Teaching English and learning to listen
I come from a family of talkers. Making polite chitchat and navigating a conversation is a skill I learned in my early years, mostly by listening to the women in my family as they talked their way through church potluck dinners, monthly bridge group meetings, recreational league basketball games and Friday night high school football. Among Americans, women from the US’s southern states are particularly known for their conversational skills. Although my Virginia hometown wasn’t exactly southern, it was rural. When you are living in a small town, people-watching and rehashing the minutia of daily life rise to the forefront of viable diversions. We didn’t have a movie-theater or a shopping mall.
For most of my childhood, however, I was shy. My fourth-grade teacher told my mother that she had to make the other children quiet in order to hear me answer a question. At church on Sundays as a preteen, I kept my eyes averted when someone from the congregation asked me a question. If my mother happened to be within earshot, she gently but firmly reminded me that I needed to straighten up, look the questioner in his eyes and give my best answer. Much of the time, she was able to adjust my attitude without actually saying anything. I knew what was expected of me, but most of my life it seemed that I was surrounded by people who talked better, faster and more confidently than I ever would.
Then, I moved to the Czech Republic. Czechs are not particularly prone to chitchat. Whether more reserved by nature, or as a result of years under Communist rule. It seems to me that Czech people do not engage as happily or freely in idle banter as Americans do. When I first met Radek, I thought there was something wrong when, on long car rides, he fell silent. Now I’ve come to enjoy the freedom of riding beside him in comfortable silence. On the other hand, my mother turns on her Southern charm to engage Radek in conversation during their car rides together and, for the most part, he willingly obliges.
In more intimate settings, Czechs tend to open up, speaking about their jobs, personal lives, children and hobbies. Still, my Czech friends don’t seem overly curious to ask questions of me (or anyone else they’re speaking to). They might offer glimpses of their own lives, but rarely do they delve into their acquaintances’ personal details. In this more subdued conversational culture, my years of conversation-training became a skill I wanted to put to use. As soon as I was able to string together enough words to make a semi-coherent sentence in Czech (grammatical correctness aside), I began asking questions.
At my first few gatherings with my husband’s family, I realized that his cousins (women about my age) were never going to approach me to start a conversation. In truth, no one, except Radek’s grandmother, ever used to speak directly to me beyond a polite greeting. Drawing forth on false brazenness I must have inherited from my mother, I began initiating conversations. I asked Radek’s cousins questions about their children’s interests and habits. When his cousins finished talking, I then offered them unsolicited updates on mine. I asked Radek’s grandmother how to make apple strudel and his grandfather about the best times and places to pick mushrooms. I asked Radek’s aunt about her garden, and Radek’s mother about traditional Czech recipes.
In this way, I’ve navigated more than ten years of conversational banter in the Czech Republic. I’ve learned a lot about the Czechs I’ve chatted with, and I’m willing to bet that they’ve learned more than they thought they would about me.
Now, for better or worse, I’m trying to parlay my “talking” skills into my conversational lessons with Czech elementary school children.
It seems to be working. In the beginning of the year, the second graders looked at me suspiciously, perhaps wondering what their parents had gotten them into by signing up for English Conversation Club. These days, they arrive a few minutes early to class. They seem to thoroughly enjoy our routine of playing games, listening to songs and having fun. They are full of things to say, but since their English is at a rudimentary level, there isn’t too much free chatting going on. Still, we do the best we can.
I ask questions, mostly the same ones, over and over. Hello, how are you? What‘s your name? How old are you? When’s your birthday? What’s the weather like today? What month is it? What day is it today? What day was yesterday? What day will tomorrow be? Do you like football? Do you like bananas? Can you jump up and down? Where’s the pencil? Who’s that? Are you hungry? What’s your favorite color? I follow up on my questions by asking more questions, and I get the children who are able to ask questions too.
I can see progress. When Lucka, a shy, gentle student in an otherwise all-boy class came to her first lesson, she got tears in her eyes as soon as I asked her name and age. Worried that I’d unintentionally embarrassed her, I let her be for a few weeks. By the time I gave out first-semester rewards, she was the first student to earn 10 stickers for class participation. Better yet, she smiled and said “hello” every time she saw me out of class in the hall.
As time has passed, I’ve realized that for most of the Czech parents whose children I’m teaching, my primary credential for teaching their children is the fact that I’m a native English speaker. The egocentric part of me would like to remind them that all not native speakers make good teachers, and that I have a TEFL teaching certificate and a university degree in English. But it isn’t really important why they want me to teach their children, and more important that their children are learning. For my part, I’m flattered to have the job.
When I spoke to another second-grade student’s mom, she told me that although her son Tomas wasn’t keen on having another English lesson, she had signed him up for the second semester. “He needs to hear you speak,” she told me. Tomas’s mom had no illusions about her son’s English ability. It’s going to take a long time, she told me, but it has to start somewhere. She knows because she’s teaching herself English from a book, and then practicing it with an English-speaking friend. She told me it’s difficult for her to understand her friend’s speech. She wants her son to start his English language journey while he’s still young, so he doesn’t face the same obstacles she has.
I can empathize with my shy students. I, too, know how hard it is to muster up the courage to answer a question, particularly in a second language. Which is why, on occasion, I’ve broken the rules and let the children hear me speak Czech. Although some ESL teaching theories say that in the classroom English should be spoken exclusively, I’ve had success using Czech in limited doses to help clarify instructions, keep classroom order and occasionally to let the children share things about their lives that they might not be able to express in English.
In this manner, my students have told me about English-speaking relatives who give English books as Christmas presents, an older brother who listens to English songs at home, a half-sister who’s married to an American with children who speak only English, computer games they like to play in English, and so on. As I listen, I try to elicit words that my students do know in English, and to get them to repeat back at least one sentence of their story in its English translation. It is hard work and progress is slow.
Last week, as I packed up my English bag after our lesson, three of my second-grade students hung around to help. While they stacked the notebooks, organized the stickers and put the books back in order, I thanked them. “You’ll be reading books like these next year,” I told them. “English is going to get easier.” They wrinkled their noses in confusion. I tried again. “Next year, will be better. You’ll see.” Finally, I translated my praise into Czech. Their faces lit up. As we walked down the hall together, they began to tell me everything they knew in English. The listed the names and types of pets they do have and pets that they would like to have. They didn’t stop talking until we reached the after school care room where we said our goodbyes.
I have 52 new friends between the ages of 4 and 12. I’m teaching them to speak in English, and they’re teaching me to listen. My childhood lessons have finally paid off.