Diary of a language learner, Part 5 – a troublemaker in the class….

I was back at German class last week, having missed two lessons because of my trip to Brazil. I was rather pleased when the early birds in the class smiled and said ‘Guten Abend’ in a cheery fashion when I walked in. Dora the teacher gave me a particularly big smile. She also gave me back the homework I had handed in three weeks ago.

I had worked hard on the two homework tasks. The first was a letter introducing myself and the second was supposed to be a description of a holiday in a German-speaking country. I’ve only ever made working visits to Länder wo spricht man Deutsch, so my homework was about my visit to the ETAS conference in Zug, Switzerland last September – Mein Arbeitsbesuch in der Schweiz.

Dora had requested us to add photos or other visuals to the second piece of homework (nice idea), so there were photos of me talking at the conference, and hanging out with other conference-goers.

I think she knows I do teacher training now. 🙂

I was chuffed as beans* at the feedback Dora gave me about my homework. At the end of the letter, she wrote this:

Lieber Ken, vielen Dank für den interessanten Brief. Ihr Deutsch ist sehr gut! Vielen Dank für ihr Feedback. Das war sehr hilfreich. 🙂

I think most of you will be able to work out what that means. She found the feedback I gave her before the last lesson very helpful.

The smiley face is also hers, by the way.

At the end of the Arbeitsbesuch homework, she wrote:

Vorsicht (careful) mit den Artikeln der, die, das und Adjektivendungen.

Those bloody articles and endings will be the death of me.

Before I say anything else, I want to congratulate Dora on her clear and precise homework feedback notes, which include pointers to make you think about your grammar, syntax and word order mistakes. There is no doubt in my mind that what holds me back from being an effective German speaker is the trouble I have with articles and adjective endings, so I think these notes are really going to help me improve my German writing.

So – with grammar notes on my homework have I not problems. (Ed: you appear to be thinking in German here)

However, as regular readers of this blog will know – with totally grammar-dominated lessons have I GROSS problems. (Ed: see above note)

So this is the story of the rest of the class, which grammar bestrode like a Colossus. (Ed: now you’ve gone all classical – can you start writing like a normal person?)

When it comes to putting together an ELT coursebook syllabus, authors try to match grammar, function and lexical strands. An obvious example of this would be: present simple tense for habitual actions + talking about habitual actions + food, which gives us such memorably vivid lines as English people eat eggs for breakfast.

The key is to try to disguise the connections, and make the whole thing look like seamless and natural information.

Unit 11 of my German coursebook Willkommen matches health/illness vocabulary, talking about your (un)healthy lifestyle and modal verbs.

Dora started off the class by (I think) revising modal verbs – müssen, dürfen (to be allowed to) wollen (want to), sollen (should) etc.

I say ‘I think’ because I presume she did more presentation work on form and usage during the two classes I was away. As I’ve mentioned before, Dora is very good at eliciting what at least some of us already know. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to work out whether she’s taught it before, or she expects us to know it, or she’s making student prior knowledge the main plank of her teaching method.

She put us into pairs and asked us to write down the forms of the modals. I was paired with Brian, my first chance to work with one of the men in the class. Brian is mid-20s, Irish and works in a Catholic Boys School in east London. He has a nice smile and seems very friendly, but is at the same time a bit unforthcoming about himself. I haven’t yet found out why he’s learning German.

Brian is a godsend for Dora. Every so often, she explains a grammar rule in German, and then asks if anyone would like to translate it. My Irish partner for the evening always jumps at these chances.

“Müssen means ‘have to’ but the negative form is a false friend, because ich muss nicht doesn’t mean ‘I mustn’t’,” he said, echoing Dora’s explanation. “It means ‘I don’t have to’.”

He smiled with great satisfaction when Dora gave him a metaphorical pat on the back for this articulate intervention.

However, something strange happened when Brian and I worked together. We spent a few desultory minutes trading the translations of ich muss, ich muss nicht, ich darf etc. When we got to ich will (another false friend, it means ‘I want to’), I asked: “Gibt mir ein Beispeil” – give me an example.  

Brian looked at me in complete incomprehension.

“An example of what?” he asked in English.

“Put it into context,” I said.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

Was willst du am Wochenende machen, zum Beispeil?”

The notion of putting it in context, using any of this language meaningfully while we were checking the verb forms, seemed outlandish to him.

Before he could comment further, Dora brought the activity to an end in her usual idiosyncratic way by saying: ‘StoooooOOOOPPPP’ (It starts quietly and gets louder).

We then helped her create a paradigm of modal forms on the whiteboard. You can imagine I was bouncing off the walls with delight during this part of the lesson.

The board looked like this when we’d finished.

Then it was time to do something from the book. In the health/modals unit, Willkommen has a reading text which consists of four people’s personal statements about their lifestyles. All four statements cleverly integrate information about what the people do, what they aren’t allowed to do, what they should do and what they want to do.

The class had read the text during the last lesson. Now it was time for listening. As soon as the tape started playing, I realised it was simply the same as the reading texts.

We listened (and I surreptitiously read – and I don’t think I was the only one) and made notes on the page. Mine looked like this.

Then we were put in pairs for a bit of exploitation of the target language. We had to find our how healthy our partner’s lifestyle was.

 Brian immediately turned to the woman sitting on the other side and paired with her. Rather too hastily, I thought – what had I done to upset him?? This language learning is increasing my paranoia!!

So now I was paired with Elena, a lovely Spanish woman whose German is like mine – sort of confident/fluent but also faulty. I hadn’t worked with her before, but I did know that she works for a company which sends her to Germany quite often. Highly motivated person with a need for conversational practice. Like me.

Dora said we should use the examples in the book – was tun sie im Moment, was dürfen sie nicht tun (what aren’t you allowed to do – one of the examples in the book was a man with a heart condition who wasn’t allowed to jog), was sollen sie tun etc etc.

I presumed they were just guidelines, so Elena and I talked round the subject, hardly using the key modal language at all. I discovered that Elena goes to the gym twice a week, and also has zumba and yoga classes, plus she goes for long country walks at the weekend. She doesn’t drink alcohol and she drinks a lot of water. And she wants to buy a second-hand bicycle.

No wonder she looks so healthy!

When people started giving feedback, I realised that all the other pairs had worked out how to use the modals from all four columns. They all followed the list in the book scrupulously – what their partner did, what they weren’t allowed to do, what they should do and what they wanted to do. They managed to do this even when it was quite difficult to think of an example (what they weren’t allowed to do was a particular problem).

When it came to my turn, I didn’t look at the book at all. I said what I could remember from our conversation. In my confident/faulty German, it went something like this:

Elena is a very healthy Fräulein, she goes to the Fitness Studio twice a week, and she also does zumba and yoga. She likes going for long walks at the weekend and she doesn’t drink alcohol.

When I finished, everyone, including Dora, looked at me in silence. Clearly they were all expecting more.

Um… und auch trinkt sie viel Wasser,’ I added, rather lamely.

Dora looked at me. There was disappointment in her eyes.

Und was darf sie nicht tun?’ she asked.

Then I got it. I hadn’t done the task correctly. I was supposed to say something from every column. And – duh! – I hadn’t even asked Elena if there was something she wasn’t allowed to do.

Ich weiss nicht,’ I said, now totally embarrassed that I hadn’t done the task right. Then I remembered the bicycle. ‘Ah! Sie will ein Fahrrad aus zweite Hand kaufen,’ I added. It sounded a very odd addendum indeed.

Unlike the previous week, when my partner Celia and I got a big laugh for a piece of acting out we did, my pairwork led to a kind of embarrassed silence. I had not followed the rules. Feedback must contain examples of dürfen, sollen und wollen.

And you know what? It seems to me that the whole class buys into this system except me. Everyone apart from Elena was staring at me with the same accusatory look on their faces. It said: You aren’t following the RULES!

I am now officially a troublemaker.

It’s almost time for my next lesson. I don’t think I will get a cheery ‘Guten Abend’ when I walk in next time.

And I wonder if anyone will agree to be my partner….

The names have been changed.

* Note to non-Mancunians: Chuffed as beans is a northern expression meaning very happy, which may only ever have been used in a few streets near Manchester. Whatever its origins, I appear to be the only living person who still uses it, so don’t worry if you’ve never heard it before.

19 thoughts on “Diary of a language learner, Part 5 – a troublemaker in the class….

  1. Thanks as always, Ken, for a very enlightening and entertaining read. Perhaps Dora failed in her instructions more than you did in your performance? Either way, I’m sure they’ll forgive you. “Troublemakers” – now there’s a good topic!

    1. If nothing else, this learning experience is making it abundantly clear that there are as many styles of learning as there are students in the class. 😛

  2. A wonderfully entertaining read again, Ken. It makes me wish I was in this German class as well! Es ist wunderbar that I can review German modal verbs in this post. Ich muss wirklich mehr Deutsch lernen!! Viel Danke!!

    1. German is an infuriating language because of the multiplicity of endings – but the great thing is you can get away by eliding your words together, so people can’t really hear if you’re saying ‘eine’, ‘einen’ or ‘einem’ 😛

  3. Hello, Ken. This post really struck a chord with me, not as an EFL teacher but as a language learner.

    My experience of foreign language lessons was very similar. It was almost as if communication was a medium through which we were meant to deliver the grammar syllabus on the wall in the staffroom. It’s quite resounding that the only language that sticks in my mind from the whole six months was given to me when I wanted to express something, even if it was considered ‘too advanced’, which the teacher even felt the necessity to tell me after. I remember wanting to say “churches here are much more beautiful than I thought”, which, in Italian, takes you into a grammatical minefield. Funnily enough, I had no problem understanding it and to this day it’s a chunk I use regularly.

    I’m sure your classmates will understand, poor old Brian might not be so happy to do pairwork with you next lesson, but I’m quite certain Elena will let you know what her second-hand bike is like!

    A final thought, and now I’m a teacher again… do you think we can blame teachers for being like this? As much as it troubles me to think that decontextualised language is being taught, with a heavy focus on form etc etc, I’m not sure I feel comfortable saying “you should do this differently”. What do you think? As an experienced trainer, what would be the best way to encourage reflection on this matter?

    Thanks for a great lunchtime read.


    1. Hi Dale,

      your Italian story reminds me of a woman I was watching during a research visit who told a student that what he was trying to say was too difficult for him, and that they would learn that structure next year!

      Whether we should tell teachers to do things differently – my thought about that is quite clear. if you read what’s happening out there, or better still get to a few conferences and see people putting new ideas into workshop practice, you change. If you don’t, you don’t.

  4. I sincerely thank you for this post!I am a CELTA trainee in Athens and, even though I’m in my 6th week of the course already, I very much feel like you did during that session..only more often! As you might have already presumed, I have never taught English before and, as a matter of fact, the last time I was actually being taught English was 15 years ago!
    The thing is, I was beating myself for not being able to precisely follow orders and your post helped me realise it’s something that might happen even to the best -like you.
    Thank you again!

    1. Hi Iraklis = are you training with Marisa Constantinides? Give her my best, if you are.

      My problem with following the orders is that I find the orders misjudged. I’m good at following enlightened orders. I guess this is why I could never serve in the military.

  5. in my TOEIC exam classes wrt not following task instructions, unless i feel the student is particularly weak in whatever aspect the task is trying to engage i usually let it slide provided the student has done something vaguely related!

    also when i work with coursebooks my perception of book tasks always seems to diverge somewhat from the instructions laid out in the book and so maybe causes confusion with my students!

    finally thanks for making me re-think about class instructions.

    1. The facr that you almost have to apologise for diverging from coursebook instructions shows how little we coursebook writers encourage people to do just that. But the strongest feeling for me from all this straitjacket teaching method is summed up in a comment i made in my drama book – if you plan a drama activity as a chance for your students to practise a particular structure, and they don’t actually use the structure, the activity is not therefore a disaster!

  6. I say “chuffed as beans” too – I may have picked it up from my time at Manchester University when I used to drink rum with a Mancunian housebound pensioner.
    I left the country shortly after that and whenever I go back for a visit, I find people tend to laugh at my outdated slang. But if I try to avoid slang, I get accused of speaking English like an overachieving EFL student who hasn’t quite dominated the Latin tendency to talk with my hands
    (and arms).

    What to do?

    1. My vote for collocation of the week – ‘drink rum with a Mancunian housebound pensioner’.

      I think ELT travellers always finish up with a distinctive style of speaking – it’s a nice by-product of the job.

  7. I’m enjoying these posts so much Ken! The bits I find the most interesting are your underlying narrative on wondering what everyone else is thinking of you.. I’m positive that this must be going on in all our classrooms continuously.
    It just makes me think about the importance of classrooms dynamics and how much they can impact upon whether our learners give up, are motivated to continue, or sometimes when a class just clicks and you have a wonderful class with a ‘heart’ and everyone is pulling in the same direction- even with everyone else’s quirks and foibles.
    Hang on in there, it sounds as though you are providing a missing ingredient – real life examples and authenticity!

    1. Thanks Angela! Motivation comes from the oddest places, and people’s positive reactions to this diary is probably the single most motivating factor in me continuing to go to class!

  8. These posts are becoming a wonderful source for reflection about both learning and teaching.

    I was wondering what Dora was doing while you were chatting away with Elena ‘off the topic’. Surely, if she had been monitoring she would have noticed you were not using the target language?

    It sounds as though the task was too boring for you, so you changed it. Fair enough. Were the other learners aware of what the purpose of the activity? And the most important question is: did they take away more from that lesson than you did?

    1. Hi Mila!

      two points I need to make here –

      1 During pair work sessions, Dora tends to stand at the front watching, and she reacts if someone asks a question. Kind of trouble-shooting when she sees a fire starting. 🙂

      2 I wasn’t bored, not at all! I never get bored, despite some of my comments. It was just that I didn’t keep to the rigid requirements of the feedback, and that was partly my ignorance of the way things are done. One thing I may not have mentioned is that of the 20-odd students in the class, there are only three or four new ones – so most of the others are used to Dora’s methods.

      PS – My wife Dede is doing a talk in Pilsen next month. 😛

  9. Hi Ken
    I just came across this. Interesting stuff, and pretty similar to how my blog started out. However, one of the reasons I stopped writing about the classes (alongside stopping classes, the Damascus spring and lots of other things) was because I felt it was a bit ethically dubious, both to my classmates and to the teacher at the front of the class to be “spying” without telling them. Dunno what you make of that, is it why you stopped?

    1. Hi Ed, welcome to my blog 🙂

      I did of course think long and hard about the ethics of doing this, but decided in the end, changing the names of the participants and not naming the institution solved the problem for me. And in all honesty, i wasn’t there to write blogs about it, I was there to learn German, and I think i had the right to comment on what appears to be the current situation regarding adult-oriented foreign language learning in the UK. Not what the gurus and experts would have you believe. 🙂

      The reason I haven’t written anything more is simple. I changed to a higher class this term, on a different day of the week. Unfortunately, real life has intervened, and I wasn’t able to get to the first or third of the classes.

  10. I know that feeling (about the real world intervening)…I remember asking my tutor about doing this kind of thing for a research module on my MA and he said it might be difficult / problematic covertly collecting data. Anyhow, I think it’s a great way for a language teacher to develop, I am pretty sure that it gave me greater empathy for my students…I think the fact that your teacher asked for feedback and you were happy to give is a good sign…look forward to reading more.

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