Stuck in a vowel mess

21st March 2008 at 00:00

What's it like teaching in Spain when your pupils struggle with English - and you're not much better at Spanish? Jeremy Dean reveals all

The children in this school are bright, alert and have lots to say. Promising, you'd think, until you consider that they don't speak much English and my Espanol isn't as good as I'd hoped. At times their frustration reaches such levels that they hop around as they hunt for the necessary English words.

Even when they have the right words, their throaty pronunciation and Spanish interpretation of vowel sounds often mangle a perfectly correct English sentence into a dialect of Chinese that died out before the Great Wall was built.

"High-dung sick, high-dung sick," Ada bawls at me one afternoon as she tries to answer my inquiry regarding what she's done at playtime. The look on her face screams: "Don't you speak English, you moron?" I stand, helplessly wondering if she's vomited up her lunch or stood in a cow-pat. Finally, she tosses her head in an utterly contemptuous way, then turns and stamps towards the door. I panic. She's going to get her mum. She's going to tell her that her teacher doesn't speak English, let alone Spanish.

I dash after Ada and we play tug-of-war with the door handle as she tries to close it behind her. "No," she screeches, giving me a pitying glare. "You hafta counta 10, den you come look. Don't you even know how you play high-dung seeeeeek?"

Don't get me wrong. I don't have many arguments with Spanish vowel sounds. Once you've discovered that the "fat hen skis on glue" then you've learnt pretty much all you'll ever need to learn about how to pronounce your Spanish a,e,i,o,u.

When I taught some simple Spanish to seven-year-olds in my last job in England they gazed at me incredulously when they learnt to read passably understandable Spanish in half an hour. "But it's so easy," they said, in the same tone as their Spanish counterparts now say: "But ees sooo deefeecoooolt" when I give them the unappealing news that English has more ways to spell a simple sound than there are chorizos in the Mercadona.

Maria shouts: "Bitch, bitch" at me for the 10th time. I'm shocked - all I asked her to tell me was what she's going to do at the weekend. She finally gives up and goes into Spanish. "La playa. La playa. I go to the bitch." Oh, the beach.

Meanwhile, Pablo is squealing excitedly and beckoning me to his desk. "Thees you gold kipper, thees you gold kipper."

I stare helplessly at his drawing of some exotic, green creature trapped in a net. "Fish," I intone carefully. "It's a fish."

"No," he says, his voice laden with a level of contempt for my intelligence that is more than a little disturbing. "Thees you, gold kipper."

The voice in my head says: "It's Friday afternoon, it's art, just say, `very good, Pablo' and walk away." But we teachers aren't like that, are we? Someone calls us a gold kipper and we have to find out why. I have a fair idea that pointing out that his gold kipper is in fact green won't help at all, so I move on to a blue and red swirl on the other side of the page. "Is this a shark?"

He looks up at me as if he's just worked it all out. He really has landed the most stupid teacher in the world. "No," he says. "Thees no ees shak. Thees ees Ronaldeeeeenyo. Barcelona. And thees you gold keeeeeper, Manchester United. And these ees goal." I feel strangely relieved and say quietly: "Looks offside to me".

Jeremy Dean has given up teaching in the UK for a contract in Spain. Look out for his next column in the summer term.

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