Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many on Goodreads, I decided to read this book because of Manny’s enthusiastic review. And I am glad I did. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it seemed high time that I understand something of the language’s history. This book was an excellent choice, since it focused on that aspect of English most pesky to foreign speakers—grammar—while avoiding the too-often-told story of the growth of English vocabulary via French and Latin.

McWhorter begins by focusing on two distinctive features of English grammar: the so-called ‘meaningless’ do (as in, “Do you eat rabbits?”) and the use of the progressive in order to talk about the present (as in, “I am going,” rather than simply “I go”). Not coincidentally, these two aspect of English cause some of the most persistent errors in my students. In Spanish, just like in every other European language I know, there is no auxiliary verb needed for negations or questions; you can simply ask “¿Comes conejos?” Similarly, in Spanish, as in German or French, you can use the simple present to refer to what you are doing now; thus, a Spaniard can say “Voy” to express a current movement, and they reserve “Estoy yendo” for special emphasis.

Curiously, no other Germanic languages have these features. Indeed, they are absent (according to McWhorter) from every other European language, with the notable exception of the Celtic languages (specifically, Welsh and Cornish). This leads him to the quite natural supposition that the indigenous Celtic languages exerted an influence on the Old English spoken by the invading Anglo-Saxons. He musters quite a number of evidences and arguments in support of this thesis, to the extent that I was pretty worn out by the end of the chapter.

To be fair, this idea is considered quite controversial in the academic community, so McWhorter felt the need to champion it in full battle array. Nevertheless I think the maxim “Know your audience” applies here. I presume most readers of this book will be, like me, non-specialists, with little reason to be skeptical of the Celtic influence; to the contrary, it struck me as extremely plausible. So McWhorter’s harping on the point was simply taxing. In any case, if he is looking to influence the academic community, a short popular book is not the medium to do it.

McWhorter’s next chapter deals with the Viking influence, which he holds responsible for the jettisoning of much of Old English’s serpentine Germanic grammar, resulting in the relatively “easy” language we have today. And he rounds out the book by making the considerably more speculative argument that Proto-Germanic diverged in such a distinctive way from Proto-Indo-European because a large number of Semitic speakers (Phoenicians who had made it to Denmark) learned the language. At this point, I admit that I began to have reservations about McWhorter’s method. Despite the reasonableness of the Celtic-English and the Scandinavian-English hypotheses, the cumulative effects of McWhorter’s arguments was to weaken each.

McWhorter’s specialty is researching how languages influenced one another historically; and one begins to suspect that this academic orientation leads him to see evidence for this phenomenon everywhere. To me it is unsatisfying to write a history of English as a series of stories, however plausible, of how it was influenced by other languages. This is because, logically, in order for there to be distinct languages capable of mixing there must first be languages capable of transforming without any linguistic contact. It can all begin to sound like a biologist who insists that the reason elephants have tusks is because proto-elephants mated with proto-walruses epochs ago.

This is an unfair comparison, of course; and to repeat I think his Celtic argument is quite strong. However, the more one reads, the more McWhorter’s method can begin to sound unsettlingly like Just-So stories. Some inconsistencies in the arguments make this clear. For example, he brushes aside the paucity of Celtic vocabulary in English, while citing the many Scandinavian loan-words as evidence for Viking influence (not to mention the possible Semitic loan-words in Proto-Germanic). To me it seems prima facie dubious that Welsh and Cornish speakers were able to fundamentally transform English’s grammar without leaving a considerable stockpile of loanwords. Importing words is the most natural thing in the world when learning a foreign language; I do it all the time, as do my students.

To objections like these McWhorter is always able to point to a case where a similar event occurred as the scenario he is describing. But, again, one surmises that the corpus of available examples is large enough to back up any claim he wishes to impose. McWhorter criticizes other linguists for ignoring the causes of language change. But is invoking the influence of other languages a satisfying explanation? To me this is of the same order as arguing that life on Earth originally came from Mars. Perhaps, but how does life arise in the first place?

Now, it may be unfair of me to nitpick what is, after all, a popular book. But if McWhorter saw fit to include so much argument in favor of his uncommonly-held opinions, I think it behooves readers to be somewhat skeptical, especially since the general reader has no specialized knowledge to ground her acceptance or rejection of McWhorter’s conclusions. For my part, I think a more expository and less polemical book on the history of English would have made for far more pleasing reading. Yet McWhorter is an engaging writer and an original thinker, so it was valuable to learn of his approach to linguistics.



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Global Classrooms: Part 1

Global Classrooms: Part 1

My school year thus far has been dominated by the Global Classrooms program. This is an educational initiative that resulted from a collaboration between the Comunidad de Madrid, the British Council, the United States Embassy, and the Fulbright program, in which students in their third year of secondary school (American 9th grade) participate in a model United Nations conference. The program has grown every year since its inception; this year well over 100 high schools took part.

Each year it is one language assistant’s job to implement the program in their school—and this year it was my job. This meant preparing my students for the first conference, which took place the third week of January. This gave me about twelve weeks of class to work with the students.

I was lucky. For one, the program has been running for many years in my school, so the teachers are very supportive. I had also seen the program in action already, during the past two years at my school, so I knew what to expect. What is more, instead of the required two hours per week with students, I had three hours to work with them. But I did have one slight disadvantage: my number of students was higher than average. I had four class groups, each with nearly 30 students, so almost 120 in total.

My Global Classrooms team

Despite the extra time, I still felt rushed. The students need to master quite a number of skills before the conference. First I had to explain what Global Classrooms is, which meant explaining what the United Nations is. Then there is public speaking. Most people—let alone teenagers—do not feel comfortable speaking in front of a large group; and when you add a second language into the mix, you can see why this would be quite a challenge. Another difficulty is teamwork, since the students must work in two-person “delegations,” doing their best to share the responsibilities equally.

Voting in the conference

After the class is divided into delegations and assigned countries, they must write papers and speeches from their country’s perspective. This means doing research. For most of these students, this is the first time that they are asked to diligently search for reliable sources and cite these sources in the proper format. Believe me, it can be a struggle trying to get students to not use Wikipedia (especially since I use it so much). Added to this, the temptation to plagiarize is especially strong in a foreign language, since paraphrasing can be quite difficult for a non-native speaker.

The dais

The two major pieces of writing the students must produce are the Opening Speech and the Position Paper (a short research paper). The former is essentially a shortened version of the latter, since the students need to be able to read their speech in 90 seconds. In both, they must examine a global problem from a domestic and an international perspective, explain what their country has already done to address the problem, and then propose solutions for the future.

This year the problem assigned to my school was Gender Violence—a very timely issue. Thus, the students had to wrap their mind around the forms and causes of gender violence—both in the world and in their own countries—in order to come up with persuasive solutions.

The chair checking the remaining time to the unmoderated caucus

The last piece of the puzzle is parliamentary procedure. The students need to learn the different sections of a conference (formal debate, moderated caucus, unmoderated caucus), how to make a point or a motion or to yield their time (and all the different ways of doing so), and how to write a proper resolution (a proposal to solve the problem).

Teaching these things may sound dry (and can be); but it was made somewhat more engaging by teaching it through a “Zombie Conference,” in which the students had to find a solution to the impending zombie apocalypse.

Two delegates giving their speech, with the evaluator listening closely

The effort to impart all of these skills is rewarded when you see the students in action. By December, my students (well, most of them) were able to operate within a formal environment, speak in public, write a properly-researched paper, debate a global issue, and in general impress all of the adults in the room with their poise and maturity. It is quite a payoff.

Because so many schools are participating in the program, each school may only send 10 students to the first conference in January. I admit I was a little disappointed by this, since it meant choosing between several deserving candidates. But in my school (as in many others) we compensated by having our own conference in December, in which every student could participate. This may have been the most rewarding part of the whole experience for me. It is the middle-range students, the ones who do not normally excel, whom an educator most hopes to reach—since the ones who do normally excel hardly need your help—so it was gratifying to see so many of these students improve.

After this conference in December we picked our team of 10 and began preparing them for the January conference. This meant re-writing position papers and opening speeches, brushing up on parliamentary procedure, and discussing the program of gender violence in greater depth. It can be a nervous time for the students, since they know that only about a third of the schools advance to the next conference (which takes place in late February). Is it important, then, for the students to see the conference, not as a cut-throat competition, but as a learning experience—which it is.

The list of speakers

This year so many schools participated that the conference had to be spread out over six days. It is a big operation, and so each of the Global Classrooms language assistants is required to help run the conference. My job was to be a photographer. It was my first stint as an events photographer, though hopefully not my last. At least now I can reap the benefits of my work, since I have a stockpile of photos that I can use to illustrate the event.

Self-portrait

The conference took place at CRIF Las Acacias, a labyrinthine old building (now a center of “innovation and training”) which had been a state orphanage for nearly 100 years (1888 – 1987). I had the privilege of being taken on a small tour of the old church. It sits empty nowadays, cavernous and deconsecrated, beside the main building. The old altar still stands, the virgin presiding over empty benches. Nearby is a theater—now shrouded in darkness—that the orphans would use to stage plays. Few places I know have such a delightful feeling of being abandoned and even haunted by past lives.

The orphanage’s deconsecrated church

But on the days of the conference, present lives were what attracted the most attention. Students in suits and ties, dresses and high heels, gave impassioned speeches in excellent English about complex and controversial issues. The day would typically start off somewhat tense, with the students nervously eyeing those from other schools, and doing their best to outshine their opponents. But the atmosphere noticeably mellowed as the conference went on (it runs from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm), until by the end of the day each student has accumulated dozens of new instagram followers. Now, that is what I call success.


Holden Hollingsworth: Conversation Assistant

Holden Hollingsworth: Conversation Assistant

When I first saw Holden Hollingworth’s name, I thought “This guy is going to be interesting.” Then he told me that everyone born into the Hollingsworth family has a name beginning with H, and I thought “This guy doesn’t disappoint.” A man capable of an extended poker face, I wondered if I ought to trust such an outlandish assertion, until I met the Hollingsworths and was quickly lost in a blur of H’s. Luckily there is more to Holden than his double consonants: a smooth-talking Texan with an endless supply of anecdotes and a continually open mind, he has been a pleasure to work alongside. Here is his story:


ROY: So have you ever been interviewed before?

HOLDEN: I have been interviewed before. I guess mostly for jobs, but also I had to do this interview where the students in a school where I used to work asked me for college advice. And so I gave them advice for going away to school the next year.

R: You were interviewed for their benefit?

H: Yes, I was asked what advice I had for the students as they went to college and I advised them to go to an out of state school. Basically, I told them that going to school in a new area of the country would be beneficial for giving them a better understanding a place/people that they did not grow up with, and that that was one of the main points of the university experience.  I gave them a few other bits of advice as well. They played the interview at graduation.

R: Alright, so tell me about your background—your family, your education, your hobbies, and so on.

H: I grew up in Texas. Pretty close-knit family. There were three kids who were born pretty close together, two years apart. So I have an older brother, Harrison, I’m the second, and a sister, Hadley, and we were all born in Dallas.

R: And then two more siblings, right?

H: Well, two more but they came much later. So we were born in Dallas and then we moved to Kingwood, which is in northeast Houston. When I was 11, my younger brother Heath was born. And when I was 16, my youngest brother Hudson was born. So throughout the whole time when we were growing up there was a baby in the house. We spent a lot of time together as a family… playing games, eating family dinners, and traveling quite a bit. Especially in Texas the first couple of years, because my dad was still trying to pay off med school debt.

R: What’s his job?

H: He’s an OBGYN. He’s now in the United Arab Emirates. So anyway, that’s my family.

R: What about your university education?

H: I went to TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a good experience, and it was nice because my mother had grown up nearby and a lot of her family was still living in the area. I went in and I thought I was going to be a dentist. So I took the pre-dental course-load and I finished that but I really hated it. I thought that it was a bunch of hoops that you had to jump through in order to go to dental school.

For instance, Organic Chemistry is something that is not needed if you are going to be a dentist, and yet, it is used as the main weed-out course. Our professors suggested that we spend fifteen hours a week studying for O-chem, as it was affectionately called, if we wanted to get an A. It seemed arbitrary, and like such a large time investment and that was only the start. After dental school you have to jump through more hoops to become a dentist, and then you would buy into a practice, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then you’re paying it off, and that’s the type of lifestyle that does not allow for much freedom to do anything except follow the track that’s been set up for you. I ended up making a course change and majored in history. And then after I graduated I went into teaching.

My hobbies? I really enjoy running. I ran cross country and track-and-field throughout high school and college. I enjoy playing guitar and reading. Earlier it was mostly fiction and now it’s mostly nonfiction… Old movies, new movies… I like watching movies.

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R: What did you do when you graduated college?

H: When I graduated from college I moved home and I became a substitute teacher. Then I became a full-time teacher at the same school. It was a pre-K-12 school and they focused on Classical education, which breaks education into three phases: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Your primary school is grammar, logic is middle school, and rhetoric is high school. I mostly taught high school and middle school: English, history of the middle ages, US history, and my last year they had me co-teaching the capstone rhetoric class. In this class, the students came up with a topic, usually a contentious issue, for example physician-assisted suicide. Then, they researched it all year, and they wrote a 20-page thesis. At the end of the course, the students had to defend their thesis before a panel of judges.

I was there for three years. And I was also coaching cross-country and swimming. At the end of that time, I was feeling a little burnt-out, I felt pulled in a lot of different directions. So I decided to leave.

R: Alright so, is this when you started traveling?

H: That’s when I started traveling.

R: Why did you decide to go?

H: My family had already moved to Indonesia (they lived there for several years before moving to the United Arab Emirates). So I didn’t feel any familial obligations or a strong connection to the place where I was living. I had taken this long road-trip with a buddy of mine named Tom. We drove from Houston to the Grand Canyon. And on the trip I had a revelation, which was “I can keep doing this.”

R: You mean, in terms of what you wanted or in terms of your resources?

H: I think that resources were probably an important part of it. I had a college degree, some teaching experience, and had saved a little money. But mostly it was the revelation that I was happy on the road. I enjoyed moving around. And part of it was my background. My mom really likes traveling. She prioritized that quite a bit growing up. That was one of her interests. And as I said, I was feeling a little burnt out teaching high school, and I was looking for a lifestyle changer. So when I was going to the Grand Canyon I thought that I could do something that I wanted to do, I was still quite young, I was only 25, and I could enjoy myself. So I decided to take a year off and travel.

R: Where did you go?

H: I spent about eight weeks in Turkey, Greece, and Croatia. And as I was traveling other trips were coming together. I traveled primarily with my family, a little bit alone, and also a good friend of mine named Grant. It was really nice, especially the solo travel. I had never really done that before and I was surprised by the kindness of strangers. People wanted to show you their country, their home, the things that they liked about it. So I had a lot of what I like to call “single-serving friends.” For example, I was in Greece for a little while and I kept going to this restaurant, and the waitress/owner/cook gave me a nice breakfast and a packed lunch free of charge, saying “Hey, take this, you need food.”

I did some solo travel in the States as well. I did a big West Coast trip, where I started in Eugene, Oregon, and ended in Anchorage, Alaska, and then I flew back to Texas. I was busing some, I was hitchhiking some, and then I flew from Vancouver up to Anchorage. That was a nice trip. I hadn’t spent much time in the Pacific Northwest before that. It was cool to see the people there and the culture there. I’d spent a lot of time in Texas, where people are very friendly, and I spent quite a bit of time on the East Coast (where my brother went to school), where the people are more interested in what they are doing. And on the West Coast I felt like people were very interested in the things that they were pursuing but also very interested in having relational experiences.

After that I went to East Coast of the US, Europe, the Czech Republic, Germany… I went to Bali… The rest of my time was spent in the Rockies (training for a marathon) and the western U.S. ranging from Montana to California.

R: This was all in one year?

H: Yeah. So it was my year on the road. It was a really good year. I learned a lot. I became quite self-reliant, which was good. And then I got to spend some time doing some things I wanted to do, which I hadn’t done much of when I was teaching back in Texas.

R: What did you do next?

H: I finished my time traveling and I came back to Houston for a little while, and I was working as a swim coach at a gym. Then I applied for a teaching job in Chile and I got offered the job, and I moved to Chile to be a teaching assistant, to a small town northwest of Santiago called Los Andes. I wanted to work a little bit and to go to a place where I could learn some Spanish. I picked Chile mostly because of its natural beauty. I knew that the Atacama Desert was in the north and I wanted to see that. Patagonia is in the south. Also they pay their teachers fairly well.

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R: What did you do there?

H: I was a language assistant. Again I was working at this pre-K-12 school. It was kind of strange. I was with seniors in high school and then I’d go straight to kids who were pre-school age. I’d be trying to speak in somewhat elevated English and then I would be dancing and singing with four-year olds. It was fun, it was difficult, just because I was working 30 hours a week in four days. Quite a bit different from the gig we’re doing here. I traveled a lot, which was nice. Chile has a lot to offer as far as travel is concerned.

R: How did you decide to come to Spain?

H: When I was in Chile I met some people who had done the auxiliar program and they suggested it highly. They were like, “Look, instead of 30 hours a week you work 16. It’s a pretty laid-back schedule. You also have a chance to travel within Europe.” Which was exciting to me, the chance to see more of Europe, especially Spain. I’d never been there before. As soon as I got back to the States I applied to the auxiliar program. And as you know the process takes several months to hear back, apply for the visa, you’ve got to dot all your “i’s” and cross all your “t’s”—blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda.

R: What were some of the challenges of moving here?

H: Oh, mostly wading through the, you know, bureaucratic things. You have to do the paperwork, you have to figure out where you’re gonna live, you have to set things up. Every time you move to a new place there are certain difficulties. But I had already experienced that in Chile so I felt somewhat prepared. But there are always these little things, like, you have to find an apartment. Is it a good apartment? Is it the right location? Are your roommates okay? Besides that, moving here was not super challenging because I have spent the last few years traveling around and moving quite a bit.

R: What are some of your duties as an auxiliar?

H: Essentially, assisting in the classroom. Sometimes leading the class. I teach, or co-teach, help teach…  biology, English, and history. Biology is the thing I know the least about, since I haven’t studied it since college. That gave me some pause initially, trying to come up with lectures and activities for that, but the teacher that I work with has been very helpful. In history I’ll usually teach a short lecture on whatever subject they’re talking about. And for English, sometimes I take students out in small groups and really work on their speaking and grammar. Those are the primary duties of being an auxiliar for me.

R: And the challenges of being an auxiliar?

H: The main thing here has been that the behavior is very different from what I’m used to in the States. Spain is similar to Chile, where the students are more familiar with the teachers, they call them by their first name. And because of that familiarity, and maybe that lack of distance, there’s a little bit less respect. They’re talkative and you really have to get on them, like “Hey, be quiet.” And part of it is, I think, that I’m an assistant teacher, and that position is afforded less respect than the primary teacher.

R: How would you compare the education system here with Chile and with the States?

H: Both in Chile and in the States I was working in private schools. The private school where I worked in the States was quite small, 15 kids to a class. So really easy to manage the classroom. The kids were quite bright, there was an admissions test to get in. There were very few behavioral problems. And I felt like I was teaching content, not teaching students how to be what I would call “a good citizen.” And I really enjoyed that quite a bit.

In Chile, it was very different. Much larger classroom. Maybe 30-35 kids. The kids in the back would always be talking, so you would have to shout over them. They did not respect the primary teachers. And I was even less respected. Even though the kids are mostly nice one-on-one, it’s just when you got them in that group they wanted to talk with their friends and not do very much. Most students, there are some exceptions, they all fall to the lowest common denominator. They’ll do what they want to do as long as you allow them to do that thing.

Here in Spain I would say it’s in-between Chile and the US. The kids, mostly nice, mostly respectful, there are a few problems with talking. It’s not horrible like it was in Chile, but it’s not as good as it was in the States. I think the kids are quite smart here. One of the things that’s different is the culture and the grading system. I’m not used to a 5 being a pass, 50%. In the States it was 70 or above. In Chile it was more than 50% as well.

I feel like students are the same everywhere. They want to get away with as much as they can. So if you’re teaching 15-16 year old kids, there are some similarities.

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R: What do you plan on doing when you leave Spain?

H: I’m hoping to get my feet wet in the National Parks job arena this summer. I’ve been offered a summer position at the historic site in Hyde Park where FDR grew up. What I would like to do is to work for a government agency, either the State Department or the National Park Service.

R: How do you think you’ll look back on this experience?

H: For me, this is a continuation of the last few years of my life. I’ve been traveling quite a bit. And I feel like, as my twenties end, so does that time in my life. At least for a little while.

R: You mean the traveling time?

H: The traveling time. And the twenties time. Anyway, I think I’ll think of it as the time when I was really trying to experience different cultures, meet different people, and learn different things, but not through book-learning. When I look back I’ll think, “This is the time when I was ready to experience new things.”

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Diego is on the far left; Becca the far right; Holden the third from the right.

Diego Cruz: Conversation Assistant

Diego Cruz: Conversation Assistant

I have been working alongside Diego for two years now. When I first met him he was straight out of college—a frat boy without his frat, living all the way out in Arganda del Rey, a quiet town far from the center of Madrid. It was obviously a new experience for him. And he adapted admirably: growing more confident, more independent, and more empathetic to others in the process. Far more than two years seem to have elapsed between the Diego I first met and the Diego I know now. He recently took some time to sit down with me and share some of his story:


R: How are you feeling?

D: Feeling pretty good, kinda nervous. It’s weird, you know, having your friend interview you.

R: Have you been interviewed before?

D: Only professional interviews.

R: Tell me about your background—your family, your education, your hobbies, and so on.

D: Okey dokey. My dad is Mexican, born in Mexico. He moved to Los Angeles in the late seventies. My mom was born in America but she’s of Armenian-Spanish descent. And she grew up in Spain, in orphanages. I identify myself as a chicano. I grew up with a bunch of latinos in my community. So I always thought I was Mexican. I was born in East LA but I lived my whole life in South Gate, California.

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I went to university to UC Santa Barbara, and I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I came to Spain right after that. My hobbies? I like to go to the gym, I like to play soccer, I like to be with my friends. Sometimes write, sometimes read, you know.

R: How did you decide to come to Spain?

D: Alright, so my brother forced me to come to Spain. My brother Rafael was like, “Hey fool you got really bad grades in university so you gotta do something spectacular.” So he was like, “You should do this program.” So for a year and a half or so I was thinking about going to Spain. And then the time came to apply and I barely made it on the deadline and I was told in August that I got in.

R: In August? [The program begins in October.]

D: Yeah, so I had to do everything super fast before I came mid-September.

R: What were some of the challenges of moving to Spain?

D: So the challenges were raising the money, saving up the money to buy the tickets and for rent, security deposit, food. Then eventually it was just saying goodbye to your family and friends. Some friends don’t understand that it’s something you have to do for yourself. Some friends just forget about you. But my family is there for me, so that’s what matters the most.

R: How did you raise money?

D: I worked, I was working as a referee, I was washing dishes. And my mom hooked me up with some money, too, so I was really lucky with my mom.

R: And what about the visa process?

D: That shit was wack. Everything was new to me. You know, my dad came to the States and he got his citizenship. So I thought, “If this fool can get a citizenship then I can get my visa.” So the paperwork took me like three or four weeks. I did some of the things wrong so I had to redo it several times. And so I wasted like 300 bucks.

R: Tell me about your job as an auxiliar—your schedule, your duties, your role in the classroom.

D: Well, I work 16 hours a week, but I’m here for like twenty-something. [We have breaks between classes that adds to the time at high school.] My role is to assist the teacher. But as a second-year now, I’m leading the class and I’m lecturing. I’d say about half of the time I’m lecturing and the other half I’m with the students, with groups of four, talking. I feel we have a specific role in the classroom, because we’re obviously younger than the teachers, so we become this bridge with the students and the teachers. And sometimes the teachers come down on the students hard, so you kinda have to go to the student and tell them what’s good. You’re like, “Hey, the teacher is being a little harsh, but you gotta understand that these are the rules.” So you just try to help them figure it out. That’s how I see myself.

R: What are some of the challenges of being an auxiliar?

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D: Upholding the expectations, meeting the expectations of the teachers. Because last year some of the expectations weren’t that clear, you know. So you don’t know if you’re doing a good job or not. But this year I’m doing a lot better, I have better communication with my teachers. So the challenges might be that the students just wanna keep talking to you, and you gotta be like “Hey, now it’s time to do classwork.” Last year it was a struggle to keep them attentive, but this year I’ve been doing a good job of keeping them focused in class, helping them out with their work.

R: How would you compare the education system here to ours in the States?

D: So here I think it’s a little bit too lenient. A five [out of ten] is still passing. And to me that’s failure, you know. You did half of the work wrong. So I don’t see how that’s considered passing. And I also think the students repeat too much. [As in, students are held back because they failed.] You have twenty-year-olds graduating from high school. I think it’s too easy to repeat, it’s done too frequently. But I think the issue is because they have too many subjects, they have eleven subjects in the semester. Back in the States we only had to take six or seven. They’re focusing too much on too many. So it’s too much for the kids and that’s when they start messing up in school, they start not caring in class, they start missing school.

Classroom management is too lenient, too. Some of the teachers are really strict but some other teachers just let the kids talk, and the kids are talking and talking and chit chatting. I think they send out the kids too much. [As in, send the kids out in the hallway when they’re misbehaving.] I don’t know if they should be disciplined or what, but they don’t know respect and a lot of them don’t have that respect towards the teachers. I’m pretty well respected but even if I tell them to be quiet they will just keep talking and chit chatting.

R: What do you plan on doing when you leave Spain?

D: I wanna start getting my coaching license. I want to work with professional soccer teams or college soccer teams. If I fail in doing something with soccer I’ll do something with any type of sport. And if I fail at that, I’ll become a gym teacher. But I’ll be a good gym teacher, I’ll try hard, do my thing. But I definitely want to to something with sports after Spain.

R: How do you think you’ll look back on this experience in 10 years?

D: I think 10 years from now Diego will be really happy with this Diego. I tell this to my friends, in university I was a cool guy and people liked me, but I felt like I was a loser. I wasn’t responsible, I didn’t handle my scandal, you know. I was just a loser, you know. Yeah I had friends and I know people loved me but the way I was, that was some loser stuff. And I’m really proud that when I’ve been here, I’ve been more responsible and I’ve managed to change, to live a healthier lifestyle, to be more optimistic about life. It’s just given me a brand new type of identity. Or it’s reinforced my identity and I’ve become stronger. So I feel that ten years from now I’ll be really proud of that, that I was able to leave everything back home and come to Spain, give it my all, and be the person I would eventually become. I’ll be really happy, I’ll be really content with this Diego.

R: So you think it’s important in your development?

D: Oh yeah, I already know it’s super important. For the person who I wish to become, who I want to become, who I will become.

R: Well that’s all my question. Anything else?

D: Well I want to say that, at first I thought Roy was wack, but then he’s a great guy.

An Interview with a Bilingual Educator

An Interview with a Bilingual Educator

Helena Massó is the Bilingual Coordinator in my high school—which basically makes her my boss. She was there on my first day of school, welcoming us into our new workplace, doing her best to make us comfortable, giving us our schedules and explaining how everything worked. She handles every administrative task for us, from renewal to vacation to scheduling, in addition to her many other duties. Not only that, but she is a working teacher. (In Spain administrators commonly double as teachers.)

She took some time from her busy schedule for an interview about her career. Here is the edited transcript.


Roy: Have you ever been interviewed before?

Helena: Yes, a couple times. Once was to become a certified Advanced English teacher . The interview was about why my name starts with an “H.” [In Spanish the “H” is silent; and so the sonically equivalent name is commonly spelled “Elena”.] I was annoyed that this topic was the main criterium to decide whether I was prepared to teach Advanced English, after passing my official tests in English to become a teacher, after getting the Proficiency certificate by Cambridge University, and after getting the Official School of Languages certificate of English. What about my professional development and career?

R: So… why is your name spelled with an “H”?

H: Well, because the Greeks are so weird. Really the explanation is too long. (See below for the story.)

R. How did you learn English so well?

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H: I started learning English when I was 8 years old. My school didn’t have English as a foreign language. At the time it was more fashionable to have French. But my school introduced extracurricular English classes. And from the very beginning I became very interested in the language. So I went through my primary school taking English this way, as an extracurricular, and then took regular classes in secondary school. Then, when I had to decide to study something in university, for me it was clear that I wanted to study English. I studied English philology. I really liked the language and the culture. I studied some history, geography and literature of England and the United States. I forgot to mention that music was also a strong reason to enjoy learning English. I love traditional Irish music and rock, so I would enjoy listening to music and translating lyrics. 

R: And have you ever lived abroad?

H: No, no I haven’t. Just short stays for courses abroad or holidays, no longer than a month or so. I am a product of public education. My family wasn’t poor but we couldn’t afford any extra resources. So if I hadn’t studied in a public school I couldn’t have become an English teacher.

R: So what brought you to teaching?

H: One thing leads to the other. The career possibilities out of English philology were very restricted. My first thought was that I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher, I didn’t feel prepared for that. Eventually I became a tutor for private lessons. And I liked to see how students improve with your help, and I liked helping them develop their learning skills. So one thing led to another. But my first thought was to become a translator.

R: What are some of the challenges of teaching a second language?

H: Teaching is very challenging in general, and teaching a foreign language… Well, it depends on the context. Before I began teaching in a bilingual program, the challenge was getting the students to express themselves in English. I remember I would start my lessons every year speaking English, and the students’ reactions were, in most cases, “We are in Spain, so you have to speak Spanish.” And my answer was “But we are learning English. We have thirty students, fifty minutes, three times a week.” My students had focused a lot on reading and writing, but not on speaking and listening. So it was a challenge to get them to react in a different way, not being so reluctant to speak.

And this changed totally when we started the bilingual program. Because those students who have studied primary in a bilingual program feel that it’s more natural to have classes in English. So you don’t have to fight against them to speak English in class. This is a very big improvement I’ve noticed.

R: So how do you overcome the challenge of students who are reluctant to speak English?

H: In our school, it’s easier, since it is a bilingual school. When they are being lazy and don’t want to speak English, I pretend that I don’t understand Spanish. So it’s just being consistent, insisting on English every day, so that it’s natural. It doesn’t matter if they make mistakes but they have to keep on trying.

R: Why do you think so many people take a foreign language for years and years, and yet hardly retain anything? I ask this because I’ve met many Spaniards who took English throughout primary and secondary school, and yet their level is absolutely basic. The same thing happens in my country, too.

H: That was one of the reasons for the bilingual program, just to shock the whole situation. And I agree with the initiative. Probably I don’t agree with the way that it was put into practice, the implementation. But why weren’t people learning? In my generation, this happened. The focus was much more on reading and writing a good paragraph, than on keeping the balance between the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and creating someone proficient in English, not perfect in grammar. Nowadays I think it’s different. But I hear a lot of adults complain about how their English courses were boring. Having lots of grammar exercises, focused on accuracy, rather than anything related to their interests.

R: Can you explain some of what you do as the Bilingual coordinator?

H. One of my responsibilities is to try to help teaching assistants feel good and comfortable at school, and empathize with you, because if you are happy working here your impact is huge. And I’m a mediator between teaching assistants and teachers. Another thing I do is keep track of which students might be struggling in the bilingual program, using feedback from teachers and assistants; and if English is their primary difficulty I may formally suggest that a student switches to the non-bilingual track. There are other responsibilities, such as fostering collaboration between CLIL (teachers who teach content in English, but aren’t themselves English teachers, such as Carlos of the history department) and English teachers in the bilingual team; leading the bilingual team; and promoting consistency in approaches and methodologies within the bilingual program, which is quite challenging because this tasks relies on collaboration.

R: Can you explain your approach in the classroom? For example, what sorts of activities and exercises to you find the most helpful?

H: It depends on the level, and it depends on the group. I try to analyze the groups’ needs. Some years ago I had a very good group of year-one students [equivalent to American seventh grade]. (And, by the way, one of those students is the one who won the global classrooms competition.*) I had a great situation and an enthusiastic, creative assistant, and a motivated group of students. That year, I managed to work on To Kill a Mockingbird, which is incredible for that level. This isn’t always the case. This year we need to work on basic stuff, grammar and vocabulary, to get them ready for next year. And my priority is to get them to change their mindset from primary to secondary.

I don’t really like to stick to the books. The books do give the students a sense of order and progress. But I like to do extra things related to the subject. The most challenging issue is to keep the balance between meeting content official content requirements and having enough time to make learning affordable and enjoyable by introducing some creativity in the lessons. Now we’re working on comparatives (better, stronger, faster, etc.), and we are collaborating with visual arts to do comparisons between pictures. So I like to do more creative activities. And I love working on literature. As a whole, I like students to change their mindset from “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet.”

R: Do you think you need natural talent to learn a foreign language?

H: Not really. I think learning a foreign language is a matter of degree. It depends on what your expectations are. If you want to speak a foreign language perfectly of course you need some talent. But there are many ways to be able to express yourself in a foreign language. So I think that’s a mistake in our case in Spain because we want to be perfect, and when we are not perfect we quit. To me learning a language is like doing music or sports: you can enjoy music or sport even if you are the worst singer in the world or if you are not really fit.

R: I ask this because I hear a lot of Americans saying “I don’t have the language gene” or “I just can’t learn a foreign language.” So they don’t try.

H: I think that this is wrong, I think that it is a matter of degree. You need to ask: What do you need the foreign language for? To get access to a new culture? To new ideas? In that case you don’t really need to be perfect. I think it’s much better to think, “Okay, I can get to this level, so now let’s try the next level. If I can, great. If I can’t, no worries.”

R: Do you think that engaging with English media, like TV shows and movies, can make a big different for students?

H: Yeah, for sure. I think so. I’m really surprised when students say “I can’t read this, it’s too hard.” And I say, “Imagine you are working out the instructions for a game console, and they are written in English. You’d probably work it out.” So this is the way. If you are connected with the topic, you will find your way to make sense of that. If you enjoy watching something in a foreign language, one way or another you’ll learn things.

R: I find that my best students are the ones who watch movies and shows in English.

H: I think it’s kind of a loop, a virtuous cycle. The higher your level, the more you can make of what you watch, and so you learn more, and you have more motivation, and so on.

R: What are some of the challenges of a bilingual school, as opposed to a monolingual school?

H: It is difficult to summarize quickly. We could spend our whole lives discussing this. It involves politics, in involves educational views, it involves school and classroom management… And every school is different. So I heard of bilingual schools selecting the students that they want to include in the program. And this is not my view of how bilingual programs should work. The challenge is being fair. A bilingual school should be a social escalator. If we have a bilingual school, we are giving our students, regardless of their background, the opportunity to—who knows?—maybe in the future get a grant, go abroad for studies, and have further opportunities. But I know that in other cases bilingual studies aren’t implemented this way. So the challenge is to be fair, keeping the balance between being a special program and providing equal opportunities to all the students. We are a public school. We have a social role.

Bilingual programs are often criticised when they are implemented in public schools but I’ve neved heard criticism about bilingual programs implemented in private schools. This is looking down on teachers and students of public education. We are giving a particular type of students the option to meet someone like you, someone from a foreign country telling them about their experience with hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance. Widening their horizons.

R: Do you think that learning a foreign language is important for society in general? And I ask this because, in my country, we are very monolingual.

H: I think that we should all get a taste of as many languages as we can. That doesn’t mean we have to be fluent in five languages. It means that we should be exposed to as many languages as we can. In Spain I think that it is a big mistake not to have some exposure for kids to all the languages spoken in Spain.** Some basic knowledge. And hopefully somebody decides that they like the way it sounds and they want to learn more. Because it’s our country, it’s part of our culture, our heritage. This way we wouldn’t have these political problems and controversy we have at the moment.***

The more you know about languages, the wider are your views about how the world works.

(By the way, I changed my name into Helena with and H before going to University because my parents had registered me as Mª Isabel when I was born and then baptised me as Mª Isabel Elena, but they would call me Elena. I found out about my official name when I was …eightish?? and told my mum that I wasn’t happy about being called Elena. I though that other names were cool, not mine. Then she told me that I should sign official documents as Mª Isabel but in my daily life I was Elena. I decided to fix such a mess and had to apply for the change in front of a judge and show evidence of my name. I decided to include the H because at the time I was interested in philology, this etymological spelling was quite unusual then. I added my own stuff to my identity, it was cool.)

 


*Madrid’s public schools participate in a program called Global Classrooms, which is essentially mock-UN. In a future post I will interview the assistant who was responsible for the program this year.
**Aside from Castilian Spanish, Spain has three other official languages: Gallego, Catalan, and Basque. And there are many other regional languages and dialects to be found in the country.
***There is a lot of controversy over the use of Catalan vs. Castilian in public schools in Catalonia. 

Review: Romeo and Juliet

Review: Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ROMEO: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.

MERCUTIO: True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind.

My memories from my high school literature classes are largely a blank. Books held no interest for me. I spent one year skipping my classes completely. And when I did drag myself to class, I almost never did the reading. A quick look through the Cliffnotes the night before was usually enough to pass the exam—which inevitably consisted of a bunch of multiple-choice questions about plot details, and short-answer questions of ‘analysis’ that could easily be fudged by some clever-sounding nonsense.

We occasionally ‘acted-out’ plays in class. This was normally a cue to space-out while my classmates labored through Shakespeare’s language, and hope the teacher didn’t call on me. I liked to day-dream about videogames and action movies. Shakespeare, I thought, was stuffy boring nonsense, hopelessly cliché and old-fashioned. But despite my apathy, one moment of Romeo and Juliet did manage to worm its way into my memory. This was Mercutio’s enormous, phantasmagoric monologue about Queen Mab:

She is the fairies midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate stone / On the forefinger of an alderman, / Drawn with a team of little atomi / Over men’s noses as they lie asleep. / Her chariot is an empty hazelnut made by the joiner squirrel or old grub, / Time out o’ mind the faries’ coachmakers; / Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs; / The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, / Her traces of the smallest spider web, / Her collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, / Her whip of cricket’s bone, her lash of film, / Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat, / Not half so big as a round little worm / Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid; / And in this state she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love…

The speech goes on much further, describing how the Queen “gallops ov’e a courtiers’ noses” and “driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,” filling their dreams with vain fantasies. I am sure that I didn’t understand even half of it; what is an agate stone, an alderman, or an atomi? But the speech is so exuberant, and interrupted the play’s action so pointlessly (or so it seemed), that I couldn’t help being interested. Yes, I was actually interested in Shakespeare for a moment, and found myself wondering what this fairy queen, so decorously bedecked, had to do with this ridiculous story of love.

I admit that, even now, I find it hard to love this play. It has has become such a ubiquitous cultural reference-point that reading it is rather like seeing the Mona Lisa in person—seeing an icon that is already so relentlessly seen that it is almost impossible to unsee and see afresh. But this is hardly the play’s fault, or Shakespeare’s. Indeed, it is a mark of supreme merit that we can hardly speak of the passions of romantic love without these two lovers coming to mind; and, though we laugh at these outbursts of adolescent passion in our more cynical moments, there is hardly anything more simple and sublime in love poetry than Juliet’s declaration:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

A few months ago, I was given a bilingual copy of this book, in English and Italian, from a thoughtful friend who traveled to Verona. I myself was lucky enough to have gone to Verona when I was back in high school, the very same year that I was skipping all my English classes.

I remember getting off the bus, still jetlagged and dazed, but feeling elated and happy in sunny winter’s day. I looked at the stony ruin of the Verona Arena and thought of gladiators wielding tridents and swords. Back then I even knew some Italian—long since forgotten, from lack of both interest and practice—which I was learning in school. So it seems a fitting testament to my misspent youth to quote from this most romantic of plays in that most romantic of languages:

Oh, Romeo, Romeo, perché sei tu Romeo?
Rinnega tuo padre e rifiuta il tuo nome,
o, se non vuoi, giurami solo amore,
e non saró piú una Capuleti.

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