Friday, 25 January 2019

Recommended Reads: An Italian Family, by Franca Magnani

Every now and again, a dip in the bookshop's bargain bin can be like hitting the jackpot. I'm always on the lookout for books that capture the multilingual experience from a human point of view, and Franca Magnani's memoir, An Italian Family, which expresses the amusing and confusing realities of a multilingual upbringing, hits all the registers.

Magnani's witty, intelligent and warm writing style takes the reader back to a very fraught time in European history when adapting swiftly to new situations and environments was absolutely key to survival.

What do you mean, you've never heard of Franca Magnani?! Umm... join the club. Neither had I before I rescued said book from the cruel fate of ending up in the maws of the recycling plant. Turns out, Franca Magnani was a journalist, foreign correspondent and author who spoke Italian, French, German and English to a superb degree.

Multilingualism was foisted upon her in 1928, at the tender age of three, when she left her grandfather's house in an Umbrian village to go and live in Marseille with three perfect strangers: her mother, her father and her older sister. Franca's parents, as politically active anti-fascists, had been forced to flee into exile a few years earlier. They left Italy separately and were unable to carry a baby across the mountains on foot while evading border patrols.

After spending just enough time in the French school system to sound like her French playmates, Franca and her family were uprooted again, this time being granted political asylum in Switzerland. They ended up in Zürich, presenting a triple linguistic challenge: getting to grips with Swiss German, the Zürich dialect and, later on, standard High German. The latter differs significantly from the dialect of German spoken in Zürich and more subtly from Swiss German.

Franca's father, Fernando Schiavetti, an Italian intellectual and committed anti-fascist, was also a linguistic purist determined that his daughters would not babble away in "migrantish." Not only was he hell-bent on his family conversing in "proper" Italian, but their command of the languages spoken in their host countries had to be just as impeccable.

The family's evening meal was subject to frequent interruptions when the daughters were ordered to prise either the Zingarelli, the Larousse, or the Langenscheidt off the shelf to make sure that words were being used correctly. The outbreak of WW2 put an end to these dictionary-accompanied family chats across the dinner table. Instead, they all listened to French, British, Italian, Swiss and German radio stations to see how the same events were covered from different points of view.

And although five different languages were spoken by the girls, mixing different languages in the same sentence was a capital offence in the Schiavetti household, punishable by a wallop on the back of the head (never a slap across the face, that was considered demeaning).

Hitting children on the head may have fallen out of fashion, and so has the view that code switching (mixing languages) demonstrates a lack of linguistic proficiency, but Daddy Schiavetti's dedication to the multilingual cause has to be applauded.

Here's another Recommended Read:
What Language Do I Dream In? by Elena Lappin

...and here's why excruciatingly bad books can still be great for language learning:
Why Terrible Books Can Be Terrible Useful 

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Don't speak to the students in that language!

For those of us who love languages, multilingualism is a great source of joy. That joy, though, is punctuated on occasion with moments set to test us, usually when we least expect it. The CELTA course I did last year produced one such memorable moment.

I was chatting to the students as they were arriving for their English class. I remembered that one of them, a friendly woman in her mid-fifties, had previously mentioned that she was also learning French and Spanish.

Intrigued by this, I prompted her to chat with me in Spanish. She clearly enjoyed being able to practice with me for a minute or two. Then it was time for me to teach my lesson, during which I was being assessed, with feedback given at the end of the day.

Imagine my surprise - if not to say consternation(!) - at being reprimanded in my written feedback for having exchanged a few bits of Spanish with a student before the official start of class. I realise that we (the trainee teachers) were meant to stick to English, and I had been doing my best (not always successfully, I must admit) to avoid using German with the students to maximise their language practice opportunities, but this reproach just struck me as downright petty. It had been about two people connecting, very briefly, over a common interest - an act conducive to building rapport, which tends to impact positively later on in class. There were no victims here. What, then, was this comment exactly if not a gratuitous put-down? Why sledgehammer rules onto a context where they run contrary to the spirit in which they had been drawn up?

Being told what language to speak, when and with whom, by an uninvolved bystander, is just plain patronising. I'm pretty certain that everyone who speaks more than one language has experienced an incident similar to this one. I was 19 the first time this happened to me. I was working as an au-pair in the Midlands (UK) and had made friends with a fellow German au-pair living just a few houses further down the same street. The family she was working for forbade us to speak German with each other because it would "confuse the toddler."

Saturday, 19 January 2019

You only learn speaking by speaking. There, I've said it.

Since airing a gripe about the CELTA course a few days ago, it's probably time to say something positive about it. Well, it has overhauled my thinking on a few points. And one of these is the importance of language production or "output."

The course made me realise that, as a learner, I'd always been very "input" focused. I'm a very reluctant speaker, you see, and I tend to place a lot of emphasis on reading and listening to the radio for hours on end in order to internalise the structures.

When attending classes in the past as a learner, I couldn't really see the point of engaging in speaking practice with other learners. What's the point, I used to tell myself, of listening to other people making the same mistakes that I was making, thereby reinforcing my own errors? Surely, to get good at speaking it's best to converse with competent speakers who can correct me...?

The CELTA course made a point of breaking down the language learning process into various components. It would draw a distinction, for example, between language "input" and "output."

Just to be clear: There has never been any doubt in my mind that speaking practice is important. Over the years, I've met so many people who told me, "I understand [insert language], but I can't speak it." The point is, comprehension alone is not enough. Consuming copious hours of input will only take you so far, but if you ever want to consider yourself a speaker of your chosen target language, you need to actually make those words come out of your mouth, no matter how haltingly at first.

Sonia, who was my Spanish teacher in London, once revealed to me that, after arriving in the UK, she used to sit herself in front of a mirror every night before going to bed and talk to herself until, eventually, she got to a place where she felt vaguely comfortable speaking English.

I'm sure I must have guffawed at this when she told me, but it clearly worked for her, and after finishing CELTA, I've come round to considering her "mirror chats" an effective method of fluency practice. However, I doubt that many would have the discipline to stick to it, and I've become convinced that a classroom setting is actually a very good place to make speaking practice happen.

In fact, I'd go as far as conceding that the core benefit of attending a language class at all is to get the opportunity to speak. Thirty years ago, it was still quite a challenge to find good quality input sources, and a class may have been one of the few occasions for the student to hear the language being spoken. In the online world, this is no longer the case. Magazines, blogs, articles, subtitled TV series, films, verb & vocab quizzes, YouTubers teaching you anything and everything from basic grammar down to colloquial expressions in bite-sized chunks - it's all right there, 24/7. And while it is true that you can quite easily find people for conversation practice online, from my own experience of having gone down that route, I'd say that, at least initially while you're still struggling to maintain a conversation, the classroom is a much better place for taking your first steps in this direction.

In an ideal world I personally still prefer working 1-2-1 with a native (or highly competent) speaker, but this isn't always feasible. In reality, it doesn't really matter whether your conversation partner stumbles over their words just as much as you do - the main objective is that you get those words out, no matter how. You first need to get used to producing the language - the quality of your output can be improved later on.

The upshot is, if I ever do get round to teaching, my focus would be on giving my students as much speaking practice as possible.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

What was the worst thing about CELTA?

High time for an update methinks. For those of you who remember, a year ago I applied to get onto a CELTA (Cambridge English Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course. I'd been wanting to get a language teaching qualification for years, and finally the time seemed right.

Well, I won't lie, it was hell. Interesting, worthwhile even(!), but hell nonetheless. The workload, as I'd been warned about, was insane, and I found it impossible to maintain my usual level of output in terms of the work that actually pays my bills. This wasn't a major problem for my established clients, they seem to appreciate my contributions and were prepared to be patient, but I was forced to pull out on a project handed to me by a new client. I still feel bad about that, but something had to give.

OK, back to the actual course. What was so horrible about it? Let me tell you...

We had to teach one lesson per week, either to a beginners' (A2) or to an advanced (B2) group. The students, all of them adults, were lovely people of different nationalities, motivated, likeable, no problem with them at all. We were required to write up detailed lesson plans before each session. This was horrendously time consuming, but I actually learnt a lot from that.

The core problem for me was that, when it came down to the classroom teaching, we had to then stick to that lesson plan, and that lesson plan was scripted out to the minute, with us being assessed by our teachers throughout. I felt like an ill-programmed robot, like some kind of automaton, constantly clock-watching, forgetting my lines and unable to properly respond to the students' input.

The sessions left me feeling drained and deeply frustrated. My enthusiasm for the language, my ability to relate to the students' struggles built on years of experience as a language learner myself, my willingness to let them steer the lesson to the points that roused their interest and engaged them - in short, everything I thought that I, as an individual forged by decades of language acquisition and exposure, had to offer - was absolutely stifled by this setup.

I do, of course, understand, from the assessors' point of view, why the protocol was designed like this, and I also realise that real-life teaching is a whole different ballgame. Still, the whole experience left me somewhat traumatised, and six months after finishing the course I can't help but feel crestfallen when I think back to it.

Having said that, I learnt a lot from this, and it's changed my perspective on a couple of things for the better, I think. I shall expand on that in the next post.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Friends with (linguistic) benefits

"What's happening to your Portuguese?!?" she said, ...and it wasn't a mere enquiry. In fact, it was the opposite of a compliment.

When I still lived in Spain, Teresa, my Portuguese teacher and friend, and I used to see each other every week. Since my move back to Germany nine months ago, we've been catching up on the phone once or twice a month. And, of late, she was clearly less than impressed with the deterioration of my fluency.

Something had to be done. I'd put in too much effort (and money!) to let it all go to waste. I love, love, love Portuguese! Plus, I wanted to maintain my friendship with Teresa without having to switch to Spanish or English when it came to expressing more complex issues.

So, I posted a message in a facebook group called "Portugueses em Munique," offering German and/or English in exchange for Portuguese. I made it clear that I was looking for someone who lived close to me, either in my town or an adjacent one.

I had quite a few responses, mostly from people who actually lived in Munich, which to be honest, is a bit far to meet up for a coffee on a regular basis. I just don't have the time for a 4-hour round trip twice a week. I very nearly agreed to get together with one woman who lived in an inconvenient-to-get-to part of Munich...until she revealed that she had a 12-month-old baby. No way(!) am I schlepping all the way out there and back to listen to a bawling baby and endure monologus interruptus about the trials and tribulations of motherhood in a foreign country. Meh...!

I also had a response from a guy who lived very close by, but who then turned out to be a young teenager. Sorry, sweetie, I was actually looking for people with friend potential... although I could probably have done with someone who could drill me on smartphone shortcuts.

And then there was Ana. Who - I could hardly believe my luck! - lived just around the corner from me! Actually, Ana had been the first one to respond, but we didn't pick up the conversation until the next day.

We met in a restaurant down the street a couple of days later, and we clicked right away. Ana told me that she worked as a secretary at a local engineering firm that was owned by a Portuguese company. She had only been in Germany for a couple of months and wasn't fluent in German yet. Although she had studied German at university a decade ago, she hadn't really been using the language and had forgotten most of it.

For just over a month now, we've been meeting up about twice a week, exploring the nearby towns and villages and indulging in far too much ice cream. We are both delighted to finally have made a local friend.

And I am also delighted to report that my last conversation with Teresa was something resembling A PROPER CONVERSATION :)

Friday, 9 February 2018

At The Precipice of Change

A quick update, since I'm in the middle of packing... and still pootling about in my PJs after midday. Scandalous! I'm off to Spain tomorrow for two weeks and a bit, catching up with my friends and having a social life again - HURRAAAAH! -  punctuated by boring things like closing my bank accounts and working.

I'll be staying with three different friends which, so I hope, will give my domestic Spanish a bit of a boost. Knowing a language well, I feel, is very much about competently navigating as many different registers as possible, and since I've never actually shared my day-to-day life and living space with any Spanish speakers, I still have some considerable gaps.

The other piece of news is that, a day and a half after I get back from Spain, I'll be starting my CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course. After an involved application process, I was accepted onto the course, and for me it will be the start of a new era.

Frankly, I'm anxious about how I'm going to manage it all, keeping up with my work commitments (I've got a brand new corporate client to please on top of servicing the existing ones) AND taking two days out of every week to attend the course, write lesson plans, complete assignments, do the reading and other prep work. But there's no point fretting... I've made the decision and now I've got to follow through. And as daunting as it seems right now, I'm actually very excited about learning new things, meeting new people and expanding my skills base.

But as for now... that suitcase won't fill itself, I fear...!

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Time For A New Direction?

I'm not 100% sure yet that I really want to do this. It'll be a lot of money and a lot of work. Not to mention having to get up early. There's still time to change my mind. But I had to kick off the process - there are deadlines involved.

For years now, I've been thinking about turning my obsession with languages from a hobby into a "proper" profession. There are two obvious routes: translation and teaching. Translation would mean more hours glued to the screen, poring over minutiae, and frankly, I already get enough of this with my current work. What I need is more people interaction, to get away from the computer. Therefore, teaching is the obvious answer.

Teach what? German? It's my native language, and with the current refugee crisis, demand for German teachers seems to be outstripping supply. But no. German grammar reduces grown men to tears, and I'm convinced that modal particles made Mark Twain chew the carpet at least a couple of times during his illustrious lifetime. Also, when I briefly checked out what it would take to become a German teacher, it seemed to be a 2-year process, and that really is beyond the pale for me.

Spanish? I would love to. People go to Spanish classes because they want to, not because they have to, and they're just the kind of people I would want to spend my time with. However, I feel my Spanish simply doesn't cut the mustard.

English it is then. I researched courses a while back, and it seems that the CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is the most widely recognised, and there is a course provider in Munich. Trouble is, they only run one part-time course a year, from March to July, and they only take 12 students. (Full-time is not my preferred option, since I don't want to tell my clients that I won't be doing any work for them at all for over a month.)

So, I completed their 3-page application form, scanned in educational certificates going back to the first trimester of my mother's pregnancy, wrote a cheery essay and just about scraped the January 7th submission deadline.

They responded on Monday (8th). At least they don't hang about! They sent me a 9-page English language awareness test, which foxed the hell out of me. Here's a couple of sample questions to give you an idea:

Look at the sentences below. In each set, which is the odd one out? Give a reason for your answer.

a. An avalanche has engulfed a small Swiss village.
b. The Prime Minister has announced his retirement from politics.
c. She has lived here all her life.
d.The Dow Jones has fallen twenty points in the last half hour.

Which of the items in each group is different from the others and in what way?
 Cottage, house, flat, farm

I completed it and returned it to them, red-eyed, at 2:30am.

I'm booked in for an interview & selection workshop this coming Tuesday morning. They will be running these all week, so I guess the odds of actually being accepted for the course are pretty small. Let's see what comes of it. I'm kind of looking forward to the event.