Fighting talk

30th May 2008 at 01:00
Hola! Taking lessons in linguistic back-pedalling, Jeremy Dean teaches English in Spain
Hola! Taking lessons in linguistic back-pedalling, Jeremy Dean teaches English in Spain

Can you work quietly please?"; "Settle down to work quickly please,"; "Speak in English please." You probably use the first two phrases (or variations of them) on numerous occasions. But the third? Welcome to immersion teaching.

There weren't any special requirements or qualifications stipulated when we applied to work in a school for Spanish children where all of their subjects (except for Spanish) would be taught in English. In fact, the nearest we got to any advice was a throw-away remark from the headteacher about how near impossible it was to get his Year 8 science class to stop talking to each other in Spanish. The message seemed to be, throw your hands in the air and sigh loudly.

To describe the first weeks as a shock doesn't come close. Every lesson seemed to start with a furious exercise in linguistic back-pedalling.

Planned lessons on personal pronouns or poetry didn't flow well in classes where the majority of the children barely seemed able to ask to go to the toilet.

Our own "emerging" proficiency in Spanish usually did more harm than good. When a child couldn't make themselves understood in English, I'd sometimes ask them to: "Tell me in Spanish." The only advantage was that it didn't take them as long. But I still didn't understand.

Those of us who weren't of the "throw your hands in the air" disposition reinvented and recycled the usual tactics of bribery and threats. A wall chart where children could earn points when they were heard speaking to each other in English was a hit for a while. Then the smart ones went back to Spanish, only to ask each other: "How are you today?" when I came into earshot. This was in a numeracy lesson.

I never liked to threaten to take away their playtime if they spoke in Spanish but I did hear that some staff were driven to it.

I have to admit that it's hard for the children who start learning English at a very early age. I remember the day I wandered into nursery two (full of two-year-olds) and found myself confronted with the reality of "starting them early". Believe me, that way madness lies.

The teacher looked slightly demented as she shouted, "Come to the carpet," at 20 small Spaniards who clearly had no idea what she was saying and so continued to ignore her. I have nothing but admiration for whoever does that job, and I know that it does work. Eventually.

How do I know? Well, the other day, there was a bit of a hubbub in the far corner of my room. By "hubbub" what I actually mean is fight. Lots of noise and a teeny bit of pushing and tugging. Two boys, a school rubber and a small crowd. You can probably work out what was going on. Jaime was shouting: "Ees mine, ees mine" at Vicente who was responding with: "No, ees mine."

Cristina came wide-eyed to my desk to state the obvious. "They fighting," she gasped. "Yes, isn't it wonderful?," I whispered to her incredulous face. But I couldn't let it go on too long. So, in the time-honoured tradition of teachers protecting school property, I stood up and bellowed: "It's mine, actually."

At which point everybody stopped. Vicente gave an enormous tug and wrenched the rubber from Jaime's hand. He held it aloft, like a small, grey FA Cup, and shouted: "It's mine." Well, what could I do? I gave them both a house point.

I returned to my desk to find Cristina close to an infarto (a heart attack). "They fighting, you say ees good and you geev heems house point?," she accused in a tone that told me she couldn't work out whether she'd misheard, misunderstood or if her teacher had gone completely loco.

I leaned over to her distressed face. "Of course it's good," I whispered. "Didn't you hear? They were fighting in English."

Jeremy Dean has given up teaching in the UK for a contract in Spain.

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