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Teaching

Reflections on TEFL in 2020

If you’d have asked me a year ago, “what is Zoom?”, I would have given you a blank look and asked, “do you mean the verb, to zoom?”

Actually, I’ve been doing TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) on and off for over three years now. I started off working in a German secondary school on my year abroad as a teaching assistant, and went from there. Demand is much higher for English teaching and tutoring in Germany than the amount of English native speakers who would want German lessons. It makes a lot more sense to focus on teaching English to Germans than German to the English. The fact that English native-speakers grow up speaking the world language as their mother tongue is both a gift and a curse. We grow up knowing the world endeavours to understand us, and it leads to monolingualism, laziness and ignorance. English native speakers are lulled into a false sense of lingual superiority, the ‘why would I bother? Everyone speaks English anyway.’

After graduating from university, I did another academic year as a teaching assistant in Germany because I loved it so much the first time. And for the last year, I’ve re-started private tutoring after my fairly haphazard attempts during my Bachelor’s. I started in-person in January 2020 alongside my school, waitressing and online job, and as the first lockdown last March made itself felt in the small German town I was living in, I signed up for various tutoring websites offering sessions via Zoom in an effort to keep myself sane. I had already figured out the flattest hour-long cycle route around town, and there were only so many times I could cycle this route per week without starting to feel like I re-enacting my own personal Truman show experience. I lived in a very hilly region, and I didn’t want to mess too hard with those hills.

Teaching English as a foreign language online turned out to be the best decision I made in 2020. I have hung on to the first student who approached me, and since we’re fairly close in age (she’s in the last year of her A-levels), our weekly meetings are starting to feel more and more like coffee mornings where we get into the nitty gritty of current events as well as the difference between the present and past perfect, or relative and participle clauses. The standard of English in German schools is impressive, especially if they choose the Leistungskurs (advanced course) at A-Level. Modern Foreign Languages in British schools are, by contrast, laughable. By the time German students graduate from high school, they should be fairly fluent, so our lessons have slowly become less about ‘learning English’ than talking about literature, history and politics in English. Together, we’ve studied Mother to Mother, Othello and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as modern British and American politics, and I am slightly melancholy that she soon won’t need me anymore.

My other students range in age from five to around forty. My oldest current student is a business professional working from home with a lot of time on his hands due to cancelled tennis sessions. He says learning English in the mornings helps to keep him motivated. I have also taught adult newcomers to the UK for a non-profit organisation, as language skills are essential for them to be able to settle here and find work. Teaching English as a foreign language with no knowledge of the diverse mother tongues of my students (Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, Turkish etc.) was certainly a steep learning curve, as I had only ever taught Germans up until that point. Not being able to immediately access the equivalent is often frustrating, but it does force the students to learn English immersively, as they cannot request me to ‘just tell them’ what a word or phrase means.

On the other end of the age spectrum, teaching a five-year-old has its own challenges. In Germany, children start school at the age of 6, so there is no expectation for a five-year-old to be able to read and write basic words. Another complicating factor is that this student has Chinese parents, so he will soon be learning how to write in Chinese alongside German. Best not complicate things with trying to teach him to write in English, too. So we focus on pictures, and flashcards. Lots and lots of pictures. It was difficult to figure out what a five-year-old knows. I tried to teach him the months of the year one session but this fell through because he hadn’t yet learned them in German. When do we learn the months and seasons of the year? It’s hard to say, I have almost no recollection of being five years old.

Knowing your native language well and being able to teach that language as a foreign language are two different things. It’s been an incredibly long road to being able to confidently pick apart my own language into its constituents and explain the rules. I didn’t do English Language at A-Level, so the meanings of words like auxiliary verb, conditionals, the gerund, the subjunctive, the passive, the past participle, and so on are all things I’ve absorbed slowly over the years. To teach a language, you have to be able to understand how the other person sees it, and notice how opaque and illogical your mother tongue can look and sound. Why do we ever say ‘had had’ or ‘do do’? As in “ah yes, I had had that book, but then I sold it”, or “Yes I do do that!” Just what is our spelling all about, anyway? Brought? Thought? Why do we swallow half of Wednesday? Those sneaky silent ks in knee, knife, knight and know. Did you know that the difference between ‘will’ and ‘going to’ future rests solely on the level of certainty with which you perceive you will actually go there, or do it?

I am so lucky I’ve found a safe industry which hasn’t died in the Corona Age, where I can work from home and be social at the same time. It’s been a lifeline for me, something to keep me motivated during these bleak times.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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