Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Don’t Speak, Just Panic!

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Une Table Pour Deux

We were literally dodging raindrops as we darted into a bistro on a street corner in Paris. (One of the big advantages to living in Belgium is the ability to nip off to places like Paris for the weekend.) We were starving and all I could think about was one of those huge Parisian salads. We waited by the door for a few minutes as the waiter raced around with steaming plates. When he had a moment, he looked at us inquiringly. “Pour deux.” I said, holding up 2 fingers, just in case.

The Path from French Learner to Unconfident Speaker

One of the other advantages to living in Belgium is being immersed, at least to a limited extent, in a foreign language. For our first 3 years here, I diligently took French classroom-based lessons and shelled out for private lessons. I am the first to admit that I was never the kind of student we all love to have in our classes. My homework was done, but not with any particular care, and I rarely went above and beyond. And we all know that a few hours of lessons a week does not a fluent speaker make. Sadly, for the past year, my job has eaten up a great deal of what used to be free time, and I haven’t cracked a French text in many months. As a result, I have forgotten a lot of the vocabulary I once knew, and my confidence in my speaking has plummeted.

“Un petit café.” “Espresso?” “Non, un petit café.”

So, there we were, dripping wet in the entrance of a bistro in Paris. Our waiter was an exceptionally friendly guy. He was chatty and joking with us and the patrons. He was also moving and speaking really quickly. Now, I know food vocabulary (the most important thing to learn, in my hungry opinion), and I am confident in my ability to ask for what I want in French. However, when the waiter came over to take our order, much to my surprise, I kind of fell apart. I stammered, I couldn’t understand him, in short, I panicked. The fact that I was floundering in a topic I actually pride myself on knowing caused me to panic further.

The meal culminated in a confusing exchange with the waiter when I asked for a small coffee. He responded with, “Espresso?” confirming that what I wanted was a small coffee. I said, “Non, un petit café.” This basically means I was saying, “NO, I don’t want a small coffee. I want a small coffee.” This went on for a minute or two until I realized what I was actually saying. Needless to say, the patrons at the other tables found this conversation hilarious.

What was Going on?

In retrospect, I understand that a couple of things were happening. Frist, I found the waiter quite difficult to understand because, in an attempt to be friendly, he went far outside the regular “Can I take your order?” script. Certainly, after 4 years of ordering food in French, I am equipped with the linguistic skills to deal with departures from textbook conversations. However, this particular waiter, with his jokes and chit-chat, went beyond what I was capable of understanding.

This experience made me think of the language that we see in texts and how misleading it can be. More and more, texts are relying of what corpora can tell us about what we actually say rather than on ‘fake’ conversations written by authors. For instance, the exchange “thank you” and “you’re welcome” is actually not all that common in English. According to corpus linguists, it is far more common to follow “thank you” with “mmhmm” or “no problem.” Obviously this kind of difference wouldn’t throw students into the panic that I felt in the French bistro, but I do think I need to be more conscious about offering students variations of what is presented in the text.

I was also thrown by the gregariousness of the waiter, something that is a bit uncommon in Paris. This made me think about my own teaching style. Often, in an attempt to help students relax and lower their affective filter, I try to joke with them and use more casual language. This is what I would do with a native English speaker, after all; this is how we show we are friendly. However, for an English learner, the result might be quite the opposite. Just as I was completely thrown by the waiter’s affable banter, so might my students be confused by mine. Of course, I am not suggesting teachers become serious and stern, but I think I will try to be more sensitive to the reactions of my students when I slip into ultra-friendly mode.

Finally, I was confused by the rapidity of the waiter’s speech. He was in a rush, and he fired off questions like bullets from a shot gun. This fast pace, coupled with unusual language, made me reluctant to answer. I wasn’t even sure I understood the question, much less formulated an appropriate response before he was trying to answer the question for me. This made me think of the time I allow students to respond before asking the question again or trying to help them come up with the answer. Although this has been said many, many times before, I need to be really aware of the time I give students to speak. I think the suggested time is 5 seconds, which seems like torture, but I think I would have been more relaxed and, as a result, more successful if the kindly waiter had given me 5 seconds to respond to his jokes and questions.

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