Sunday 25 September 2016

Un poco de vino tinto white or Cringe 2

She really was determined that these stupid Spanish people were going to understand her. Maybe if she shouted loud enough they would get it. She remembered her Spanish lessons. Wine was “vino tinto” wasn’t it? Pronounced “beano tinto”. She was making an effort, wasn’t she? 

We were almost at the top of Tiede, the volcano, on Tenerife. This lady didn’t look as if she was about to climb the last few metres to the top. 

“Un glass of vino tinto white,” she repeated, louder again

“Quiere vino tinto o vino blanco?” said the barmaid.


The barmaid poured out a glass of red wine.

“No!” The woman pointed at her rather grey T-shirt. “WHITE! Wino whito.”

“Vino blanco!” The barmaid poured the red wine away, fetched a clean glass and filled it with white wine.
 There was then some wrangling about the bill. The English woman seemed to think she was being charged for both drinks whereas really she was being charged tourist prices. This was a popular café, half way up the road that lead to Tiede’s peak. 

Now, there’s no harm in getting into a bit of a pickle when trying to communicate in another language. My Spanish is pretty good but even I managed to order chips today instead of fried fish. I allowed the waiter to tease me a little about my pronunciation of “rosada”. We’ve known him since he was a young lad and now he runs the restaurant. 

However, again it was this sense of entitlement that irritated me. She went on and on about it throughout her meal. “Fancy not understanding when I did my best to speak Spanish.” “That girl must be really thick.” Everybody knows what “white” means, don’t they?” “If they want to make money form us tourists they should learn English.” 

The latter perhaps does have a little merit. Yet even here is an assumption that English-speakers are more important than other people. The Spanish anyway are wonderful communicators without having to use any words. I’ve mentioned before that we can’t all be expected to learn every language but we can all make an effort to be polite and pleasant when there’s a bit of a struggle on.
Vino (beano) tinto by the way? Yes, you’ve got it: red wine.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Sometimes some of my fellow Brits make me cringe

I was reminded of this when I was away in Spain recently and picked up one of the free newspapers in English. They’re possibly not the best examples of responsible journalism but if you can read beyond the rhetoric they do at least provide some local information.
There was what was supposed to be a horror story of a young English child who had broken an arm. It was presumably a bad break as the Spanish hospital decided to keep the youngster in hospital and wanted to operate. That much had the English family gleaned even though, they complained, they spoke no Spanish and the Spaniards wouldn’t have the grace to speak English. At this point I say hoorah for the EHIC. And just see how well you’ll get on without one post-Brexit. If left to your holiday insurance, you’d probably be arguing the toss for quite a while, with the insurance company trying to make out it was your own fault so no pay out would be forthcoming and even if they agreed to pay there may be no guarantee that they wouldn’t advise “Stay in Spain and get the op done there.” In the meantime you probably risk starting treatment and risk having to pay out of your own pocket. Ouch!    
I do totally understand that if you don’t speak the language and don’t understand the local system it can be frightening if a member of your party is taken ill and particularly so if one is a small child. If I’d been nearer I’d have offered to help.
It was the sense of entitlement that angered me here the most, however. The family totally ignored the fact that if you go to a country where you don’t speak the language you are taking a risk. Put up or shut up or help yourself. There are several sources of help.
1.      A good phrase book or Google translations will go a long way
2.      Many Spanish people do speak English and especially medics as all medics world-wide need a good working knowledge of English. However, Spanish people choose not to speak English as they manage much better by reading and using body language.
3.      A smile, a “Hola” or “Bueans días” of “gracias” can achieve miracles.
4.      You can get interpreters.
I was also saddened by their lack of trust in the Spanish medical system. What was wrong with “only” giving the child paracetamol? It’s safe and effective, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t the operation performed in Spain be just as good as any performed in the UK?
Well, it’s not the good old NHS, is it?
Of course our NHS is brilliant. Let’s hope that post-Brexit it continues to be so. (Though sometimes patients go for days without eating, don’t they? Another complaint here levied at the Spanish system was that the child hadn’t eaten for three days.) But it doesn’t mean that other systems are useless or even inferior. Indeed, many British ex-pats sing the praises of the Spanish health care system. They know both systems. Has the Spanish system improved as a result of membership of the EU?
I’ve experienced being treated in other EU states and using the EHIC. When I broke a bone in my hand whilst in Austria and then had to have it recast and re-X-rayed on my return to the UK, the NHS were full of praise for the work done by their Austrian colleagues.
Well in the next two posts, I’ll tell you a couple more cringe-making stories, then I’ll get back to the joyous stuff.
And in fairness to the free newspaper, there were plenty of positive stories in that too.   

Monday 19 September 2016

Communicative Language Teaching

I said I would tell you a little more about what was going on with Evie. See my previous post: Let me tell you about Evie. It was her willingness and determination to communicate that made her an effective communicator. 

It isn’t just about language and it certainly isn’t just about getting sentences beautifully grammatically correct.
GCSE in the UK recognised this for a long while and to some extent still does.  Half of the marks were awarded for effective communication and the rest for accuracy and quality. Oral work was marked for communication first, accuracy and fluency second. If the statement only communicated 70% of the message the other areas could not obtain more than 70%.

So for instance:
“Ça va? (Okay?)
Ça va, la moto? (Okay, the motor bike?)
Une ambulance?” actually fulfilled the role play exactly. Unlike the following:  
“Comment allez-vous? (How are you – almost in the sense of “Good day”)
“Est-ce que ….. blessé?” (Is the ….. injured?)
Voudreiz-vous que je’appelle…. (Would you like me to call ….)”  The second example hardly communicates at all though it contains some correct and complex grammatical structures. The first would gain 100% on communication though maybe 50% on accuracy and quality. The second would score perhaps 30% on communication if one was generous and perhaps 30% on accuracy and quality thought “blessé” is perhaps not quite the right word for “damaged”.

These demands of GCSE spilled out into our teaching. The point was always to encourage the learner to make the most of what little language they had. In class, they soon learned to be quite wily. When it came to a real life situation my very intelligent year 11s struggled a little more though Evie who had a lot in life thrown at her found this a doddle.  

I have to confess that even after A-level French and two years at university studying French and German, as my friend and I stopped to buy something to eat as we crossed Paris on our way to start our year abroad we struggled to order a cheese sandwich. But we’d been brought up on Grammar Grind – we could structure beautiful sentences including subjunctives and conditions. Everyday matters were a little harder. Thank goodness the year abroad sorted that out.

We Brits do seem to find it a lot harder than other Europeans to leap into this communication pool with our little bits of foreign language. Are we more naturally shy? Do we get less practice because those few miles of sea remain significant despite our healthy relationship with the rest of the EU and despite the convenience the Tunnel offers?  It isn’t just a matter of “They all speak English anyway.” Because they don’t. It may make us lazy, however, if we think that to be the case.  

Each European language – every language for that matter - contains a few things that can’t be said in any other. The French “ça va” mentioned above is a good example. It literally means “that goes” and has the sense of “it’s okay” but it’s actually so much more as well. You only get a real sense of it as you become more proficient in French.  

We can’t learn all languages of course, but unless we learn a couple in addition to our own we’re missing out. Language, thought and culture are all linked.

Language isn’t just the words. Communication includes body language, eye contact and that willingness to communicate. The latter is the most important of all.       

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Let me tell you about Evie

Again, not her real name.
She was a bright, somewhat naughty and attention-seeking child. I first met her when she joined my first year class. I taught her German as a first foreign language.
 A lot of her naughtiness was explained when we found out that she had been horrifically abused by one of her parents. She became even more attention seeking as she went through a process with social services and to our great relief was transferred to a foster family and another education area within the same authority.  
We hadn’t seen the last of Evie, however. I bumped into her at our local paper shop. She now attended the same school as my own children. And she’s already paid for the day trip to Germany. Would we still take her, asked the foster parents? She was still very keen to go, you see.
I sighed inwardly and agreed.  “You’re kidding me!” said the head of Key Stage 3 when I told him. He was coming on the trip.  
Day trip to Germany? Yes, that’s right. You have to insist that the students sleep all the way on the coach and all the way back but you do get a full day in Aachen. The town is small enough and charming enough to make it ideal for the sort of day trips I used to organise. More about these in another post.
We gathered at the school on the appointed day. We waited and waited.  No Evie. We phoned both the mobile and landline we had for her. No reply. We left a message to say that we had to go without her.
A shame but a bit of a relief.
We were just getting into Dover when the phone rang. Evie’s foster parents.  They’d read the time wrongly and had driven fast to Folkestone when they realised. Could we pick up Evie at passport control? Of course we could, even though the head of Key Stage 3 rolled his eyes and shook his head.
It worked. We picked up Evie. She delighted in having caused a fuss and had a seat all to herself. She had no particular friend on this trip.
The students were good. They slept on the long coach journey from the tunnel to Aachen. We arrived just in time for breakfast. We gave them half an hour of free time before we started the day’s activities. They all piled into MacDonald’s. Well why not? They do decent breakfasts.
There were students of all levels on this trip including some very intelligent year 11s who went on to get A* grades at GCSE. Most stuttered and stumbled over their words, even though pointing and gesturing can be quite effective in MacDonald’s. Not so Evie. She had rehearsed the words she would need. She said it all as if she meant it and with a smile. She had even studied the money so she so was able to give more or less the correct change and  knew exactly what she should get back. She put the others to shame.  
The head of Key Stage 3 stuck with her all day, by his own admission not because he didn’t trust her but because she was so useful as an interpreter.
The other students warmed up and soon got into the activities we’d arranged for them. Evie shone through, though, despite the expertise of some of the others and eventually won the prize for the best work. She made it her business to do everything to the highest standard.
Was this because she had had to learn to survive? Yet she did it with joy rather than resentment. Perhaps this was like a walk in the park compared with what else had happened to her.  
We may not all have the same motivation as Evie but she clearly showed on that day that it is possible to communicate with just a small input of language and what counts more than anything is the determination to do so. Well done Evie.  

Saturday 10 September 2016

Let me tell you about Suzie

That’s not her real name. Of course it isn’t. But Suzie, if you happen to recognise yourself, do get in touch.  I cannot imagine that you voted Brexit. If you did, please let me know why. Get in touch either way.  
Suzie had a brother with learning difficulties. Dad had disappeared long ago. Mum struggled. Suzie trusted no one. She did come forward, however, for some of the offers we made:
·         A day trip to France
·         Singing in the chorus for a professional production of Joseph
·         Taking part in a French exchange.
Even within the first week at secondary school there were problems. Someone had stolen her brand new trainers whilst she was in the shower, after P.E. They hadn’t, of course. The trainers just got moved to the other side of aisle where she’d been getting changed. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t deliberate, just feet catching and pushing objects out of the way.  Then, next P.E. lesson, one of the staff members had stolen her watch. She’d forgotten to collect it and the P.E. teacher had locked it away safely. She’d then gone on to cover a class in another part of the school. Suzie continued to play the victim and this made her unpopular with her peers and with staff.     
I was Suzie’s tutor for four and half years before I found out what was behind all of this and it was whilst we were on the French exchange that it all clarified.     
I had clearance to take children on to a beach. We gave them a half hour of free time. Suddenly Suzie shrieked. Someone had doused her in salt water. She was soaked. The others were reprimanded, they apologised and had the grace to look shame-faced. Between us we managed to find her dry clothes. There was nowhere to change so I fixed a towel across the entrance to some closed toilets. She told me as she got changed: “It’s my own fault. I’m always accusing people of being mean. I don’t trust anybody.  My dad’s friend ran off with all of the money from their business and Dad then disappeared because he was so ashamed.” Ah.
We tried to keep Suzie going.
An early highlight was a day trip to France. We went to Boulogne. We took a coach all the way went us and went though the tunnel. She was so nervous that she was sick on the way out. We were in the tunnel and we weren’t even moving.
Next came taking part in Joseph. This was a real professional matter. The students performed with a primary school. There was another pair of schools. Each pair did either Monday, Tuesday and two performances on Wednesday or Thursday, Friday and two performances on Saturday. Normal school staff were not allowed anywhere near them, apart from supervising during the breaks between the performances on Wednesday and Saturdays.  They had tea served in the bar and then we’d take them outside to kick a ball  or something similar in the local park. Otherwise they were dropped off at the stage door and left with the theatre’s chaperone and picked up for the journey home.  Every child was given notes after each performance. Serious stuff indeed. Suzie did quite well on the whole though there were a few aggressive notes when she began to lose concentration because she was starving herself.  Oh yes, I’ll take on anyone who tries to limit the arts in school just as vehemently as I’m challenging Brexit.
It was with some trepidation that I took her on an exchange to France. Yet, after the salt water incident and the confession all went well. When I met her on the final morning the French exchange partner’s mother came up to me and said “Elle a été charmante. Absolument chramante. Nous l’invitons l’année prochaien. Et son ferè et sa mère.” Wow!
Okay, so why does this mean we should stay in Europe? The connection might seem tenuous. However, it’s what EU programmes such as Erasmus, Socrates and Lapidus make extremely easy. It was about trust and that was what Suzie had found hard. When as a school teacher you arrange an exchange there is a lot of trust. We were on a group passport that was barely looked at. It’s quite brave also, operating in a different language in a slightly different culture. Her charm, I believe, came from a willingness now to trust in a process. I believe she’d already begun to see that even before the incident which is why she’d been able to understand it.  
Oh and another delight: Suzie worked hard with her exchange partner on swapping vocabulary. She filled a whole thick exercise book with new words and phrases.