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What does a language assistant do in a Chilean University

There are about seven students in the class and they’re chatting away, in Spanish, about something to do with a motorbike that I can’t quite follow. I’ve just arrived. The teacher will be late. The teachers are always late.

This class are learning how to tell me their name, their age and their telephone number. For some of the students, this is ridiculously easy, for others, it’s a major challenge. I have a choice – I could sit and wait for the teacher to arrive or I could speak.

I ask them what they’re talking about

It takes five minutes of back and forth, with almost the whole class participating as no individual has enough vocabulary, but I learn that our resident knight in shining armour, sat in the centre of the front row, helped a guy to safety after he’d fallen off his motorbike and fractured his leg.

Not bad for a class whose spent the last month learning, “Where are you from?”

Classes here are small and attendance is poor

The focus is on enabling the students to speak, rather than read or write. All examinations for English are oral ones. My focus, therefore, is entirely on conversation practice.

The first goal is to make learning English less of an ordeal

Fear might be a good teacher of instinctual response, but to speak a foreign language requires a higher part of the brain. You have to want to own the language. Otherwise, how will you work through the anxiety, embarrassment and humiliation of constantly getting in a muddle?

I pity the students. If my French classes at school had been taught with such a focus on speech, I would have hated it. Speaking a foreign language can be a horrible experience. One of the big appeals of physics is that it’s quietly learnt. Books, paper, pens. But in Foreign languages, your main tool is your voice. Everyone else hears your terrible pronunciation and when you forget a word, everyone else knows.

Yet, from a rational perspective, nobody cares much about you. Most other people in the class are too absorbed in their insecurities to care about yours. But this is a big leap of faith to take.

Therefore I see the first job of the language assistant to be confidence-boosting

Note this isn’t about self-esteem. I’m not talking about gold stars and congratulations for every utterance. I’m talking about presenting a challenge and guiding the students in achieving it.

Like the conversation about the motorbike

When I first told the students to explain what they were talking about, they deemed it impossible. Understandable when you’re in English 1 repeating ‘My name is…’. With time, they started clarifying the facts. There was one person involved, a man. He fell. On the road. Leg. Broken, no, little broken. Fractured. By the time the teacher arrived, we’d got to a whole anecdote.

The second role of the language assistant is to speak

You might laugh, but the English these students predominantly hear is their teacher, and most of the teachers speak with a noticeable Chilean accent. I had one teacher who last year accentuated his Spanish accent when he spoke English to his class to try and help them understand. I’m not convinced that this is a good solution. It’s a bit of a short cut and short cuts don’t always pay off. However, I am sure that it helps to hear many different accents.

I do speak differently when I’m teaching

My word choice is limited. The flow is slower, and I include a lot more t’s and h’s. It takes a conscious effort to speak like this and sometimes when I’m tired, I slur my words, apologise and start again in better English.

The third task is to correct

This is much harder than is sometimes presumed. When you’re listening to English as a foreign language as part of a conversation, what you focus on is the parts that make sense and your brain attempts to fill in the gaps to create understanding. When you’re listening as a teacher, what you need to note is the mistakes. Some mistakes are obvious. Others seem invisible.

You get used to hearing the language in foreign accents and adapt to the poor pronunciation. Some grammatical mistakes don’t disrupt the meaning of the sentence and are therefore harder to spot. Sometimes there are so many mistakes, you don’t know how to classify and sort through them.

It’s much harder to hear the mistakes when you are part of the conversation

Sometimes, therefore, all I do it sit in front of two people who are talking and make notes. This can be disquieting for the students I’m listening to, but does allow me to hear what’s going on. Since we do lots of roleplays, there are plenty of opportunities for me to attend to the oddities of their foreign English.

I’m finding that the teachers are faster at noting and classifying the errors

Probably because it is how they do their examinations. They’re practised at it because they’re used to teaching the same course, over and over. They know what they’re listening for. They’re comparing the mistakes to the mistakes of other students and the curriculum. Meanwhile, I’m comparing the mistakes to my idea of standard English.

Sometimes though, I ignore the rules of English

I let my adaptive ears process vs that sound like bs and the bs that sound like vs. Instead of fussing, I just let the students speak the stuff that’s on their minds. Sometimes this means conversations about motorbike accidents. Other times they ask sweet questions, like do I miss my family?  Although what they seem to want to know is nothing more complex than have I tried the local speciality, a hot-dog?

How To Survive The Inordinate Terror Of Leaving University

[The view from outside.]

I felt like I was stepping back in time.

A too cold house. So much washing up that you couldn’t find a place to put your mug without toppling the entire kitchen and late nights of drinking, laughing at music videos and avoiding talking about any real dreams in case they’re too much.

Turns out, by visiting the past you learn a lot about how you’ve changed.

And I’ve really changed.

I was stunned. Obviously I’ve been in this position, and made my own inelegant execution of post-university life. And yet something substantial has altered in how I think about the future.

There’s a palatable fear associated with being a final year university student. The balance between ‘how am I going to get all this work finished and the haunting question on everyone’s mind of ‘what’s next?’.

To my great relief, I’ve lost much of that fear.

What if you fail?

What if I fail to get this job? What if NOBODY wants to employ me? Is getting my degree even good enough any more – everyone has degrees so they’re pretty much worthless, right?

What if I choose a PhD (or post-doc) and then can’t do it, or don’t find it interesting, or don’t like my supervisor, or have to spend the rest of my life in this totally boring going nowhere niche? What if I can’t get funding?

What if I get funding?

What if the only job I can get is in London, and I don’t want to live in London? Or what if it’s in Hong Kong, and I’m scared of flying? And what if I start this job and nobody likes me? Or what if I’m really awful at it?

And right now it feels like everyone has already started applying.

Just being snuggled under a blanket listening to so much uncertainty was unnerving.

No. No. No.

If you know what you want, go get it.

If you don’t know what you want, stop wasting your energy being frightened and give yourself a chance to discover what it is you do want to do.

There isn’t a deadline.

When September rolls round, you don’t have to have your desk marked out.

Life doesn’t have to feel like complex jigsaw where you don’t know what you’re trying to build. Or even why you’re bothering.

Your education is a great gift. But when it comes to the future, your degree is a sunk cost and your skills are your immovable assets. There’s no point pondering sunk costs, and just because you own something, doesn’t mean you have to use it.

You need a vision and a strategy before you plan your next investment.

What If I hate what I do?

If you don’t get a graduate job, if you don’t get funding for your PhD, if you start a job and hate it, if you start a PhD and hate it. It doesn’t matter.

If you don’t like it, quit, try something else.

Quiting isn’t failing. It’s a recognition that you’re ready to head in a different direction.

If someone’s going to hold it against you that you’ve screwed up a few times in your life, committed to stuff you realised was wrong for you and changed track, they’re the fool.

If you can take responsibility for removing yourself from a situation that’s not enriching your life, then you should be proud of yourself. Not ashamed.

Shame is unhelpful.

But what you mustn’t do is do nothing.

Stagnating is the only real failure. Not learning. Not trying. Not dreaming. Not doing.

Commit to something small – reading a relevant book, talking to someone with influence, consulting your peers and family, applying for a temporary job or internship. Get momentum, then use it to keep moving.

Keep learning. Keep improving. Keep falling down and getting back up because otherwise you’ll sit and stagnate and never go anywhere.

Throw all the cards in the air, shuffle the deck and deal yourself a new hand.

Take up improvisation theatre classes or climb a mountain.

But, my parents?

Here’s the bit I screw up.

If your parents love you, they’ll worry about you, a lot.

They’ve got the right to do so.

There’s a lot of ‘well-meaning’ people in the world but just because people love you doesn’t mean they necessary know what’s best for you. It’s easy to exclude everyone with a heart at this point.

The trouble comes when you think you know what they expect or want from you, but you don’t really know because you haven’t asked and they’re too polite to project their desires on you anyway. Mostly, people who genuinely love us want us to be exactly what we want to be: smiling as we engage in doing something that makes us feel worthwhile.

It doesn’t harm to listen to parents once in a while. They’ve already invested a large proportion of their adult lives in you. If you care about them, give them the benefit of the doubt and keep them in the loop.

Take the time to explain your decisions. Don’t they deserve to know where you’re going and what you’re doing?

Leadership starts with a clear vision. You’ve got to lead your own life, but also need supporters, and for them to follow you, you’ll have to share your vision.

I say this, and I’m rubbish at it. When I get scared I fill ‘My Documents’ with files and leave the blog looking sparse. This is the wrong way round. When you’re terrified, that’s when you need to vent and articulate your feelings. When this stuff is out in the open it’s easier to recognise the fear for what it is.

The Mother told me her worst fear was that I’d join a commune, chop off all my hair and take up drugs. The worst fears of some of the students I’ve spoken to over the last week were much more grounded in reality – like mental breakdowns and depression.

The worst case scenario

What is your worst case scenario?

Mine involves not doing the work I believe in. It involves not having something to be proud of. It involves being so distracted by my own insecurities and fears that I forget to invest time in the people I love.

What will you be proud of when you’re old and grey?

Work really hard at something you believe in, invest in the people you love, and you’ll have plenty to be proud of, whatever you do.

Something has changed in the way I think.

I’m no longer being driven by fear. I’m not paralysed by fear. I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities and the freedoms that come with being in control. But this overwhelm isn’t a deadening overwhelm.

It feels more like eating a whole bag of Jelly Babies.

My mind is bouncing, energetic, excited by today, thrilled that tomorrow is going to happen too.

It’s my life. My choice of pace.

You have the choice too.