Sunday, June 2, 2013

My Father Is a Was (and other English Mistakes)

I teach English in Mozambique.  I don’t write about it very often, but that is, indeed, my job.  And it might not be rewarding in the traditional sense (I am not terribly successful, for instance), but it is very funny.  So I do enjoy my work.

Teaching English in Mozambique is a unique challenge.  First, there is the question of communication.  Almost none of my students actually speak Portuguese at home (they speak a Bantu dialect, instead), and very few of them actually communicate at a level that could be considered fluent.  This is a problem, because I don't speak any Bantu dialects, and must use Portuguese as a medium through which to conduct my classes.  In short, we end up with the following equation:

Highly accented Portuguese (Teacher)
÷          Low level comprehension (Student)
            Highly low level English Comprehension (Student)
REMAINDER accented Portuguese (Teacher)

In other words, the students don’t understand anything and, as a remainder, I am left talking mostly to myself.  In my highly accented Portuguese.

And let’s try to get a grasp on what my poor students are going through.  First, imagine learning Spanish in high school.  That’s not so hard, right?  No es díficil.  But then try learning a third language (say, Chinese), through your recent acquisition of Spanish. 

No es díficil à 它并不难 

Got that?  Keep in mind that your teacher is going to be talking to you in Spanish all the time.  Worse, it’s slightly stilted Spanish.  With some Portuguese words thrown in (‘cause that what she studied in high school). 

So it’s really no surprise when my students are completely and utterly overwhelmed at my attempts.  Even something as simple as the verb “To Be” can be very confusing. 

Yo estoy à 我的  
Él es à 他是 

¿Por qué no estás entendiendo nada de esto?  Why aren't you getting this?

So the first problem is a problem of communication.  It would be much easier to teach English to students who could actually understand my explanations, but, frankly, this simply isn’t the case.

The second problem is a problem with the English language itself.

That’s right.  English.  Compared to Portuguese, English is a terrible language to learn. 

English pronunciation is difficult and highly diverse.  Verbs in the past tense are frequently irregular.  The vocabulary is rife with synonyms.  Words look the same and sound the same but aren’t the same.  And what is up with “Do” and “Did”?

Take this sentence, for instance:

He knew Mike. 

First of all, we’re facing an irregular conjugation (know becomes knew).  Secondly, we have a silent K (knew pronounced new).  Then, we have words that sound the same but aren’t the same (knew sounds like new).  Finally, we’re looking at diverse pronunciation, especially in regards to the pronunciation of the letter “e” (written with Portuguese vowels, this sentence would look like “Hi nu maik”).

Then, take a look at this sentence:

He did not know Mike.

Where the heck did we get that “did”?  In Portuguese, this sentence would read, “He no knew Mike.”  Or, better, “He no knowed Mike.”  Logically, that is what makes sense. 

My students have a lot of trouble grasping “do” and “did” when using them as auxiliary verbs, and I don’t blame them.  (Do you even know what an auxiliary verb is?  I didn’t until just now!) 

By the end of the year, we are all babbling idiots.  I lose the ability to explain even the most simple concepts (I like, He likes, you… likes?) and my students are knee-deep in the swampy murk of the sticky English language.  I find myself speaking and writing only in cognates (design an image, respond in a phrase) and some of my students simply reach a point of over-saturation (“Teacher, I no likes Inglês).

So why do I enjoy it? 

Because, against all odds, teaching English is fun.

The Verb “To Be” lends itself nicely to a rhyming jingle, and regular verbs in the past tense just evoke the urge to chant.  And who knew that you could have so much fun with a duck, a plastic jar, and six prepositions of place?

I’ve decided that I simply can’t teach the entirely of the English language.  With just three hours of lessons with each class a week, I can’t even teach a sizable chunk.  But I can make it fun, and built a positive relationship between my students and the English language.  So that’s what I do.

In return, my students try their best.  Their English is terrible, and is likely to remain so.  Their spelling is atrocious and their listening skills are even worse.  Their assignments are a mess.  But at least they are enthusiastic and they manage to make me laugh. 

One thing that always makes me smile is my students' love of their new English names.  The names aren’t official in any way (often, they aren’t even real translations.  After all, how would you say “Ndequenapena” in English?), but the kids seem to like them.  I have some who use them unfailingly.

Some are pretty:
Feta Julho à Fay July
Isabel Castro à  Elizabeth Castle

Some are plain:
Fernando Augosto à  Fred August
Dino Ricardo à  Dean Richard

And some are funny (or a product of me, giving up):
Samalani Saquissoni à Sam Sacks

Another thing that makes me smile (or laugh outright), is the common misappropriation of articles.  Little words are tricky but important, and confusion about articles can lead to some oddly specific phrases:

I want to be one teacher. 
I dislike a cabbage.

There is also some confusion between the letters “R” and “L”, since the Chewa and Nyungwe languages don’t distinguish between the two.  That, paired with some very imaginative spelling, keeps me on my toes when grading papers.

Mai numble is numble 14.   My number is number 14.
Mai tichel is Techle Risa.   My teacher is Teacher Lisa.

Finally, there is this terrific anecdote.  This, I feel, more than anything else, really illustrates what I go through with my kids.

From my diary:

“Today I taught professions…  At the end of the lesson, I gave an Independent Assignment.  The students had to fill in the blanks to complete the following composition:

“My name is______.  My father’s name is _______.  My father is a ______....”

Then, as an afterthought, I remembered that I had a large number of orphans in this particular class.  I felt bad, but decided not to change the whole assignment.  Instead, I drew a little text box on the corner of the board.

“If your mother or father has passed away,” I said, “You can change “is” to “was” on your composition.  That way, you can both honor your parents and complete the assignment.”

I drew on the board [  is à was ] and felt pretty good about myself. 

But when my students started handing in their compositions, I realized that I had caused some confusion.  Rather than honor the professions of their late parents in writing, all of my little orphans had written,


It was funny and horribly sad, both at the same time.”

So, yes, I enjoy my job. 

Am I successful?  Probably not.  At least, not in a way that can be easily measured.  But I’m happy and my students are happy, and through laughter and mild mistakes, we are creating a slightly (and I do mean slightly) more peaceful and communicative world.

Group work from Numbles 44, 50, 48 and 49
English Names:  Neves, Etelvina, Caetano, and Feta
On the other end of the spectrum:  Fernando Manuel does not know how to spell his name in any language
"Aim fain thenquiwu" = "I'm fine, thank you."
"Bowatalide sihola polafisola" = "Boa tarde, Senhora Professora"
Haha.  He meant to write "Good luck"
Am I successful? I don't know.  But things like this make me feel worthwhile.
Though he's not my student anymore, Seni comes over from time to time and asks
for a "left-over" English Exam.  He then takes them (for fun) and earns stickers to keep.

1 comment:

  1. Teaching English can be SO hard. Having a co teacher was a blessing and a curse, they would speak only khmer and I would speak only english with a little bit of khmer in there. Students were SO lost.