Confessions of an Expat – language learning on the road to nowhere

You must remember this: a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.

They say that a large percentage of communication is non-verbal. That could be because words became difficult when so many tribes made up their own. Kisses and sighs and smiles and frowns we understand.

As discussed before, it is good to learn the language of the place you’re living – but how are you going to do that?

We’re living in Suriname, a former Dutch colony on the north coast of South America, where most people speak Dutch but many also speak quite good English. There are also a lot of Chinese, Indians and Indonesians speaking their own languages, and there is a Suriname language called Sranan Tongo or taki-taki.

We found a Surinamese girl to teach us Dutch and she was very good but highly unreliable. It is usually the student cancelling at the last minute, but in this case it was her, the teacher – the easy way, by text or WhatsApp.

“It’s raining and the roads are flooded where I am” (This could be true).

“I have to go to a party that day.” (Tough luck. You’re a professional).

“It’s my period and I don’t feel good”. (I can’t believe you’re telling me that).

Our enthusiasm waned and she was leaving the country anyway, so the Dutch classes stopped. I can introduce myself, say where I come from and what I do for a living. I can ask for the bill in a restaurant – but the waitresses tend to laugh out loud, presumably at my pronunciation.

As a teacher myself (TEFL: teacher of English as a Foreign Language) I understand how important confidence is when learning a new language. You are bound to make mistakes and you need to feel able to do so without being mocked.

To complicate matters, I have been trying to learn Spanish for six years because my wife is Venezuelan, but I have never had lessons and although I can understand the gist of a newspaper article, even the simplest of conversations has me groping for words while still trying to understand exactly what the other person said.

In a way this is good for me, as it shows me how my students feel.

Then the Venezuelan Embassy starts providing Spanish classes, 90 minutes twice a week, so I sign up for that. Finally a formal set-up and some structure.

First day I am in the most basic class, but find I already know a lot of what they’re teaching, because it’s just the numbers and letters.

The trouble is, although I know the answers, I don’t understand the questions, because they’re speaking Dutch.

I move up to the slightly more advanced level, hoping they will conduct the class in Spanish.

They don’t.

Any language student needs to get in the zone of the target language – it can take a couple of minutes to start thinking in Spanish, but here I’m constantly derailed because they switch from one language I don’t know to another, sometimes within one sentence.

The teacher is a bit of a comedian and there is a lot of banter – in Dutch. I sit there gloomily, isolated and fuming at being the outsider.

It’s not their fault, I know. If a Spanish class was being given in the UK it would be in English, because explanations have to be given in the native tongue.

There’s a Brazilian girl in the second class who only speaks Portuguese. She doesn’t show up for the third but I try to tough it out.

It doesn’t work. I’m all at sea and can’t wait for it to finish. Essentially I’m trying to learn two languages simultaneously but I feel stupid. I feel like telling them, “Listen, I’m an English teacher, I’m pretty good at French, not bad at German and have a foothold in both Spanish and Dutch which I would like to consolidate.”

It’s instructive for me as regards my own students. I’ve been preparing two teenage Venezuelan boys for entering an English-speaking school, and now I have first-hand experience of how hard it can be. I should have known better than to attempt Spanish classes in Dutch, because I once advertised my classes in a Brazilian newspaper and got lots of enquiries but no students because I speak no Portuguese and they don’t speak English, so we can’t even discuss costs or where the classes will be held.

The whole idea of TEFL is that the class is conducted in English, but that means they need to understand the basics. When the teacher says “Read this out loud” and the student doesn’t understand, you’re on the road to nowhere.

So, for me, one thing at a time. I will try to learn Spanish and Dutch separately, online, and hope I come across two good teachers along the way.

Finally, an example of the sort of question a TEFL teacher has to have an answer to: what’s the difference between a humbling experience and a humiliating one? Answer: the teacher must always avoid the latter.

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