Aside

Conversations with my Students

Some conversations I had today with my little Spanish angel students:

  • “Teacher!! I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE!!! I saw you going into your apartment AND YOU HAD PIZZA!”
  • “Teacher, if you want to say ‘I farted’ in English, can you say ‘I made a mess?’ You can, right? I know you can. No, you can. I know it.”
  • “Teacher, Borja from Cuarto has a crush on you!! Do you like him? Can I tell him you like him?!” (NB: Borja is 15 years old.)
  • “Teacher, how much money do you make?”
  • “Are you dating Other Teacher? Are you IN LOVE with Other Teacher?!”
  • “Teacher, what color hair does your mom have? And what’s her name?”
  • “Teacher, did you know that in English if you want to say ‘I’m gonna puke’, you say ‘Chewbacca is coming’? No, this is true! I KNOW it’s true!”

State vs State

One of my history classes ran into a little English phoneme difficulty today.

Mid-lecture, a student raised her hand and said, “Yes, what is the difference between estate and estate? They are different words? You pronounce them differently?”

Juanra, the teacher I was helping — he’s young, fashionable, and constantly on the brink of despair about his badly-behaved students — replied, “Well, yes, you have estates like the land聽the nobles聽owned, and then you have estates like the United Estates.”

“And you say them聽the same way?”聽

“Well…”

“No,” I said quickly, hoping Juanra would forgive me for cutting him off. “No, they’re different words, they’re pronounced and spelled differently.”

Juanra helpfully wrote the two words on the board for me: ‘State vs. State.’

“One of them has an ‘e’,” I whispered.

“Oh,” he said, looking at the blackboard. “Joder.”聽

“So you say them differently,” I told the class as Juanra added聽an 聽‘e’ on the blackboard. “The first word, the land the nobles owned, that’s an estate. And the second word is just聽state.”

The entire class, in unison, made a confused noise.

“Can you hear the difference?” I asked.

“No,” they said.

Estate,” I said, as clearly as I could. “State.

“Ehm, that is the same word,” one of the students offered helpfully. “You are not saying a different word.”

“Yes, she is,” said Juanra. “She is saying first聽estate and second聽estate.”

“Uh,” I said. “Here, let’s all listen again. In Spanish, y’all don’t have this ‘s’ and ‘t’ sound together in your words, so it can be very hard to hear and make that sound in English. The first word is聽estate. The second word is聽ssstate.”

Essstate?” Juanra asked.

Sssstate.”

“Sssstate,” said one of the students, and then the whole classroom was filled with hissing as they tried, some more successfully than others, to make the ‘s’ sound without adding an ‘e’ to the front of it.

I felt like an English-language superhero.

Like Espiderman.聽

Teacher, I Don’t Understand

So far, I am loving teaching at my school — a bilingual colegio (public middle/high school) in Alcorc贸n, 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.聽Often, though, a聽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.聽

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.聽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,聽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!”聽

So that was my bad.聽

The students have a decent grasp of English,聽kind of聽— their level of fluency varies from “age-appropriate” to “clearly just making random noises and hoping that it sounds like English”. I聽wouldn’t say that any of them are聽bilingual, exactly, 聽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”,聽regardless of聽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?聽

Students (in unison): Yissssss.

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