Posts Tagged With: expat

Sorry, could you repeat that again, por favor?

My teacher says learning a foreign language is a piece of cake...and I LOVE cake!

My teacher says learning a foreign language is a piece of cake…and I LOVE cake!

If you’ve been following me recently, you’ve probably digested my instructions on how to become a fully-fledged traveller. Now I want to focus on the next stage: the day when you decide to settle somewhere for a year or two. This is the time when you reach another plateau, when you become that curious species known as the ‘expat’. This odd term conjures up images of lobster-skinned young males in rope-soled sandals and Hawaiian shirts guffawing together in a beach bar erected between two coconut trees. Sounds like fun? Well, I’m still looking for that bar, though I lost the fag packet with the address scribbled on the back years ago. 

Once you are firmly established as an expat, you have a big decision to make, especially if you are a native English speaker. How much of the lingo do you bother to learn? After all, you can get by in most countries with English and a smattering of the local language. So much so, that English speakers have become hopelessly lazy at learning other langauges. Many expats I have met socialize mostly with fellow English speakers and refrain from making inroads into their adopted culture and its native language. Why should they? These types exist in a kind of bubble, craning their necks to hear the Hartlepool football result every Saturday whilst crying over their cackhanded attempts to make toad-in-the-hole.

Don't be a naff tourist - learn the local lingo!

Don’t be a naff tourist – learn the local lingo!

But some of us like a challenge, and there is something magical about submerging yourself in another language and losing your clumsily conventional Britishness. So we try our damnedest to learn the native tongue, patting ourselves on the back every time we buy a pair of flip-flops without hitting a brick wall of incomprehension. Then comes the dreadfully painful day when we realise our so-called ‘fluency’ is mangled by a heavy accent you could cut with cheese wire. Curses! Why do I have to sound so foreign? Why can everybody tell a mile away that I’m from Doncaster?  What do I have to do to sound like Rafael? Eat more garlic or put a snail under my tongue?

Spot on, Haruki, whoever you are...

You took the words right out of my mouth…

No, but you have to face the fact that every language learning attempt reaches a glass ceiling beyond which you may only venture if you are prepared to split your personality. To take that final leap into the unknown means leaving your former self behind. To crack the native accent, you have to reinvent yourself, to adopt a new persona. To copy all those tricky sounds you have to become a mimic, a barefaced ventriloquist who can fool a native for at least a couple of minutes. Believe me, this is so difficult it makes nuclear physics look like Candy Crush.

As an illustration, I will compare two Brazilian speakers of English I met a few years back in Rio. One was a young woman who had just returned to Brazil after spending 5 years in England. She came to me for lessons, but only 2 minutes into the first lesson I stopped her short and said: “Your English is so good you sound like a native. You don’t need me.” But as the lesson continued I began to notice how many little errors she was making – I had been fooled completely by the accent. She was the exception that proves the rule. The other case was a Brazilian teacher of English who, in a higher teaching diploma exam, gained the highest score for that year in the whole of South America. Her English was exceptional, virtually error-free, except for one thing: her accent was as heavy as a wheelbarrow full of church lead. You always knew when she was coming down the corridor of the school because the cockroaches jumped out of the window en-masse.

I clicked and clicked and clicked until I cried

I clicked and clicked and clicked until I cried…

So, unfortunately, unless you have an ear for mimicry and are prepared to contort your precious voice into myriad new-fangled sounds, forget mastering the accent. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is another intimidating barrier you come up against as a language learner. Teaching yourself to say a few things and be understood is all well and good. But how the hell are you supposed to catch the flow when people are rabbiting nineteen to the dozen? In other words, understanding is always more difficult than being understood: you can speak the new language at your nice, slow pace, but native speakers expect you to follow their rapid delivery, with different accents, registers and slang thrown in. Often you feel like shouting SLOW DOWN!, but that would only expose your incompetence. So instead you stand there grinning from ear to ear praying that the speaker hasn’t asked you a question and you’ve missed it.

I once had an extraordinary phone conversation with a tele-sales girl in São Paulo (phone calls are mostly nightmare in another language). She called me to discuss a new phone plan and before I could stop her, she had launched into a quick-fire spiel about the new services I should expect to receive . When she stopped there was a crackly pause and she asked if I was still there. I said yes (sim), and then tried ineptly to produce a summary of what she had just told me, missing out loads. This gave her a fit of the giggles. When I did get something right she said (I’m translating): “Yes, that’s it, Mr Martin!”, obviously trying not to laugh. Then the inevitable happened and she asked me where I was from (a sure sign you don’t fool anybody). I nearly said Bradford but thought better of it.

Sorry, can't help you with that rubbish accent!

Sorry, can’t help you with that rubbish accent!

Based on the above, it always makes me cringe when somebody says they have a friend whose cousin speaks 5 languages fluently. “Really!”, I say, burning inside. “How nice for them!” Except I don’t believe it. Why? The key word here is “fluently”. Mastering a language is not like riding a bike or memorising the chapter of a book. To speak a language fluently you need constant, daily interaction with native speakers, reaching into all those distant idiomatic and colloquial spaces that all languages contain. Doing this in one other language would take up all your time, so how could you possibly do it with 5? Being able to get by in 5 languages is something completely different, though even that is commendable in my book.

I've never played Candy Crush, but I can say 'cobbles' in Portuguese

I’ve never played Candy Crush, but I can say ‘cobbles’ in Portuguese!

So, if you just can’t be bothered with all this language learning malarkey, I have the perfect solution: get yourself a ‘sleeping dictionary’ – a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who is a native speaker of the language you want to learn. Geddit? A word of warning, however. Make sure your new, exotic love doesn’t speak a word of English or you could end up with a freeloading student on your hands. As usual, I speak from experience.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Is your TEFL ticket past its sell-by date?

Excuse me, love, do you have any bangers and mash?

Excuse me, love, do you have any bangers and mash?

Travel, travel and more travel – that’s what everybody would like to do, if only they had the time and the money. “See the world, lad, before you settle down”, my grandad used to say. Of course, he was right. There is nothing like travel for seeing how the other half live, delving into exotic cultures and then realising the limitations of your own. For some of us, travel can be addictive. We soon get bored with the easy life at home and yearn for adventure. When the travel bug gets serious, we want to throw off our tourist garb and settle somewhere for a while, learn the lingo, fall in love, submerge ourselves. But how to earn an honest crust?

Teaching English abroad is bags of fun when you're young...

Teaching English abroad is bags of fun when you’re young…

Well, if you are lucky enough to be a native English speaker, Bob’s your uncle! You can teach English, of course – what could be simpler? You were born speaking English so it’s as natural to you as falling off a lorry. All you have to do is talk…and listen to your sweet (but very slow) students without falling asleep. Eureka! Instant job, instant income! But hang on a minute…you know how to speak English, but you’re not sure how to, erm, ‘teach’ it. What about grammar and all that stuff? Well, to be honest, depending on how far-flung your destination is, you might get by with little or no previous experience. If a student asks you about the ‘Present Perfect’, you can always say you’ll do that in the future. Trouble is, if you go somewhere more popular, you might face competition from somebody ‘trained’: a qualified TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher, no less.

Yes, folks, the world is choc full of TEFL teachers of every hue and stamp – the young and the old, the keen and the jaded, the settled and the shackled. In my experience, there are three predominant ‘types’ of TEFL teacher you are likely to come across on your travels:

Hooray - I've got my TEFL ticket to the world! How far is Timbuktu?

Hooray – I’ve got my TEFL ticket to the world! How far is Timbuktu?

The Backpacker: this is the charlie who jumps off the banana boat in Rio and, after filling his nostrils with that tropical sea air and spotting the beach totty, bangs on the door of the first ‘School of English’ in view. He’s a chancer, an opportunist, but hey – he’s doing no-one any harm! Besides, he will most likely be paid peanuts but doesn’t care because he is only in it for the ride, ‘the craic’ as they say in Dublin. Come Christmas he’ll be on the plane heading back to Aunty Doreen and Uncle Derek in Darlington, no hearts broken. Believe me, there is wisdom in his nonchalance.

Forget grammar, Alfredo...let's just chat till the pubs open

Forget grammar, Alfredo…let’s just chat till the pubs open

The Dabbler: these guys are by far the most common, thickly spread like dandelions in a prison garden. They arrive in their 20s on a Club Med holiday, get hooked on the sun and the laid-back lifestyle and end up drinking so much they forget to go home. These time-servers have a rudimentary knowledge of English teaching methodology, having completed a three-week crash course in Bournemouth in 1991. Or was it 1993? They can’t remember. As teachers they are popular types, ditching the dreaded ‘course book’ for something called ‘conversation’, which often turns out to be a teacher’s monologue about past exploits, peppered with personal anecdotes. Lessons may be extended if there is a bar nearby. For the dabbler, ‘home’ is a murky memory too scary to contemplate, a cold dark place full of stressed-out people with crippling mortgages.

The Pro: this power-dressed Iron Lady makes the rest of us look like supermarket stackers on a pub trip. She has spent years studying the whys and wherefores of teaching methodology and the science of language acquisition, finally being honoured with an MA in Linguistics from Utah University. She is Miss Serious and never gets her knickers in a twist. When not in the classroom overawing students with her knowledge, she can be found lurking in the corridors of TEFL Conferences in Milan or São Paulo, clutching a bunch of papers concerning the effects of modal verbs on mental health.

Today's word is 'cheek'...these are your cheeks - go on, feel them!

Today’s word is ‘cheek’…these are your cheeks – go on, feel them!

Different though they may be in many respects, these TEFL ‘types’ all face the same dilemma: whether to stick it out in the big wide world or whether to face the music one day and creep back ‘home’ to Bognor Regis. The key words here are ‘happiness’ and ‘job satisfaction’: if you have both of these, you are laughing. You may also be well-integrated into a new, foreign family and feel perfectly settled in your adopted homeland. But for those of us who haven’t embraced TEFL heartily as a lifelong career, endless days of ‘conversation’ – broken by the occasional detour into the dictionary of phrasal verbs – becomes steadily less rewarding.

There were two old TEFL teachers sat in deckchairs, and one said the the other...

There were two old TEFL teachers sat in deckchairs, and one said to the other…

After all, TEFL is not rocket science. Actually, it is much more of a laudable profession for those people who are non-native speakers and have had to study the language for years. I have met many non-native EFL teachers and they love everything about English, gaining much personal satisfaction from their achievements in a foreign tongue. Most of them put us native ‘buskers’ to shame.

Miss - how do you say 'I fancy the pants off you' in English?

Miss – how do you say ‘I fancy the pants off you’ in English?

So, as an old hand at the ‘game’, what is my advice to those of you considering the TEFL route around the world? That’s simple: definitely go for it, no question about that. Nothing comes close to the soul-lifting experience of living abroad. However, there is a caveat I must throw in: don’t put all your eggs in one basket (or all your verbs in the same sentence). In my experience, it is only for the very few that TEFL becomes an engaging and financially rewarding long-term career. Before you swan off to Beijing, you need to think seriously about adding more strings to your bow, or developing a parallel career. Then, if you end up back in Blighty with a backpack full of memories and empty pockets, you are not reduced to serving behind the bar at the Nag’s Head in Romford.

All those fabulous memories...but one day I might end up back in Wigan

All those fabulous memories…but one day I might end up back in Wigan

TEFL may be a ‘ticket to the world’, but it just might not be enough to keep you abroad forever. As Spandau Ballet put it so memorably in the 80s, ‘I bought a ticket to the world / But now I’ve come back again / Why do I find it hard to write the next line / Oh I want the truth to be said’. ‘Writing the next line’ is, figuratively speaking, what you will have to do post-TEFL, so be prepared. Oh, and the name of the song? True, of course, like everything I write in From Bradford to Brazil! And don’t be late for class tomorrow…

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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