englishman abroad, Teaching English

… and then three come along at once

I’m giving up some of my work to make time for more work. The freelance Business English side of my work has been rather disappointing recently. Specifically, there was this one big firm that just didn’t have any lessons for months and months. “don’t worry!” they said, “we’ll be back next week!”

Well, they said that for six months and that left a big hole in my plans and finances. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to stop all of my other freelancing gigs from doing the same thing…

 … so to hell with it! I’m minimising my freelance work and prioritising another more predictable and more lucrative project now. I’m currently doing twice as much work for the time being, handing off my old clients to new people and segueing into my new project. I’m very busy!

There’s also plenty of work to be done in my work as a lecturer: one of my two university courses is presenting coursework and writing essays, the other one is about to have exams which I am writing. I’m very busy!

There’s also a house we’re looking at and a couple of top-secret projects I can’t write about yet. Unfortunately, all of this busyness has kept me away from my two pet projects, this blog and Brexpats, for a while.

It’s just like buses: you wait six months for one and then three turn up at once!

englishman abroad, stories, Teaching English

Who bothers to learn English? Interesting people, that’s who.

I’m an English trainer in Germany, NOT an English teacher. Teachers work in schools where learning is mandatory, whereas I teach English to those who learn voluntarily. Not everyone who chooses to learn English is ‘normal’ so here’s a sample of my more memorable students.

1.       The Eccentric

The Eccentric had worked as a civil servant for many years, had an industrial accident and left with a nice, big payoff. He also had some not-so-nice constant pain. With his payoff, he’d impulsively decided to get some extra education at a university. For his course he needed English, and so began a last-minute, month-long intensive course to transform a very eccentric guy with attention deficit issues into an English-speaking savant who would pass his English exam with flying colours. Every hour, on the hour, The Eccentric would take a ten-minute break. He’d zoom out the door, chain-smoke four cigarettes in record time, down an energy drink and make himself a latte macchiato which he would nurse, scowling, for the next 50 minutes. Every two days he needed a heavy metal break, and we’d load up whatever he fancied and blast it at high volume, before discussing the relative merits of e.g. Deftones in comparison to Korn. Every day I would teach him the same lesson because he’d forgotten 90% of what we did the day before. Every five days, like clockwork, he would be blessed with total recall of everything and we’d move on to the next lesson. Eventually, we completed the course and he went off to study something unusual.

He was just one of those special people, I suppose.

2.       The Rule Breaker

The Rule Breaker was an interesting man, he was a senior partner in a business and was about to leave and start his own. He was a wealthy and successful workaholic who ostensibly needed English for an upcoming business deal. But halfway through every lesson he would discuss other things: his ongoing marital problems, how he was going to stitch-up his old business partner, how he had turned an office building into a home to circumvent zoning laws and how he periodically had to pretend that his apartment was an office block to keep up the illusion. It seemed that although he was paying for English lessons, what he really wanted was a confessor. Several others have come to me seeking confession, or therapy, under the guise of a ‘conversation course’.

My philosophy at such moments is: “If it’s in English, it’s an English lesson”.

3.       The Social Media Guru

The Social Media Guru is a very likeable woman who does the social media for a medium-sized German company with many English-speaking customers. We spent Friday mornings brainstorming what posts might work on the company Facebook page, how we could broaden her customer base, what seasonal or topical themes could be worked into Facebook or Twitter… April Fool’s posts, Christmas Carols, you name it, we did it. She’s taking a hiatus right now but I still get the occasional email asking for ideas or translations.

I’m always happy to help.

4.       Mr Robot

Mr Robot works in programming and looks a lot like Rami Malek, hence the nickname I’ve given him. Mr Robot was going through a period of great change in his life: divorced, going nowhere in his IT job, living next door to the neighbour from hell… let’s just say that Mr Robot needed some encouragement. Mr Robot came to me with practically no English skills at all but left at level B1, an impressive new freelancing job, a new house and even a new name.

I still see Mr Robot around sometimes, he’s a new man.

5.       The Academics

The Academics are professors and doctors from a university, they have papers to write, conferences to attend, research to perform, studies to conduct. They are important people in a behind-the-scenes kind of way, and their work will probably go on to shape German social policy in years to come, indirectly, of course. I’ve been privileged to see a little of their research and translate parts of it before it’s gone to press.

Far from being stuck up and awkward, they have a healthy sense of humour and self-deprecation to keep them sane.

6.       The Biker

The Biker is a wonderfully accepting, friendly, down-to-earth man with kind eyes and a charming manner. He is a respected boss, a competent manager, a great motivator a doting father and loyal husband. He is also in a world-famous biker gang and likes to tell stories about the wild parties he’s been to, the people he’s associated with, the scrapes he’s got into with the police, his membership of certain other dangerous clubs and political movements, the hardware that his bike gang entrusts him with and what happens to people who cross the gang.

The truly scary thing about The Biker is not that he’s a dangerous man who has done bad things, but that you’d never realise it when he’s a mere pedestrian.

Who ever said that teaching English was boring?

Red and Blue Pill
englishman abroad, Teaching English

Sometimes my lessons go like this…

Most of the time, lessons have a specific plan: ‘I will teach my students about X today’.

X could be new vocabulary for technical English, or when to use the present simple and when the progressive, it could even be a more functional lesson like how to traverse an airport in English, or book a hotel.

But sometimes the students have a lesson plan: ‘today we want to talk about Y’.

Y could be pretty much anything that would appear in X, but it can also be whatever bee happens to be in the students’ bonnet at the time.

Yesterday I had an amazingly unplanned conversational lesson with a couple of sociologists about Action Theory versus Communication Theory, whether societal actions were communications or vice versa and the great sociologists such as Durkheim, Parsons et al. My sociologists are very academic, better qualified and far cleverer than me (Prof. This and Dr. That).

BUT I had the opportunity to bamboozle the students a couple of times by injecting and explaining relevant ideas from other fields: Behavioural Economics and Predictable Irrationality (I’m a big fan of Dan Ariely), and Illocutionary Acts (John L. Austin’s philosophical / linguistic concepts on performative utterance).

My planned lesson on grammar went out of the window, of course, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. This particular group has one lesson left, I hope it will be about X, but I’m going to swot up on Jean Baudrillard just in case it’s about Y again.

englishman abroad, Teaching English

When people assume gender…

Gender isn’t straightforward. I didn’t realise until I started teaching Germans.

This is German: der, die, das, den, dem, des.

Or in English: the, the, the, (to) the, (of) the.

The last two options are quirks of the dative and genitive cases, which we don’t have in English. But those first three? That’s what a gendered language looks like.

Except for a few, insignificant and archaic specks like Waiter/Waitress or Actor/Actress, English isn’t gendered. We have one word for every form of ‘the’ and almost every job title has one word, ‘Teacher’ for example. Is the teacher female or male? We don’t know, it’s irrelevant! In German you are a Lehrer or Lehrerin, a male or female teacher. ‘The female teacher’ and ‘the male teacher’ are Die Lehrerin and Der Lehrer respectively.

Although this insistence on stating someone’s gender is silly enough, it’s about to get weirder.

In Germany, tables are male. Yes, all tables and desks everywhere are men or boys. I had no idea before I came to Germany, but there it is: Der Tisch. ‘The (male) table’.

In Germany all fruits, apart from apples, are female. Die Birne, Die Banane, Die Nektarine.

Every single fruit is a woman or girl. But apples are somehow male. Obviously.

German is a truly demented language. 

In English, practically everything is gender neutral. The table is just a table. The fruit is just fruit. The table will not run off with a banana, get married and have lots of mutant babies.

Yet surprisingly, modern German has one advantage over English when it comes to gender. There is one area where German is simpler and more elegant than English. Honorifics.

When writing an English letter, you start with Dear Mr. Smith…

or Dear Mrs Smith…

or Dear Miss Smith…

or maybe Dear Ms. Smith…

Why are there so many options for the ladies? Is John Smith married? No one cares! But everyone seems to care whether Janet Smith is married or not. That’s why she has three options…

…In fact she has four, I forgot about Mx Smith. Mx is gender neutral and could be used by both John and Janet.

So, there are five options for writing a letter to J. Smith. Good luck guessing which to use.

German has Frau Smith or Herr Smith, for women and men respectively. This is far simpler, but the language completely lacks a gender-neutral option.

I guess that makes sense, Germany; if something as simple as a banana can be mis-gendered what chance do people have?