englishman abroad, language

I can’t speak French for merde

Well, I’m back.

I hadn’t been to France for any meaningful length of time for sixteen years and cannot speak French for crotte any longer. In short, my French is god awful and going to Bordeaux was a useful experience.

Useful? Yes, useful. Going to another country and having absolutely no idea how to function beyond the purchase of a croissant and a pointless school-French conversation about where you live and what you did for your work experience last summer is a humbling experience.

You see, I have been living in Germany non-stop for a few years now, and I’m just about able to get by despite making mistakes in every sentence. Clearly, I have been getting too big for my boots. Clearly, the powers that be looked upon my level of German competence and remarked

Did you hear that? They’re understanding what he says! Despite him repeatedly putting the accusative in the nominative and the dative in the genitive and the verb as a noun and saying “sie” instead of “ihnen”, and then “du” and then “ihnen” again.

He’s getting overconfident; I’ll send him a plague of frogs.

It’s quite an important experience, to go somewhere and be absolutely powerless. It’s especially important for adults to do this, to remember what it’s like for children. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve integrated somewhat into Germany and what an odd feeling this is. In so doing, I’ve moved past much of the everyday alienation and inaptitude that I had suffered when I first came to Germany, without any German, years back. It’s been good to have a fleeting, linguistically impotent trip to France to broaden my perspective and remember not to take things for granted.

As for the meeting itself, it was informative, well received and, mercifully, in English.

englishman abroad, work

New Opportunities

Oh, sweet it is in academic groves –
Or such retirement, friend, as we have known
Among the mountains by our Rotha’s stream,
Greta, or Derwent, or some nameless rill –
To ruminate, with interchange of talk,
On rational liberty and hope in man,
Justice and peace.

– William Wordsworth. Book 9, Residence in France, 400-406. The Prelude.

The MariLANG project has officially ended and with it my work producing test items for learners of Maritime English and seafarers. I joined the project fairly late into it, most of the work had already been done by people much more talented than me, but I learned a lot and produced a fair bit of work that I’m proud of. I also wrote a chapter of what will become the official book, so I’ll finally see my name in print! Albeit in a rather dry, academic tome. I also got to travel with the project, twice to Southampton and once to Kenilworth, to meet partners and receive training.

Next week I’ll be off again, this time to Bordeaux, to attend and contribute to the kick-off meeting of another EU project – The TRAILs project. Whereas MariLANG sought to make an ESP test for mariners, TRAILs is more concerned with the training of LSP teachers/practitioners (ESP included). I’ll be presenting my guidelines for the identification and analysis of LSP teacher training in the EHEA to other project partners and soliciting feedback, before finalising them and working with the other partners to implement them into our research. After that, it’s two years of research into best LSP teacher-training practices with a few trips abroad here and there for meetings. Ultimately there will be the provision of a summer school to operationalise the pedagogical concepts we’ll all have come up with, surely, by then.

But first thing’s first, off to Bordeaux. I’m getting thirsty just thinking about it…

englishman abroad, Teaching English

English for Specific Purposes

Teaching English in Germany was a not a career I studied for at school, nor could I have done so if I had wanted to. You see, although I studied English Language and English Literature at A-level and literature as a BA, even if I had gone on to do a teaching qualification it would not have prepared me for English teaching outside of the UK. To really understand English, you have to forget even as you learn.

English is a world language; some might say the world language. As Salman Rushdie wrote in ‘Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist, “Those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it”. The once colonial outposts of India, the USA, and Australia now speak Indian, American and Australian English respectively. Just take a look at the various Englishes available in Microsoft Office, they have eighteen different versions of proofing English. That’s just the Englishes that a multinational thought were worth its time. The myriad English languages are in flux: making and remaking themselves as more speakers learn, adapt, and tailor the language.

In 1987, John Marenbon’s English, our English railed against a perceived orthodoxy in English Language Teaching (ELT) which regards the notion of “standard English” with disdain. Pre-existing counter-arguments to Marenbon’s vision of “standard English” include the interrogation of the word “standard” as a paradoxical term which could mean both “superior” and “ordinary” (Keywords, Raymond Williams, 1983). Is “real English” the English spoken by the elite, or the average?

Just look at how “standard English” has changed in the last decades: e-mail is now de-hyphened and countable: emails; “the data are” is now “the data is”, the subjunctive is practically dead, the Oxford comma can be taken or left, and prepositions are perfectly good words to end sentences with.

And you can begin a sentence with “and”. One can even say “you” instead of “one”.

Is there a German English, a Denglish? Of course there is. Just look at the way the tendrils of modern life have crept into everyday German: ‘updaten’, ‘downloaden’, ‘liken’.

But what do Germans need English for? As I mentioned in a previous post, everyone has different needs when it comes to learning English. Some want a general refresher course, some need it for school, some for their jobs, some for a specific project. But there is a recurring theme, at least when it comes to those medium-to-large companies that punctuate the German business landscape: office politics.

I’ll take a company I taught for a couple of years, a large multinational company which makes polymers, i.e. plastics, as my example. Whether it’s sewage pipes, car parts, air-conditioning, surgical tools, windows or something else, if it’s made of a polymer of some kind then this company probably makes it. This particular plant made car bumpers, pipes, sewer ducts, proprietary underground drainage structures and the like.  I taught a mixed group of people: some worked in the office, some in despatch, some in a warehouse, some in production, some in quality control. They all had different needs.

  • Office workers needed English to talk about orders and the attendant bureaucracy with offices in other countries.
  • Despatch workers needed to talk to logistics companies, customs and truck drivers.
  • Warehouse workers didn’t really need English at all.
  • Neither did those in production.
  • QC workers needed to explain and excuse, justify and persuade, usually to international customers about why product quality was so good or bad.

What did they all have in common? Nothing, except politics. A manager further up the tree had a training budget and an appraisal to look good for; people were lumped together and given English lessons, despite their needs (if they had any) being at such variance. The purpose of these English lessons was ostensibly to invest in people and to increase their worth to the company, but they were really:

  • to make the middle manager look good
  • to allow the employees to relax a bit on company time

These two themes are commonplace in German companies of a certain size, and probably elsewhere, too.

So how to teach such a disparate group?

I started with needs analyses. I already had one written by the manager, but I promptly threw it out.

Everyone completed a needs analysis in which they described what they needed English for. As well as the points made above, e.g. that office workers need bureaucratic English, I learned that:

  • others wanted to visit New York City
  • some wanted to understand the jokes in British and American comedies
  • most people wanted to be able to order in a restaurant or café
  • one wanted to find a new job abroad, doing something else completely

They also filled out the details of their day-to-day work so that I could perform some box-ticking lessons: how to give a presentation in English, how to use the phone and send emails in English, how to describe an English invoice, how to talk about health and safety, factory tours, fire drills. Ulterior-motivated, pointless, soulless, box-ticking, virtue-signalling, dead-end, English for the sake of it.

And then we started meeting people’s needs for a change: trips abroad, Anglo-American pop culture, ordering food and drinks, having fun and escaping the rat race. Sometimes the versatility of General English is contrasted with the inflexibility of its teaching, sometimes English for Specific Purposes is really English for Real Life.

A needs analysis should be received from the needy. If you get one from a manager, ignore it. Lessons need to prescribe, not proscribe.

A good teacher should never trade their niceness for niceties.

englishman abroad, stories

The bunny ranch…

This is the story of how we all accidentally went to a brothel.

Aurelia is the proud owner of two Zwergkaninchen (dwarf rabbits) called Angel, a boy, and Thunder, a girl. They’re very well looked after, with everything a bunny could want: a nice rabbit run, an underground den, a shelter made out of an old copper drinking trough, a wickerwork tunnel and lots of food. Aurelia wants the best for her bunnies; when we fly off to the UK this Christmas, we’re going to have them looked after by a nice enough place. A bunny sitter, if you will.

My wife and I Googled around and found a couple of places online, one in Oldenburg for a fair price and another in Delmenhorst for a bit less. We asked if we could have a look at the place beforehand, the lady said yes. On Sunday we went to the pet sitter in Delmenhorst.

First thoughts:

  1. This is an industrial area, a business park. Could it really be here?
  2. Haha oh wow. That place next to the printer’s looks like a strip club.
  3. Why are we stopping?

The strip-club-looking place was number 7 on the street. The address we had was number 7. It was the same street. I started to think that the online advertisement was a joke, that some troll had sent us here for a laugh. We decided to have a look around anyway. Just in case.

My noticeably pregnant wife, my six-year-old daughter and I got out of the car.

Second thoughts:

  1. There are an awful lot of doorbells on this strip club. “Candy, Jesse, Katja…”
  2. This isn’t just a strip club, is it?
  3. There’s a gate around the side that says “private property”

“Love?” I said, “I think we should leave. Now.”

“no, we’ll look. It said around here”

My courageous wife knocks on the gate, to an eruption of aggressive barking, and asks if this is where the bunnies are looked after.

The lady who opens the gate is thin, with long, red, fake talons for nails.

“Yes,” she pleasantly replies.

Third thought:

  1. WTF

The lady, Candy, gives us a tour of the various rabbit hutches available behind this house of ill repute, and I start to think that maybe, just maybe, this happens to be a legitimate pet-sitter with an awful location. Maybe the bordello was built afterwards?

Google has all the answers: “No, and here are some other pictures of ‘Candy’, just FYI”.

Final thoughts:

  1. I should have trusted my gut.
  2. Is this a brothel that diversified into pet sitting, or a pet sitter that diversified into whoring?
  3. Business must suck, either way.

We said that we’d be in touch later. We won’t. I don’t want Thunder to come home with long, red, fake talons.

englishman abroad, parenting, the German way

Einschulung

Saturday was the day of my daughter Aurelia’s Einschulung. Einschulung is sometimes translated as ‘first day of school’, and I suppose that, technically, it often is. It’s not really that though. As I said, it happened on a Saturday and therefore isn’t a ‘proper’ school day. Besides, Aurelia has already had ‘trial hours’ (Schnupperstunden) at this school – she’s been there before. Another translation of this word is ‘enrolment’, which is also totally off. Aurelia was already on the ‘rolls’ of this school; she has been registered to attend it since about the time we moved to this town. What the Einschulung actually is, is a sort of ‘into-school’ rite of passage. Here’s what happened…

On that Saturday morning, after breakfast, Aurelia got her first proper look at the Schultüte which had been hidden away for weeks. A Schultüte is part of this German rite of passage. It resembles a brightly coloured and garishly decorated giant ice-cream cone; it’s also a bit like a Christmas stocking in that it is packed with goodies and not to be opened before the appointed time.

That appointed time is always after school, so off to school we all went: Oma, Opa, Mama and Papa. I carried Aurelia’s Schultüte, and Aurelia carried her gigantic, red and purple school bag. All German kids seem to have dementedly oversized school bags, called Schulranzen, which make them look less like first-year schoolkids than they do NASA astronauts. Off we went to school, bobbing along like an Ice-cream-themed Pride Parade for Questionable Cosmonauts.

On arrival at the school, it became apparent that I was the only one who had given this School-based theme-parkery a second thought: every single other child had a brightly coloured Schultüte and Schulranzen as well. The new space cadets first-years sat right at the front of the assembly hall and then it all kicked off. The headteacher introduced all the teachers, each year of the school performed a play or song or dance to welcome the new children, culminating with them being called onto the stage to stand with their respective mentor child and be taken off to their first, half-hour “class”. No parents were allowed of course, but I suspect that it was a little induction and introduction from their teacher. Back at home, Aurelia got to open her Schultüte at last: sweets, school stuff and her first ever alarm clock (pink, of course).

Tomorrow I’ll take her to her first ‘real’ full day of school; 8 am to 1 pm. I’m probably looking forward to it just as much as she is.