Teacher, I Don’t Understand

So far, I am loving teaching at my school — a bilingual colegio (public middle/high school) in Alcorcón, Madrid.

Here’s how the bilingual education program works:

All students at the school receive at least some of their education in English, with the more proficient students spending more time in classes taught in English — each grade level is divided into 5 different classes, depending on English proficiency.

Teaching core subjects in a second language creates an interesting classroom dynamic, which I will write about at length later, because it’s fascinating. Basically, though, class time is divided between teaching actual content and making sure the students are able to understand and process the English being used in the lesson, giving them plenty of opportunities to ask clarifying questions and practice new vocabulary.

I had expected to be teaching English language classes, but I am actually working in the Geography and History department, which I think I prefer. None of the teachers that I work with are native speakers of English — that’s my job, to be a native speaker — but they have a pretty good grasp of the language. Often, though, a teacher will misunderstand what a student is saying, and will then give an answer that the student was not looking for, which further confuses the matter. 

I’m not allowed to speak to the students in Spanish, or even to tell them that I understand Spanish, so that they have no choice but to communicate with me in English. For the most part, I’ve been successful at playing dumb about Spanish, but I slipped up a bit today — I was trying to explain what a mace is (the medieval ball and chain weapon, right?), and as I was drawing a picture of a mace on the blackboard, one of the students said to another, in Spanish, “Is that a fishing pole catching the sun?”

Without thinking, I turned around and replied, “No, it’s a mace, I’m not done yet!” 

So that was my bad. 

The students have a decent grasp of English, kind of — their level of fluency varies from “age-appropriate” to “clearly just making random noises and hoping that it sounds like English”. I wouldn’t say that any of them are bilingual, exactly,  but most of the students can understand me when I talk and can form simple responses.

One of the funniest things about the students, though, is that they all mispronounce the word “yes”, regardless of their English level. It usually comes out somewhere between “yisss” and “djesss” — they always drag out the “s”, which I find hilarious, because I think they’re imitating the way native English speakers make the “s” sound — it’s a much stronger sound in English than in Spanish.

So we have conversations that go like this:

Me: Does that make sense? 

Students (in unison): Yissssss.

The fact that they mispronounce “yes” doesn’t exactly make me confident that I’m being understood, but it sure is charming.

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