to the Spanish ‘hablar’ (to speak) and get ‘hablah’ which more or less is ‘habla’. I.e. he speaks.

You may wonder, ‘what the hell are you on about Catherine?’

Which is understandable. I wouldn’t have known any of this phonetic vocabulary, if I hadn’t spent quite so much of the last year searching to discover what this annoying letter ‘r’ is.

Despite hours trying, I have never been able to trill an r

But even the single r in Spanish is a harder sound than any r in my English. My pronunciation of ‘Gracias’ is wrong, not because I fumble over whether it’s a c or a th sound in the middle, but because my first syllable is fluffily soft.

From the feedback I have surmised from my students, I imagine my Spanish accent would work if you were casting the little sister of a Disney princess. It’s not the sound I was hoping for.

We take speaking for granted

When I speak in Spanish in front of my parents, I expect them to understand. They should understand me. They are my parents. When my mum stares at me as if I am speaking gobbled-gook, I wonder why. It takes me a cognitive churn to understand that she doesn’t get what I’m saying.

When I speak in half-formed mumbled English, they seem to know what I mean. If I mime, they tend to get it. They know me, they know my voice. So, I find it bewildering how when I’m speaking Spanish are there so many blank looks?

But we also take for granted our knowledge of our language

We instinctively know what feels right. Or, to invert that idea, we know what sounds wrong. We feel that someone is speaking our language as a second tongue before we know how they’re mis-forming the grammar or before we can identify where the pronunciation mimics their native language.

My Spanish students stumble at the difference between the ‘b’ and the ‘v’ sounds. A Finnish friend has a wider spoken vocabulary than me but speaks with an odd ‘v’, which gives her foreignness away.

As children, we absorb this language knowledge without realising we’re doing it

Grammar especially. Later, at school, some English teacher tries to explain what a noun, a verb and an adjective are, by which point we’ve been using them for years.

Then we start to study a foreign language. I did French and German at school. At this point, lots more grammar descriptors come into play, like verbal tenses and moods, and we become very confused.

French, German and English might have much in common, but their structure differs.

Learning German was not a success

Despite having had approximately 110 classes in the subject, I can’t say anything useful whatsoever. When I’m in Germany itself, I recognise some words but not much else. I don’t have any innate feeling about German and so, to me, it’s random sound.

When you don’t have any feeling about what is right or wrong in a language, you’re reliant on rules

You use your first language as a basis for the language you’re learning. Then, rather than learning the new language from scratch, you adapt the rules you know to the new language. My Spanish students ‘cook my mother’ because such grammar makes sense in Spanish.

I would say that my job requires some awareness of this grammatical web.

As an English language assistant, they tell you all you need is to be able to speak English

Which sounded like a wonderful way for me to teach and avoid my lack of formal grammar education. The marketing chaps stress how your role is to conduct conversations and focus on speaking skills.

While it’s true that from a feeling we know when a student says something we wouldn’t, it’s insufficient for answering why.

And the best students ask, “Why?”

At first, I figured I must be able to work it out. I’d think of a few examples and the student would nod. A few hours later I would be in the grocery store or cooking dinner and an exception to my supposed rule would pop up.

At which point, I had to hope I remembered which student in which class had asked the question. Then I’d need to admit I’d made a mistake, and then from somewhere work out a satisfactory explanation or the grammar.

After a few such incidences, I took the better line, “I don’t know. Let me check.”

Teaching English is a constant lesson in humility.

The English grammar experts were all around me

They were the teachers, whose English was sometimes odd in its form, but who had learnt grammar first, conversation second. And hence, they knew the rules inside out.

But this is not my only linguistic challenge as a language assistant.

Most native speakers don’t speak standard English

I don’t. When I’m teaching, I try to speak with clarity and standard grammar, but I refuse to adopt my ‘a’ or my ‘u’ into anything but what it is. My ‘r’, as I’ve said, is a hopeless case. I could not fake an accent, even if I wanted to.

It is only through learning grammar though that I can differentiate between my Yorkshire (my idiolect) and Standard English. This is important. I mustn’t trust my feelings. To say ‘I am sat on the sofa’ feels right but it’s not standard. Furthermore, I have no problem with double negatives or double contractions, although I try not to use them.

When a child uses a double negative, which is a common mistake for native Spanish speakers, I smile and tell them they sound like they’re from Yorkshire. I show them their mistake ask them to use Standard English for school. I couldn’t tell them they’re speaking wrong when it’s the same quirk as we have at home in England.

It’s not infrequent that I screw up

And I’ve given classes where I’ve caught myself speaking with non-standard grammar. At this point, I pause the class and wave my arms about a bit.

“You know how here you say ‘estamos’ as ‘etamo’ because it’s your dialect? When I said ‘I am sat on the sofa’ it was because of my dialect. It’s not standard English. Please do not do this in your exams. We should say, ‘I am sitting on the sofa’ as it’s the gerund here.”

But it’s important to recall what is correct varies depending on who you ask

I met one (Australian) English teacher who thought it was abominable to teach children to use contractions in their writing. I bit back the urge to say, ‘You shou’n’t never do what?’.

If a child put some double contractions into a piece of dialogue, I’d give them bonus marks.

I love beautiful language

Books with intricate sentences which wind stylistically in directions you didn’t suppose possible enchant me. Yet, what’s most impressive about language to me is how we can mangle it and still communicate. For eight months the Casera and I lived together. Neither of us fluent in the other’s language, we used whatever language allowed us to communicate. So what if we broke all the grammar rules and pronounced the impossible imperfectly, we conversed.

It all depends on faith.

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Even in English, I make mistakes. I always appreciate feedback on my writing. If you see an error, please tell me. Write to kate@happenence.co.uk and I will correct it.

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Learning to see
Teaching English as a Foreign Language (when you don’t know your grammar )