Snorkels with the subjunctive

7th August 1998 at 01:00
PSSST! Fancy a few bob for teaching summer school? You know, English for foreign students?

Arrrgh! (Copyright, the Beano). Are there really such gluttons for punishment? Teachers who just can't keep away from a blackboard or an overhead projector for seven weeks?

Think of your mortgage. Or the payments for that new car? The extra holiday you promised yourself? Interested? Okay, here's a short guide and some handy hints.

Most summer schools are restricted to the TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language)-type school and, fewer but higher up the echelon, the literatureculture type.

I know the first category might seem the epitome of boredom. But always remember that extra cash. Begin by thinking of your native language as a kind of linguistic Meccano set. Teaching it, then, becomes akin to teaching Mechanics I. It's easy enough, though the initial experience might make even Chomsky's generational grammar seem riveting by comparison.

Then you must be prepared for the questions that students will ask you. Questions like "What is the subjunctive of 'to snorkel'?" Or "What is the negative interrogative of 'to piano play'?" Admittedly, after a couple of days your brain does begin to feel like a piece of well-chewed gum. But you get used to it and there are always the handy textbooks for each occasion. They'll help with their little cartoons, wee games, role-playing suggestion and interminable exercises.

Soon you'll be on the rails and by Dickens, Mr Gradgrind and Mr M'Choakumchild will be ever so proud of your little pitchers as you fill them full of grammatical facts, of syntactical facts, of facts and nothing but facts.

But (you ask) what of the little pitchers themselves?

Good question. Most of them are imported at great expense to their parents and some can be very precious. So, handle with care in your fact-filling mission.

You mean to say English language summer schools are really like the grinding mills of Coketown?

Well, comparisons are invidious. There's certainly no smoke (except in the staffroom). But it's true that some of the older hands do come to resemble Dickens's melancholy mad elephants in their efforts to contain pupils who, after all, only want a certificate and a good holiday - or, more accurately perhaps, a certificate to prove they've had a good holiday.

You shouldn't strain their brains too much and, I admit, you do have to take what's dished out like a man (even if you're a woman). But it's fun really. I had a Spanish pupil once by the name of Jesus MacDonald (I kid you not: his father was Scots). And Jesus was a right little . . . Well, you get the picture.

At the outset it was something of a culture shock to be shouting "For God's sake. Jesus, will you sit down!" or "I'm warning you. Jesus. This is your last chance!" At one point I remember muttering something about crucifixion under my breath. But at least, as one colleague reminded me. I had been spared the Germans.

Still not interested? So what about the literature-type schools? They're grand. Most are based in and around universities, so at least you can pretend you're a professor for a week or two. And get paid.

I remember once driving a minibus full of students towards the Hielands sae braw for a day's outing. As we bowled along past Falkirk on the M9, a young East European student turned to me and said quite out of the blue: "The Battle of Falkirk - 1746." I was impressed.

Then she said, recalling one of my erudite tutorials, no doubt, "You don't like the Tories, do you?" This was bang in the middle of Frau Thatcher's reign.

"You're right there," I replied. "I don't like the Tories."

There was a minute's pause for reflection. Then she asked in all innocence:

"Are you a Whig?" Okay, you can't win them all. But, it was a start. And it beats the negative interrogative.

In the language business you should not worry about possessives, demonstratives or infinitives. Just remember the numerals at the end of the week. They're surely worth all those explosive consonants and expletives.

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