Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Profile of a TEFL Teacher

They´re a strange bunch of people, TEFL Teachers. Adopting a lifestyle which, to many, is incomprehensible, and finding the alternatives impossible. The job matches the personality so perfectly... it´s difficult to say which came first. Was this social misfit simply lucky to fall into a profession which suited their character so well? Or did they grow into their job and eventually find themselves incapable of working in any other sector?

Instability of contracts is often an issue, particularly in Portugal and Spain. But the TEFL teachers were breaking into cold sweats at having to sign a 9-month contract. What if we don´t like it? What if we want to leave? The sign of security is insecurity, the backpack being the ultimate symbol of liberation and independence. If it all goes wrong, you stuff all your clothes and Hemingway novels into the backpack and go. Leave. Walk off into the sunset...

No-one ever came here on purpose. TEFL teachers are required to have graduated from university, but no subject is specified. And no-one studies TEFL at uni. There are linguists, mathematicians, qualified lawyers, literature graduates, fine artists, actors and musicians. There are philosophers, communication experts, International Business specialists and computer programmers. And here we all are, teaching our mother tongue to the masses, and wondering how we ever got into this. Few jobs can be done by so many. Yet it is not the job itself that is the challenge, it is the uprooting and change, foreign language, food and culture, finding a house when you don´t even know how to ask for a coffee, wiping the slate clean and reinventing yourself every 12 months.

No-one knows how they ended up here. At the end of the day you simply have to put your finger on the map and say "there". You try working in an office and get claustrophobic. You try teaching in a primary school and hate the admin. You try working in a bank and hate the suit-wearing corporate culture. TEFL is... different. Because it´s not a real job. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" the teachers ask each other playfully. We´re only half-joking.

Many are teachers for a year, enjoy themselves, have a laugh and return to "the real world". The problem is when this period is extended, it stops being a holiday, and the lines of "the real world" start to blur. Home feels as surreal as away, being surrounded by your native language is depressing (Oh my God! People really just talk about TV!) and you have no idea what your family and friends are talking about (music, TV, politics, sudoku), and they don´t understand why. Culture shock is expected and "part of the Experience". Reverse culture shock is disorienting, unexpected, and somehow wrong.

The idea of packing the backpack and moving to Indonesia or Mexico is easier to deal with than the idea of returning "home". For everyone back home, this action is "brave". For anyone with the snail-like habit of carrying their life on their backs, this action is cowardly, evading once again the return to one´s own country. We don´t want to grow up. "Next year", you mumble, "next year I´ll go back. Maybe..." And the Dungeons and Dragons-style game continues, you´re heading home, you´re on the path. The only obstacle is your own lack of willpower. You know you´ll make it back some day, you think you will, but not yet, no, not just yet...

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Meaningful Vacationeering ADVENTURE!

Many frustrating hours have been spent recently raking through website after website offering "Authentic and Worthwhile Experiences!!!" in Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia.
Following a fascinating, educational and somewhat life-changing spell volunteering with a very small Foundation based in the Ecuadorian Coastal Rainforest last summer, I decided that I would indeed like to do something as inspiring during my long summer holiday this year.

The whole research experience has, frankly, left a hideously bitter taste in my mouth. The "Vacationeering" industry is growing at a such a rate that the number of potential volunteers now appears to exceed the number of placements. Gap-year students and those taking a career-break are expected to pay vast sums of money (between 1000-3000 euros) for a two to four week stay with a host family or in puropse-built accommodation in a developing country, while they carry out this voluntary work. Where this money goes, in many cases, is about as clear as mud: "includes programme fee, accommodation, airport transfers, guidance, support, volunteer manual, Certificate of Participation at the end of the placement..."
"Not included: food, snacks, transport to, from or around the country, insurance, equipment..."

Hmmm. Given that 1000 euros is probably a decent annual salary in some of these countries, it seems rather a lot to be spending on a bed for the night. Airport transfers would probably set you back about a fiver in a taxi, and what on earth is the programme fee? The "registration fee" is also to be paid separately, another 200-300 dollars, to cover "administration and processing of the application."

But the sickest operations have the flashiest websites. "Help in an orphanage for three days, then experience the trek of a lifetime!!!" they roar. "Have a worthwhile adventure!!!" glitters across the screen. "Perfect for someone who wants a meaningful holiday near one of the most beautiful beaches in the world!!!" - cue photo of blond girl cradling a black child under a palm tree. These are inevitably the ones with the most prohibitive "programme fees", and the ones with a non-existent selection process. "No Spanish necessary!!!" "No experience needed" "Anyone can help!".

Do these organisations work in cold countries? In little known cities, far from the beach or the rain forest? Do they tackle the less glamorous problems of AIDS victims, the elderly, those maimed during conflict or by land mines? Hm. It would seem not. Instead, bear-tracking, tree-planting and street kids are the preferred options.

Shuffling and sorting through the online maze, I post a few well-placed questions and am pushed in the direction of tinier, un-Googleable operations. They don´t advertise volunteer placements. Websites are informative, not flashy. One or two catch my eye. I write emails, listing my qualifications and experience, they write back requesting my CV. There is no programme fee because there is no programme. One slum-based children´s shelter says that funding has dried up, and the project can no longer functions. "But please come, the kids are still around, we can organise it..."

No-one is interested in these places because they don´t offer "meaningful adverntures". The websites may be in Spanish or Portuguese, alienating another portion of would-be volunteers. There is no accommodation, no airport transfers, no "manual". Thay do not promise you "the trip of the lifetime". But I bet that for anyone bold enough to reach out and rise to the challenge, that is what they would get.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

O céu de Lisboa

The sky in Lisbon today was the colour that children use when they paint skies. A shade of Blue which can´t be described with words. Mmmmmm...

Saturday, 23 February 2008

The tony fitch gitterned with a flump (Part II)

To all those who thought you knew how to speak English:

1. Flocky: In flakes
“What deliciously flocky pastry” said his aunt

2. Sice: The number six, when on a dice
Jimmy rolled again, and, to his joy, scored a sice

3. Tony: stylish, fashionable
Cheryl still hasn´t realised that shoulder pads just aren´t tony

4. Bumbledom: Ostentatiousness, vanity
Wayne´s bumbledom was his most unappealing trait

5. Twitting: A reprimand, rebuke or reproach
Adrian received a harsh twitting for wearing an unironed shirt

6. Trig: Elegant, well-dressed, tidy
Nigel didn´t get past the first interview as he wasn´t sufficiently trig

7. Gittern: To play the zither
Mr Fanshaw went weak at the knees as he listened to Eleanor´s masterful gitterning

8. Flump: Noise caused by something being tossed to the floor
Gerald kicked off his slippers with a dull flump

9. Jib: To refuse to walk (an animal)
The camel jibbed and we were stranded out in the sandstorm

10. Sot: Inebriated
Five pints of Snakebite and Black left Gregory completely sot

And fitch? What on earth is a fitch?
Well, of course, it is a polecat, or the hair thereof:
The Gucci fitch scarf is this season´s must-have item

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The tony fitch gitterned with a flump (Part I)

Bizarrely enough, the Portuguese´s astonishing language abilities do not extend as far as their dictionaries.

In the staffroom at work recently, I was fortunate enough to be shown what has become one of my favourite Portuguese items, guaranteed to put more than a mere grin on my face during even the toughest of working days. An English-Portuguese dictionary, old enough for the front and back covers and several pages to be missing, but legible nonetheless. I flicked through, and discovered that on each page there were several English words which, to put it bluntly, were not English words. A merry afternoon was spent passing the dicitionary round the room to see who could come up with the best new words, and by the end of the day, my stomach muscles were truly aching. It was like Douglas Adams´ The Meaning of Liff, only somehow funnier, as we imagined the hordes of unsuspecting Portuguese proudly testing these words on sniggering English speaking friends and colleagues.

While studying the other day I noticed that my own dictionary contained some particularly suspicious-looking vocabulary, and decided that, for the amusement of my readers, it was only fair to share some of these little Jabberwocky-style gems*.

Can you guess the true definition of any of these words? (and no, none of them are rude)
  1. Flocky (adj)
  2. Sice (noun)
  3. Tony (adj)
  4. Bumbledom (noun)
  5. Twitting (noun)
  6. Trig (adj)
  7. Gittern (verb)
  8. Flump (noun)
  9. Jib (verb)
  10. Sot (adj)

No? Not figured them out yet? Aww... twist my arm and you might just convince me to tell you...

* To maintain the integrity of this blog I guess it´s only fair to mention that I cross-checked these words on an online dictionary and, sadly, some of them are genuine. But they are still so damn obscure and funny-sounding that they are all still worthy of mention.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008


In the very early days of learning a new language, "getting by" is almost entirely based on blagging, faking, and downright bluffing. I´m no linguist, but after nearly five years of simultaneous language learning and teaching, I like to think I´ve learned one or two interesting things. Someone with a high level of English who looks permanently bemused and even traumatised because they don´t understand every single word you say is a much less appealing conversation partner than one who possibly only comprehends the merest smattering of what comes out of your mouth, but who does their best to respond in an appropriate, enthusiastic way, complete with exaggerated facial expressions and wildly flailing hand gestures.

Needless to say, I have always strived to be the second of the two, mainly because I love nothing more than blathering on for hours, even if, as is frequently the case in a foreign country, I really don´t have a clue what I´m talking about, and also because once my partner realises how bad my grasp of their language is they will either a) politely excuse themselves and walk off (or maybe just walk off if they are Spanish), or b) attempt to repeat everything they have just said in English, thus spoiling the whole point of the exercise. A big round of applause to the Portuguese for their astonishing linguistic abilities, but it really does make it hard to learn their language.

My first few months in Andalucia were therefore the language equivalent of learning to swim by being hurled into a swimming pool with a shark. I was on my own, skint, and the only way I could find work was by pasting hand-drawn posters all over town, advertising English classes. Soon, my new Spanish phone began to ring. And I had to answer it.

The first thing I developed was an immensely acute bullshit filter. Sevillanos just love to talk. Not content with telling me they would like classes at such and such a time on Wednesdays, they preferred to entertain me with their entire language learning history, starting way back in the dictatorship when Franco promoted French, so they never studied English at school, right up to how they employed an English-speaking Ukranian nanny for their kids so that they wouldn´t have to suffer in the same way. They would then repeat the story with various additions and tweaked details once I turned up at their posh apartment for each lesson with little Juanito.

And so I learned the art of Spanish conversation. It is emphatic, excited, and crucially, requires one person to speak at full volume until they are interrupted by someone who is able to speak louder and more forcefully than them. This means there is virtually no possibility of being dragged into a conversation in which you would be way out of your depth, and provides endless opportunity for study and listening. All that is required is the odd "Sí?" or "No!" uttered with the appropriate intonation as fuel for the speaker.

Thus the conversation proceeds in this way:
Loud Spanish Housewife (LSH): Rapid, deep, unintelligible Spanish
Vicki: (frowning deeply, visibly concerned) ¿Sí?
LSH: Raised pitch, increase in speed of hand gestures
Vicki: (Raised eyebrows, mock horror) ¡¡¡No!!!
LSH: Look of complicity, slightly reduced velocity
Vicki: (Nodding in feigned comprehension and compassion) Sííííí....
LSH: Varied intonation, short, sharp hand movements, looking to the sky
Vicki: (Really getting into this now, reaching Andaluz volume) ¡¡¿NO?!!
LSH: Stops dead. Stares at Vicki, incomprehension. Repeats: ¡¡¿NO?!!
Vicki: (Realising she has got it wrong. Stuttering) Err... ¿Sí?

Conversation ends, Loud Spanish Housewife highly offended, having realised that Vicki has not actually followed any of what has been said for the last quarter of an hour, Vicki making excuses about going to the bathroom. Game over.

So imagine my joy upon finding that Portuguese, while infinitely harder to understand than Spanish, has this nice little get-out clause in the form of one little four-letter word: Pois.

Pois means Yes or No. It means Really? It means Hmm. It means Seriously! or I get you or Exactly. It is gold dust for foreigners. The Russian Roulette days of ¡Sí! and ¿No? are over. I´ve learned all the Portuguese I need to for now.


Thursday, 24 January 2008

In the Olden Days

As much as I often grumble about being a TEFL teacher, it has allowed me to meet the strangest selection of characters, and discuss some pretty curious topics, on a level that, as a regular tourist, I would never be able to do.
The subject of yesterday´s lesson, for example, was technology. As a warmer, I invited the class to brainstorm objects or services which we take for granted today, but which, 30 or 40 years ago, simply did not exist.

All the usual suspects were there - Internet, mobile phones, laptops... but there were some particularly eye-opening suggestions to add to the list this time.
Here is a brief summary:

  • Cars

Considered a luxury item during the Salazar dictatorship, in 1980 there were just one in ten people who owned a car in 1980. Now there are around four times as many cars per head.

  • Roads

Another surprise entry, until you know the information above. Portugal used to have just 30km of motorway. Being fully aware of Portuguese drivers´ preferred velocity, this was probably covered in roughly ten minutes, end to end.

And while there are now plenty of roads and motorways for the Portuguese to accelerate across, the original roads in the small towns are still lacking pavements, in memory of the good ol´days of horses and carts.

  • Central Heating

I laughed when my students told me this. not because I couldn´t believe that the Portuguese used to live without central heating, but because it is a luxury on the Iberian Peninsular that even I had stoppped taking for granted a long time ago. Hence me writing this with frostbitten hands, three pairs of socks and two hoodies. Under a blanket.

  • Running water

Ok, ok, there has always been running water in Portugal. It´s just that, until recently, it used to be running from a small fountain out in the street, where the villagers would have to go and collect it in their tin buckets. Now they are lucky enough to have taps in their very own kitchens and bathrooms. Though don´t go counting on the hot one...