A day in the life of ... Jeremy Dean

23rd August 2013 at 01:00
Teaching English to a class of young Spanish children involves being just a little bit dim, a little bit deaf - and lots of fun

How do you motivate young children to learn a foreign language? How do you put irregular verbs and unusual spelling patterns above the usual dayglo, bleeping paraphernalia of junior existence? That's the challenge I face every day.

Today, I am teaching a class of Spanish six- and seven-year-olds in English. It's called "immersion". The key to this kind of lesson is noise. Today there is noise everywhere. If my classroom is quiet, I get nervous because the children are not speaking English and they're not hearing English. I speak very little Spanish myself, but it's more than I ever let on to them.

Experience tells me that there's nothing junior children like better (in school) than telling their teacher "things": reports of a new cat, the football-sticker transfer market, Dad's collision with a parked car and his immediate decision that they didn't need to park there after all. So how do you take that fact and use it to encourage young children to want to learn a foreign language? Easy. Give them a teacher who speaks only the language you want them to learn. That's my role.

Today, for example, as we're waiting for a bus to arrive (in fact, whenever we have a spare moment), the children choose from a range of carefully selected games, all demanding speech. Happy Families is a favourite; another is Charades. I join in. My word is "teapot". I taught infants once so I'm a dab hand at the "I'm a little teapot, short and stout" routine, which I demonstrate, missing out the word they're looking for.

Jan scratches his chin and studies me as I "pour".

"Eeselefant?" he asks, without trying to be funny.

Later in the morning, we have an impromptu "quiz" (it's a much better word than test). I ask the children the meaning of 10 new English words. Working together, they get eight or nine right. Then they test me on 10 new Spanish words. I score two. They commiserate and encourage me, and give me tips on how to score three next time.

We do show-and-tell on a regular basis, but they still don't believe they can bring in whatever they want.

"I breeeng my cat?" Marina asks, with an expression that would be appropriate had she suggested bringing a nuclear weapon.

"What colour is it?" I tease, but with nuclear-proliferation levels of seriousness.

"Ees ... ees ... ees black!" she says, dredging the word from her memory with a proud gasp.

"OK," I say. "As long as it's not green."

She squeals with delight and hugs the nearest child. Then she turns back to me, a quizzical look replacing the delight.

"I just don't like green cats," I say, shrugging. The gap-toothed smile tells me that her understanding is coming along just fine.

And why shouldn't it? As David Crystal says in his A Little Book of Language, "It's normal for human beings to be bilingual ... About three-quarters of the human race grows up speaking two or more languages. It's the most natural thing in the world."

This afternoon is art. It's often a time when I go a bit "deaf" as the children lapse into Spanish for a natter. But, just before home time, I'm reminded of how far there is to go.

"You can take your picture home tonight," I tell Pepa, who is obviously very proud of her work. She looks up, a crease of concern on her brow.

"Tonight ees today?" she asks.

Jeremy Dean taught for 25 years in the UK before moving to Spain. His book Zen Kyu Maestro: an English teacher's Spanish adventure is the story of a year teaching English through immersion

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