Diary of a Language Learner, Part 4 – Rays of light!

The story so far – when I turned up for my third German class, Dora the teacher asked me for some feedback. We had only five minutes so I made the following quick recommendations:

  • stop asking for responses one by one in the order we’re sitting
  • ask for some kind of productive feedback after pair work
  • give us clearer models of new chunks of language

Part 4 – Rays of light

One of the things Dora does very well is that she asks us all to sit in different places and work with different people every week. However, what also happens is that we remain bolted to our seats for the entire lesson. We might as well wear aircraft seatbelts because, once installed, we haven’t so far been asked to get up and move around at any stage of the lesson.

This week, there were an odd number of students, so during pair work, I was in a group of three with two people I hadn’t spoken to before; Susan, a rather diffident girl of about 20 who wears glasses and isn’t keen on making eye contact, and Celia, who’s a little older and obviously takes a lot of care about her appearance.

She also looks as if she’s a frequent visitor to a tanning parlour. Either that, or she jets off somewhere hot and sunny every weekend. Every class so far, she has arrived looking tanned and also dressed as if she’s off to a fancy party later.

Maybe she does go off to a party every Wednesday evening, who knows?

Tonight she’s wearing a very elegant black dress with silver sequins, and patent leather black shoes with very high heels. Susan on the other hand is dressed for comfort, in pullover and jeans and flat shoes.

I only mention these sartorial details because we spent most of the lesson working together, and I think it took Susan a little time to feel at ease with Celia. This is something that never occurred to me when I was teaching – could students feel a bit intimidated by other students because of the way they dress?

And so to the class…

The first part maybe could have been less interesting, but I doubt it. Working in pairs, or three in our case, we filled in the definite articles for a lexical set of parts of the body.

The worksheet looked like this:

Riveting worksheet - and this is only half of it…

To make the whole thing even more riveting, the answers were written on the other side of the worksheet. You could almost hear paint dry as we did it.

However, when we finished, Dora asked us all to stand up. What a surprise, and a pleasant one. It was the first time we’d been asked to do something so physically demanding.

We stood up and formed a semi-circle; there was coughing, a bit of stretching and a few of us adjusted our clothing, the kind of slightly embarrassed behaviour you always get when you take English people out of their comfort zone.

The activity was as follows: the first person in the semi-circle had to point to a part of the body. The second person had to say the word with the definite article. If they got the gender wrong, they had to sit down. They were out!

Dora asked the person on the right of the semi-circle to start. The woman pointed at her hand. The second person took a wild guess:

Der Hand?’

‘Sitzen!’ trilled Dora, a little too happily, I thought.

Das Hand?’ ventured the second.

Sitzen!’ said Dora, even more loudly and triumphantly than the first time.

The third person looked very relieved.

‘Die Hand!’ he said, confidently.

‘Richtig!’ said Dora, clearly delighted.

A small spontaneous round of applause broke out.

This was the first fun thing we had done in three weeks, and we all enjoyed it.

It’s amazing how some people can’t actually indicate a particular part of the body. One man gestured wildly in the general direction of his head.

‘Are you talking about your head, your hair, your face or your nose?’ the woman next to him asked in English, to much merriment.

At the end, we all sat down, feeling very pleased about this break in our routine.

Next we worked on the plurals. The plural definite article in German is always the same, die, but there are various different plural forms, like English, but more to learn – die Hand – die Hände, der Arm – die Arme, das Gesicht – die Gesichter, das Auge – die Augen etc

Dora started to ask for the plural forms. She pointed to Celia, who was the first person in the semi-circle on her left.

Die Hände,’ said Celia, joyfully. (NOT)

Dora pointed at me.

Und die nächste?’

Die Arme,’ I intoned.

Dora suddenly remembered my note about not asking for responses round the circle. She swivelled round and pointed at Dan, the young man with the German girl-friend, who was on the other side of the room.

Dan of course was looking at the worksheet, and making a mental note of which one he had to answer.

‘Dan? Können Sie die nächste tun?’

Dan almost fell off his chair in surprise. ‘But surely, I’ll be giving the eleventh answer??’ you could see him thinking.

From that point on, Dora dotted around the room for her answers. The task itself was a bit boring, but the simple change in technique kept us on our toes. 

At a certain point, she elicited a chunk of language, remembered my point about modelling, and asked us to repeat it. It may sound old-fashioned, but believe me, you need it in German.

Next up, some contextualisation – a conversation in a doctor’s surgery.

First, we listened to a recording of a woman going to the doctor to complain about back pain, Rückenschmerzen (note to self – pain seems to be plural in German). The tape is fun to listen to, mainly because the woman keeps making ‘I’m in pain’ noises throughout the conversation.

Doctor: Guten Tag. Was kann ich für Sie tun?

Patient: Aaaargh! Ach! Doktor! Ich habe starke Rückenschmerzen! Aarrgh…

There were smiles round the classroom as the conversation progressed. The audio people had produced a winner here.

The doctor goes on to ask how long the patient has had the pain, says it isn’t serious (that’s realistic – NHS doctors in London always tell you there’s nothing wrong with you – it saves money), and prescribes a course of ten massages.

Ich verschreibe Ihnen zehn Massagen.

Dora then asked us to do the conversation in pairs. I worked with Celia, and she chose to be the doctor.

Then Dora told us to do it again, and this time choose a different ailment.

A break from routine! A chance to be creative! Suddenly I felt inspired!

Using every last ounce of my inconsiderable acting skills, I decided to tell Celia that I had a bad headache.

Aaargh! Ach! Doktor! I began, imitating the woman on the tape. I was obviously speaking a bit too loudly, because everyone else in the class stopped and turned to see if I’d fallen down or something.

I apologised and lowered my voice.

Um… Doktor! Ich habe starke Kopfschmerzen! Aaaarrgh! Oh – sorry!

Celia asked me how long I had had it, said it wasn’t serious, and prescribed some aspirin.

I decided to take to the next level and said I had taken lots of aspirin, and my Kopfschmerzen were still starke.

Celia looked at me with a wry look in her eye.

Also, ich verschreibe Ihnen Morphin.

I laughed out loud at this. Celia doesn’t do proper laughing, it isn’t her style. But there was a trace of a smile.

Dora then asked for feedback! Yay!

‘Would anyone like to act out their conversation for the rest of the class?’

Ja!’ I said, rather too confidently. I looked at Celia. She was looking daggers at me.

‘Um… if Celia wants to,’ I added.

‘Celia, möchten Sie es zu tun?’

Celia reluctantly agreed and we did our little turn. When she said she would prescribe me morphine, the whole class laughed out loud. A really big proper laugh.

At first, Celia looked frankly astonished at the sound of laughter. Then a smile of delight spread across her face. It is no exaggeration to say she spent the rest of the class with a smile playing on her lips.

I realised at that moment that, like many people, Celia is basically very shy. I even think the super-smart clothes and the tan are all part of her attempt to hide her shyness.

So my feedback notes to Dora worked, in part. And an added bonus – one of the students will come to the next lesson feeling just that bit more confident about the whole process of learning German.



I missed my last class because I was in Brazil. I’m wondering if Dora will ask me to describe what I was doing there – Urlaub oder Arbeit? Holiday or work?

Shall I tell her – and the rest of the class – that I was there doing teacher-training? Any thoughts?

The names have been changed.

25 thoughts on “Diary of a Language Learner, Part 4 – Rays of light!

  1. What a fun read, thank you! And congrats for you pedagogical (and tacful) feedback to Dora!

    Of course, students can be intimidated by each other (because of their language, clothes, tan, jewelry, perfume, tie,experience, age…) I can note it very often in class.

    My favourite sentence of yours ” Celia doesn’t do proper laughing, it isn’t her style. But there was a trace of a smile.” And a chunk of language I learnt from you: “she was looking daggers at me”. Merci!

    1. Thanks, Alice! I realise I am learning SO much about the social aspects of the class situation – eg the importance of clothes – by being a learner again. One thing I know is, even if I don’t do German next year, I will continue being a language student. 😛

      1. Cultura’s Seminar, in Goiânia.

        I’d like to say something… I think I wouldn’t feel very comfortable if I were in your teacher shoes… 🙂 But… after a while, I imagine this experience of teaching someone like you could be really challenging… And, in my opinion, this situation would take your german teacher out of her ‘comfort zone’…

      2. So Janaína, if you were my teacher, would you rather know that I was a trainer?

      3. I think so… I’d rather know that… It would be a great opportunity to improve my teaching skills! But it wouldn’t be easy…

  2. A really fun read, Ken!

    I loved it all but I’ll pick the sentence that struck me most:

    “However, when we finished, Dora asked us all to stand up. What a surprise, and a pleasant one. It was the first time we’d been asked to do something so physically demanding.”

    I found this absolutely hilarious so my first reaction was to laugh hard. But then I thought to myself: “How many times have my students thought something like that?”

    Truth is I lately avoid mingling around activities because of the chaotic atmosphere they can create and because students get so overenthusiastic that it is difficult for them to calm down afterwards. But sacrificing our peaceful atmosphere for some fun can also be creative so I’ve decided to go for it. Starting tomorrow!

    Thanks for making me laugh and reflect 🙂


    1. Hi Sophia – well, you’ve made me think too – I’d never thought of ‘over-enthusiasm’ as a negative in the classroom. 😛 But you’re right, if students get too excited, they won’t settle down. So what on earth is the answer? There must be a middle way somewhere.

  3. Hi Ken,

    I guess what’s negative is the fear of losing control of the class when 25 kids get overenthusiastic all together! There are always those who just can’t settle down and those who may go wild. But it’s so much fun! And kids love it! I’ll try it tomorrow and let you know 🙂

  4. Yet another blockbuster chapter. I see $ signs here (with a book à la Peter Mayle) from a teacher training book purely based on anecdotes! In any case I’ve now decided to make this ‘soap’ compulsory reading for my new teacher trainees. Thank you so much for this!

    1. What a lovely comment, Louise!

      I think the key is the word anecdote, isn’t it?

      Stories tell you so much more than even the best-written academic theory. I think this message is getting through to the honest academic folk who present at conferences, and who now realise that their research has to have a story-base.

      I was lucky enough to see Laurel Kamada, an academic based in Japan, give a talk about perceptions of mixed-race Japanese/(mainly) American teenage girls at the JALT conference in Tokyo a couple of months ago. She interviewed a lot of girls, who expressed some really strong opinions about their situation and told stories about things that had happened to them, how they are treated by Americans, or by Japanese teenage boys and when they’re in shops.

      Laurel didn’t play the tapes of interviews she did, because the girls code-switched constantly between Japanese and English, with some hybrid expressions thrown in. Laurel posted the transcipts on her powerpoint and was able to read and interpret this mish-mash, and the whole event was fascinating.

      The talk had a really academic-sounding title, but the content was pure anecdote.

  5. Arrgh, Doktor..Nein! Don´t tell her your a teacher trainer. Soon she´ll be asking you for expert advice on how to improve her classes and we´ll be having to miss out on these hilarious posts of yours which I also interpret as a way of ridding yourself of your Kopfschmerzen.

    1. You’ve hit the Nagel on the Kopf there, Guido – I do find these classes a welcome break from the regular stuff that I do. A bit of a busman’s Urlaub, in fact. 🙂

  6. Didn’t she do well!

    Yes, I can sympathise with the shy students because that would be me too. I hate being made to get up and dance around or whatever, rather like when I go to church and the preacher tells us to shake hands with everybody. That said, once you do it, you realise it’s no big deal, and even a pleasant experience. Er, can you add another circle to your diagram between Comfort Zone and Magic? Not sure what you’d call it – the Feeling Zone?

    Great post, Ken. I agree with people above: once Dora knows who you are, she’ll spend 7 hours preparing the class instead of 20 minutes. Another thing: just how big is this class exactly?! Every week you introduce 3 or 4 new students!

    1. There are about 24 students in the class. So far, apart from ‘Celia’ and ‘Susan’ (and briefly ‘Dan’), I think I’ve only really talked about the Brazilian girl in the class. I’d like to find out more about some of the other guys in the group, but so far, they’ve avoided sitting next to me. 😛

  7. Very interesting post.
    Putting myself in the students’ shoes is something I always try to do.

    Whenever I attend a workshop or a teacher’s seminar in which the teachers are supposed to act as students, I pay attention to how we behave and especially to how I feel.
    Then, I keep a mental note and try to take it into consideration when teaching or designing a lesson.

  8. Oh the joys of role plays! It’s funny because as a student I always hated them with a passion…(but I was one of those painfully shy students when I was younger – a bit like Celia! – so wasn’t fond of anything that involved attention on me).
    Since becoming a teacher though I’ve really begun to see the benefits of role plays through my students…they are often such a gold mine of humour and really a great way to lighten the mood and help the students to gel and lower their affective filters.
    I once had a pair of French lads who randomly landed female characters for a role play and decided to be lesbians…completely ad-libbed and hilarious for the whole class who were in stitches.
    As for telling the class about your teacher training last week, I’d keep them guessing…man of mystery 🙂

    1. I’ve actually missed two straight classes now – first week I was in Brazil and last week I had a cold and was a bit of a wuss. So my main thought now is, is my ignorance going to show me up when I finally go back? Ahhh – Student anxieties that I never thought about before, Number 107!!! 😛

  9. Hi, I’m flattered to read your mention of my Tokyo presentation about ‘half’ Japanese/American girls as an example of how anecdotal (narrative) story-based approaches can actually highlight more complex (theoretical) issues. Personally I have struggled with how to simplify the complex. But those who can do that well will be heard. That is really your gift and I am still learning from people like you.

    1. Thank YOU, Laurel!

      well, as everyone knows, I struggle with the theoretical stuff, talking about it, reading about it but most of all, listening to it. Some mainly theoretical conference presentations can be very difficult to sit through without wanting to check your email on your phone. 🙂

      But yours was a very refreshing change, with its story-based approach. Maybe we should be a presentation together. 😛

  10. Thanks for the diary, it is so lovely. I think, if you are willing to give her feedback, tell her you are a trainer:) I had a similar situation once at a Polish class. I decided to start learning a new language, to see how it is like being student again, and when the teacher found out I was a German teacher, he got quite confused and nervous, and after talking 1 hour about pronunciation he decided to do something interactive, so he taught us how to say good morning and good night in Polish, and we had to greet each other in the circle: one said good morning, the other answered good night and so on. I was so embarrassed, I just waited the class to end so I could leave and not come back again, but once I was at the door, the teacher asked me to stop and give him feedback. It was quite terrible… I just blamed myself for telling I was a teacher, I could have said I am a translator…:) But actually I would love it to know there was a student like you in my class, even though it would be probably quite stressful, but I’d like to get some constructive feedback on what I am doing:) And actually it would be much worse to find out afterwards:)

  11. Nice diary Ken, does Dora know who you are yet? Dora does seem to be on autopilot with her teaching, but I can imagine that’s how it is for a great deal of language teachers. Sometimes teachers forget how much they can play a part in inspiring and enthusing students.


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