A Challenge

I have a confession to make. I actually didn’t even realize this myself until today, but I have never ever taught TRUE beginners English. I’ve taught the first level of English to teenagers. But this doesn’t count because 99.9% of the time, Chilean teenagers are never true beginners. They have English classes at school so they at least know something.

Today I started a first-level class. The people I’m teaching are Brazilian. They speak Spanish, but not so well. Normally, this shouldn’t matter. English classes are taught, well, in English, so it shouldn’t matter what their native tongue is.

I started out with introductions. “Hi, Hello, I’m Abby, How are you, etc.” It was really slow going. They didn’t know what “Hello” or “Hi” was. Nothing. They knew NO English.

This was just a bit mind-boggling to me. I mean, I understand that there are people in the world that have had absolutely no contact with English. However, due to the international nature of these people’s’ jobs, I thought that they would at least have had minimal contact with the English language during their career, not to mention on TV, in music, or in film.

Anyway the going got tough when we got to “Nice to meet you.” They asked what it meant. I mimed the conversation again. I told them to think about what they say in Spanish/Portuguese when they meet someone for the first time. One student understood and asked if it meant “Mucho gusto.” I said yes. Another student didn’t understand. She asked me what it meant. Instead of telling her, I asked the student who understood. He said “Mucho gusto” again.

Then, out of nowhere, she started yelling at me. She asked me why I didn’t just tell her what it meant. I was caught off guard and tried to explain to her about methodology and speaking all in English, and how I’m going to try not to translate (I said this in Spanish). She didn’t like this. Not one bit. Frustrated, she started yelling at me in Portuguese, and I only understood about half. When she was done, I didn’t know what to say, so I just kind of stared at her, then suggested we move on.

The rest of the class, she wouldn’t look at me. She didn’t want to participate. When I asked her to
practice with another student, she just said “I don’t understand” (in Spanish).

Learning a language is hard, not just on a practical level. Our job as English teachers is very psychological as well. We have to create an environment in which the students feel that it’s okay to make mistakes and make fools of themselves. I’m afraid I inadvertently ruined the environment for this particular student on the first day when I told her I wasn’t going to translate. To her, that was just too scary, and she panicked. She put up a block that made her unwilling and therefore unable to understand anything the rest of the class.

I hope that throughout the course I’m able to win her back, to break down her barrier and instill in her the confidence to make a fool of herself in the name of learning English.

Because if not, man it’s going to be a long 15 weeks.


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