Monday, 10 May 2010

The Power of Dreams

I have been teaching English to non-native speakers for years. It's not a bad job. I meet new people all the time and often I have a laugh with my students. One thing I've noticed over the years is how people from different countries have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning English. For example, South Americans tend to be great communicators but less than fastidious with their grammar. Asians in contrast often fear verbal communication but have an awesome capacity for memorizing complicated grammatical structures.

At the moment I'm teaching mostly middle-aged and middle-class house wives in a small rural town. Today I tackled the difficult subject of the present perfect. My students were three house wives – Nani-ki, Naninani-ko and Nani-ko. They've all had some type of tertiary education. They've all been studying English for years. The present perfect could not feasibly be new for them. Yet I knew before I started it would be a taxing lesson so I simplified my lesson plan (in my head) and just focused on the present perfect to describe experience. The context was world travel. The activity was a board game. The students had to roll a dice and move around the world collecting experiences. Then after 20 minutes of playing the game they have to report back to the class about where they have been and what they have done. For example, 'I have visited the lost city of Petra in Jordan', or 'I have crossed the Sahara Desert on a camel', or 'I have eaten cakes in Vienna' or 'I have seen the pyramids of Egypt'. In all there are 25 possible places and activities to tick off.

The first thing I noticed about Nani-ki, Naninani-ko and Nani-ko is that none of them knew their way around a map of the world. I'm aware that the Japanese have adopted the Chinese map (what haven't they borrowed from China?) but still once you adjust to the fact that Europe not China is the centre of the world it should be a cinch to find Antarctica or India or Brazil. After all, the countries all stay in the same place relative to their neighbouring countries. But no, I labored with the Nani sisters. They looked for Australia in South America and they puzzled over Siberia looking for Rio de Janeiro.

Not one to be easily deterred from an impromptu lesson plan I gritted my teeth and tried to keep the frustration out of my voice and we saw the game through to the bitter end. I got the Nani sisters to make sentences in the present perfect to describe where they had been and what they had done. I wrote out a lot of prompts on the board to help them. We really zeroed into the grammatical form and when to use it. It was just a pity that a game that should be fun and interesting was so protracted and punctuated with corrections and geographical ignorance that it lost most of its inherent fascination.

Oh well, I thought as the final 5 minutes of the 90 minute class came round. I tried and something of the lesson must stick. I risked my neck for the final moment of the class.

“So, you have a list in front of you of many places in the world and the activities you can do in these places. Tell me where would you like to go and what you would like to do?”

It was chancing it throwing a second conditional question at the Nani clan but I'd done something similar in numerous other classes in Japan. The context should have made the question overwhelming clear. And indeed, Nani-ki and Naninani-ko did grasp the meaning of my final question.

The oldest, Nani-ki, said after a brief brain storm, “Drink coffee in Istanbul.” The grammar was wrong but full marks for understanding the question and getting out an appropriate response.

Next up was Naninani-ko, the youngest and smartest: “I would like to see the pyramids in Egypto.” Other than that irritating “to” spot on.

And for the grand finale, I asked Nani-ko whom I had deliberately left to last because she was the weakest student. Every lesson she arrives 30 minutes late despite having got up at 5am - exactly 5 hours before the class begins. She lives just a few clicks from the school. Not my favourite. I asked the question again:

“Where would you like to go?”

I was kinda hoping in my own whimsical manner for something shocking and left field like, “I'd like to try a spot of sex tourism in Africa” or “I'd love to visit an opium den in Laos” or even “I wouldn't mind clubbing seals in Greenland.” What did I get?

“Driving in Chiba.”

If I had had a gun at that point I might have emptied four bullets into her barely functioning brain. I'm not sure about the exact ramifications of such an act but I think it could have resulted in a net gain for humanity.

Instead, I implored Nani-ko to try again. The other two Nanis coached her in Japanese so there could be no doubt about what was required from her.

“Eat sushi in Tokyo.” Four more imaginary dum dum bullets left a smoking gooey mess where her face used to be.

“You have already eaten sushi in Tokyo. It has to be a new experience. Something you really want to do.” She had a handout in front of her with 25 suggestions. She had the benefit of a Japanese explanation from her fellow students. She had been submersed in world travel destinations for 55 minutes. There was little more I or the other students could do. Even Pankun the performing TV chimp might have proved up to the task if he had been allowed to point to a picture.

We waited.

Nani-ko gave me the thousand yard stare.

It's a wise man who knows when to cut his losses; when to walk away from the table. I did just that.

“OK. That's all for today. Thank you very much. I'll see you next week.”

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