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The Girl with the Daffodil Tattoo

A Welsh girl let loose in a wild world

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Language Learning and Teaching

How has a masters in Feminism changed my ESL teaching?

Completing a masters in Feminism and Gender, in my second language, while working part time, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. My family and friends were mostly against it. “It won’t improve your job prospects” they told me, not realising that many jobs simply require a masters in a range of subjects, not just in a specific area.

Whether it is my pass into the upper middle class and financial stability or not, the masters changed me so much. I started out knowing that things were basically unfair, but the masters gave me specific tools to measure that unfairness, while the reading of various philosophers opened my mind to unthought of possibilities.

I make money to pay my rent through teaching. I started to notice the theory in real life. How boys readily answer questions more in class, how girls seem to like dancing and not play football.

Here are some practical things I do in my ESL classes now, since the masters:

I don’t treat all students the same

There is nothing more unequal than treating men and women the same. Women are discouraged from playing football, men singing and dancing. So I try to encourage each group in what their normally discouraged from.

Fancy dress is for everyone, as is singing and dancing
I have a big box of old fancy dress stuff to use in class to motivate younger kids to read. I let the boys pick first, and I also do their make up first for special events like Halloween.

I play football/soccer with the kids at break time

I’ve played football a handful of times. But when I’m teaching little kids, I make sure they see me playing football with them for a few minutes of their break.

I ignore the boys

When I’m answering a question from a girl, boys very often interrupt to ask their own question. I ignore them or say: Wait!

I let everyone answer

Every class when we are correcting, we go round in a circle and everyone gives one answer

I ask the girls what sport they did today

I believe that sport (or lack of access to sport) is a major part of modern female oppression, affecting physical and mental health, as well as with social and self-esteem implications. That’s why I ask the girls what sport they’ve done today.

I use a pink ball in class, with skipping ropes that have “boy” colours

Studies have shown that girls are more likely to use pink balls, while boys don’t necessarily associate skipping ropes with being “for girls”.

I don’t criticise myself

I don’t allow young women to hear me saying I’m on a diet or anything like that. Firstly, because I’m not, and secondly, because that’s harmful to them. I dress casually and spend a short amount of time each day on my appearance.

 

Do you think about gender equality in your classes? What things do you practice daily?

Native Errors: Affect and Effect

Normally:

>both can be used as nouns/verbs

>affect is normally used as a verb, e.g. “to have an affect on

>effect is usually used as a noun, e.g. “special effects

http://web.ku.edu/~edit/affect.html

Abusive relationships: the best friend

I’m not sure if abusive relationships are common or if there’s something about me that attracts people in them.

My first contact watching my friend be abused was when I was around 17 or 18. My best friend was cool as shit, and I stuck to her like glue because I thought her coolness might rub off on me. I can see now that I had been jealous of her, that I had followed her. I didn’t see that at the time. I think my pattern is to follow. I tend to form friendships with gorgeous, intelligent women, and be her less attractive slightly geeky weird friend. I don’t know if that has to do with growing up the youngest of three sisters. I don’t know.

Anywho, her boyfriend and her were locked in a soap opera style off and on relationship. Things would be off, she would tell me (us) about what he had done this time, then things would be back on again. I suppose neither of them liked the chaos, but maybe it felt normal, maybe it gave them a rush. I don’t know.

The most recent time they had broken up, I had shared with my friend that I was glad because more than once I had felt uncomfortable around her boyfriend, like he was trying it on with me. A few weeks later, they were back on again, but the latest outrage was that he had text a message to her mum, that he had meant to send to her friend, about how hot he thought her mum was. Then she said “What’s next? He’s going to try it on with my best friend?”. I must have said something at this point, mentioning about the time when he had tried it on with me. And she said: “No, I meant Caz”.

That was it. After that conversation we never really spoke again. That was the first friend I lost due to an abusive relationship. My sponsor now says that, in her experience, friendships break down in these sorts of situations when the friend is judging, when the person in the relationship feels judged. I get that. I’m trying not to do that anymore.

I thought if I just said something (as was my duty as a friend) that my friend would stop getting hurt. I hated hearing about all the bad stuff that was going on.

I suppose that this friendship was due to end, as I had moved away and had started a life somewhere else. I still blamed the abusive relationship though.

My next experience with abusive relationships would come 4 years later. It was actually because of the abusive relationship that I met my friend. She is awesome and we still talk. There was a time when I needed to step away from the friendship for a while, as I couldn’t bear to witness her pain, to hear about the latest. She was able to leave him when she was ready and now she is living happily every after and loving life.

I suppose that the only relationship where I’ve come close to allowing myself to be abused was when I became addicted to a guy, between the age of 19-22. I depended on him emotionally. Days when I didn’t see him were days wasted. He was witty, intelligent, the life and soul of the party. People always said I was the male version of him. We were amazing together, ying and yang, soul mates… Things ended with him moving away and never answering my calls or contacting me, and then I found out through the grapevine that he was with someone else. I pined for him, for years. No one made me laugh like he did, no one…

I could tell more details of the sordid affair, but that’s beside the point. I lay down on the floor, and he wiped his feet on me. He was one of those amazing guys, you know? He had it all. Narcissistic, a liar, cheated on his girlfriends, and an alcoholic, and I lapped it up. Lap lap lap. Like a little cat. There’s a lot of alcoholics in my family and seemingly every guy I fall in love with I realise (after we’ve broken up) that he’s an alcoholic/problem drinker. While we’re together I’m like “I don’t count other people’s drinks” and then a year later I’m like “woah. That’s a lot of glass in the recycling”. The point is, he wasn’t an abusive guy. But if he had been, I would have been totally “love” trapped in that.

The most recent contact I’ve had with an abusive relationship has been my friend from high school. It was completely, spectacularly horrific. Bruises. Police. Suicide threats.  Him claiming to be the victim. After it had ended, she told me all the signs were there, she told me that she felt like a twat for being “one of those people” who does all “those classic things wrong” like ignoring when someone’s secretly installed an app on your phone to know where you are…I tried my best to be supportive but in the end it was just too painful to hear about his next escalation after the big explosion. It went on for months and months after the relationship itself had ended, her trying her best but feeling completely awful, him threatening to commit suicide, and every time she told me about it (she was going there as he was a suicide risk and his parents weren’t coming to take care of him, completely palming his care off on her) I felt like someone was stabbing me in the stomach. And it wasn’t even me it was happening to.

In the end I had to let her know that I couldn’t hear about what was happening anymore. That it was too painful. My first instinct is to try to rescue, to try to fix, but that does not help anyone. People want you to listen not to offer “solutions”. Ex boyfriend with a history of mental illness off his meds and threatening to jump out the window? Have you tried yoga?

And then, there’s the other side. My friend told me recently that she had smacked her boyfriend. I was shocked. I had often asked her if she ever wanted to smack her partner as it was something that happened to me when I lived with my ex. I remember once, I was reading on the sofa. He came in and started watching something on TV, with his giant headphones, and I could literally hear everything. Every single word. And he’s there pissing himself with laughter, really enjoying this show, and I just had such an urge to belt him across the face. Of course I didn’t act on it, and I was shocked at my own dark desires, and I asked my friends who live with their boyfriends if that was normal. They told me it wasn’t.

But she told me she had smacked him across the face. That he had fallen asleep and that she couldn’t get in the house and…There’s a part of me that wants to talk to my friend about it. “I don’t think he remembers” she said. “Don’t do that again” I might say. Is it my place to do that? My sponsor says: “Be open. Ask open questions”.

I just don’t know what to do about life anymore. The older I get, the less the world is making sense, the more I want to go and live on an island. I’m starting to become convinced that men and women shouldn’t live together, that the whole idea of the nuclear family is a product of the industrial revolution and capitalism, meaning we share less and buy more, and I just want to take a bunch of good people and go live somewhere in peace and harmony, no more pain and suffering, no more violence. Hopefully the feminist old women’s home will work out, where we can all knit sanitary towels for girls in developing countries and compare tips on vibrators.

I love my friends. They are all beautiful, incredible, vivacious women, so amazing each of them that I can’t get laid when we go out as I look less attractive standing next to them (remind me to get friends that no one fancies so I have a chance in this cruel, superficial world!). I hope when my time comes to be in a relationship that is abusive, they will… well, there’s nothing they will be able to do. You can’t save anyone except yourself. Adults make choices based on the options that they have, or those they believe they have. I’m glad I have a sponsor to point out options I never would have thought of by myself. Let’s see if I have the courage to try them.

 

 

General Tips and Common Mistakes

We’ve all done it. “Oh, if I buy this pack to learn language x in 30 days, I’ll be ready for my holiday to country x”. Or “I’ll do these grammar exercises. Then I’ll be ready to communicate on my trip”. Cue disappointment.

I arrived in Spain 5 years ago, with a degree in Linguistics, a job teaching English, and not a clue about Spanish (or a similar language). Next school year I’ll be starting a masters course in sociology, all in Spanish.

People often asked me admiringly how I did that, and to be honest I made so many mistakes that I really thought I should write this article to help other people!

If you’re serious about learning a language, here’s a basic run down of “What I Talk About When I Talk About Language Learning”.

NO GRAMMAR

Modern language teaching methods use grammatical exercises as a test of what structures have been absorbed, but not as a way to teach. If you’re interested in the theory, google Krashen’s studies, which basically show that learners using “context based methods” (reading and listening, not doing grammar exercises) do 30% better than learners who follow grammatical methods.

Here are some analogies.

If you want to learn how to dance, do you:

A) study physics or

B) dance?

If you want to learn how to drive, do you:

A) learn how an engine works or

B) drive?

I’m now a strong believer in “functional learning”. Think about how you learned to use your phone. Did you read the entire manual cover to cover before turning it on? Chances are, you turned it on, fiddled about, using the knowledge you already had about phones in general, and “hey presto!”. Later, when there was a problem, like you didn’t know how to do something, you went back to the manual, or looked for the answer online.

The Silent Period

It’s quite a simple equation. The more you can understand, the more you can speak, and the brain absorbs structures by being exposed to them. So, how do you learn how to understand that blur of sound coming at you?

A. Listen, listen, and… listen some more!

If you’re serious about learning a language, you need to be able to understand it, so that means you need to train your brain to pick out words. When you listen to music, listen to a band that sings in the language. It will sound like gibberish at first but gradually you will start picking out words.

B. Read

One of the first steps in my language learning process is putting subs in the target language while watching in English (VLC player is great for that!). So, for example, I watched the whole of The Wire in English, reading the French subs.

Then, I like to read something easy every day. It’s no use trying to read The Guardian or The Times in the language, as they are too high level, but if The Washington Post comes in the language you’re trying to absorb, then incorporating reading that in to your day.

NOTE: If you’re actually living in the country already, pace yourself. I find that if I know I’m going to be hanging out with people in Spanish, then reading/listening all day might tire my poor little brain too much.

THE BEST ADVICE EVER!

The best advice anyone ever gave me about reading in foreign languages? “Don’t use the dictionary”. I scoffed at the time, but 5 years later, I value that advice. When you are reading, even if you understand little, your brain is doing something crazy cool that you don’t even know about. It’s like you’re feeding it jigsaw puzzle pieces, and gradually, oh so gradually, the language center in your brain is assembling them. It’s frustrating, and it’s sometimes downright boring, but it’s 100% true.

You Can’t Hurry Love

Do not stress out about not understanding or about being “slow”. You are training a muscle (in your brain) and, if you don’t know a similar language to the one you’re learning, it will take at least 12 months before you are able to understand a basic program, like a kids cartoon for 11 year olds.

There are tonnes of people who “learn Spanish in just x amount of time”, and you know what? They are liars! Or at least not telling the whole truth. They might have grown up with French, or Portuguese, or saying they learned in a very short time in order to impress someone. Whatever their story is, don’t feel bad.

It’s a process, and (in my opinion) “intensives” are marketing gimmicks from language companies, and won’t help. 30 minutes a few times a week for 12 months is better than an hour a day for 2 months.

Habit

Motivation is the first step, but habit is key. Here are habits that I use in the first stages of learning a language.

A) On weekdays, I only listen to music on my mp3 in the target language. (Spotify is wonderful for this. Just type in “French playlist” and see what comes up!)

B) On airplanes or long bus journeys, I listen to language learning podcasts in the language (the Coffee Break series is great. I also like Michelle Thomas)

C) When I sit down to watch TV at night, the first show I watch is something in the target language, unless I’m really really tired. At first, I watch something super simple like Pocoyo, or Dora the Explorer. Then Spongebob. Then a show I already know, dubbed into the language (like Friends, or the Simpsons)

D) Flashcards. Anki is great, and you can download other people’s decks. Making vocab and structures a game is essential.

Listen to other Learners

At first, understanding natives might seem impossible, so have a look on a website like Meetup to see if there are a bunch of people meeting up in your area to chat in the language. Joining a class can be good, but if everyone speaks English, you might not speak that much of the target language in the class.

Language Exchanges

If you are an English speaker, you are in luck: there are tonnes of people who want to learn your language, so you can do an exchange with them! There are lots of websites to find language exchanges, so you can meet up with someone for coffee or, failing that, go online and use Skype.

Check out this great TED talk about language learning. While I don’t agree with his use of the word “native”, I have now adopted the “language parent” aspect in my own teaching and language learning.

Integration

Integration is a word that was on my periphery when I lived in my home country. People would often mention how certain groups of immigrants all lived in one area of a city, and maybe “kept to themselves”, or “didn’t learn English”. As the issue didn’t apply to me, I ignored it, as was my privilege as being part of the majority.

When I moved to Spain to teach English and learn Spanish, I didn’t know ANY Spanish (or similar languages), which made me a target for xenophobia at the school where I worked. I absorbed the abuse like a sponge; it was my fault they hated me, if I spoke better Spanish they would treat me better, etc. I got it in to my head that “intensive” courses would help me, so I signed up to all of the Spanish classes that I could, and I struggled and struggled and struggled. I allowed my Spanish coworkers to make me feel guilty for not knowing their language, as if not having had the opportunity to study Spanish made me a “bad” person. They were insecure about their English so they took it out on me, trying to get me to pronounce words in Spanish and laughing at my attempts. The idea of being one of those “güiris” who just hung around with other English speakers and didn’t “make any effort” repulsed me, so I spent all of my time outside of work with Spanish people, at different types of events; parties, drawing clubs, dance classes, picnics, gigs, volunteering.

I spent two years miserable, and mostly alone. At best, Spanish people patronised me, gloating about how “¡internacional!” they were to have a token foreigner at their party. At worst, people screamed in my face for being different, pushing in front of me in waiting lines, full of resentment that I was “Erasmus”* (which I wasn’t. I had a degree, I had a job, I was working, I was paying my own rent), while they were unable to get a job within their own country, as if I had control over the political and economic situation.

(*Erasmus is a scholarship in Europe for people to spend a semester or full year studying at a university abroad. As with many scholarships, students use it to party their stresses away with the free wine money the government has given them. For Spanish students, who don’t leave home to study abroad, this might be the first time they have rented their own apartment, hence the nickname “orgasmus”)

And always, always, the bilingual coordinator at school spoke of “integration”. We had a meeting about it once a month, where we were chastised for “speaking English” in the dining room (when our Spanish English-speaking coworkers wanted to practice with us), but this was an atmosphere where I sat down and people (grown adults) would abruptly get up to sit somewhere else because they didn’t want to sit next to me, or people wouldn’t say “Hello” to you in the corridor (which is customary here). From these experiences, it became clear that “integration” was something that we did, while other people were allowed to use us as psychological punch bags. We had to eat fruit with knives and forks, as it was “the Spanish way”. We were told to “stop eating all the food”, as whenever the breakfast buffet ran out of something, it was our fault. When we were sick, we didn’t have a cold, we were hungover, because that was our stereotype and stereotypes are always correct. We were told to “integrate”, but we weren’t given a “way in”. Our Spanish coworkers formed a tight, sealed circle, with only one or two breaking ranks to show interest in their new, temporary colleagues, mostly motivated by practicing English with us, which made their coworkers despise us even more.

I still hear my friends in Britain, all monolingual, saying mildly xenophobic things, like commenting that someone “had lived in the UK 30 years and still didn’t speak English”, pronounced in that tone of disgust, as if “speaking English”, or any language for that matter, were an easy thing, accessible to all. If an immigrant doesn’t have a job in the native language, they don’t have an opportunity to speak it on a daily basis, because making friends is hard, especially factoring in different cultural norms.

Last week, someone chastised me for having English speaking friends. I explained to the person that without a job in Spanish, making friends here is hard, seeing as this region has a “cuadrilla” system, meaning that you make friends in primary school, and you keep that group of friends for life. My boyfriend’s cuadrilla have made it clear that they are not interested in being friends with me. They don’t bother to remember my name, they ask me no questions or show no interest in me whatsoever, they talk about me within earshot as if I can’t understand them, they criticise my Spanish, my pale skin, my choice of music, they assume that I don’t know how to play poker and suggest that I should share cards with my partner,. In short, they don’t treat me with kindness or respect, and I don’t feel comfortable with them or like spending time with them, which is a huge source of disappointment for me. I had hoped that my boyfriend’s friends could be my friends too, but I am coming to terms with the fact that that is not possible. Even after explaining all that, the person continued to imply that I “wasn’t trying hard enough”. I wanted to say: “I’ve lived in Spain almost 5 years. I’ve made one friend who is Spanish/Basque. How much harder do I need to try? I’m done with trying”.

My boyfriend is French, and is happy living here. I am now learning French, and I can see that about 40% of their language is the same as Spanish. Nouns, verbs, expressions, grammatical concepts like masculine and feminine as well as the subjunctive. They even use bread to eat dinner in the same way, tearing it off in a chunk, and using it to push food onto their fork. Integrating is easier the closer your native language and customs are to the target culture.

I’m not integrated here, because if integrating means being Spanish, or Basque, or something else, then that’s not me, and it never will be. I can’t eat my dinner with a fork in one hand and a piece of bread in the other, and I don’t want to. I drink PG Tips in the morning. I dunk biscuits in it. When I eat soup, I dunk a sandwich in it. These are things that I like to do, tiny things that go back to my earliest childhood.

I’m me. I’m from where I’m from. That’s not better, that’s not worse, it’s just different. If people here or anywhere else don’t want to accept me for that, then that is their problem, not mine.

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