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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Teaching English in Costa Rica

This entry is two-fold, and the two pieces have little to do with each other. I wrote one, didn't publish it before I wrote another, so here comes both in one. It's like a Kinder surprise, only better.

By Ole Larssen.

Teaching English

I've had quite a number of people asking me - what exactly do you do, teaching English to people you don't share a language with? I realize I might sound somewhat arrogant saying so, but it's not so hard as one might think. Important to note is that Ticos are subjected to English in school and on TV, just like Norwegians and, well, most Westerners. Their English education from the public school system isn't all that and a nice silver spoon, but it does ensure that 99% of my students have at least some grasp of English, which makes things a whole lot easier. When enrolled into the school I teach at, they go through some tests to decide what level of English they're at. Currently, I'm teaching two Level One classes - meaning beginners. What, exactly, do I do?

Well, there's Side by Side, a language teaching tool (meaning, a textbook), its picture cards, a whole lot of patience and the whiteboard. These are my primary tools. Instead of picture cards, I try to use classroom realia (desks, pencils, clothing, the physical build of my students etc) as much as humanly possible. Vocabulary that are objects are easy enough, and so are most basic description words (describing height, weight, general appearance), since between myself and my students, we have a lot of stuff lying around in our backpacks. When possible, I attempt to involve my class in defining words, since they will always know (in Spanish) what they are, and it's good for them trying to explain in English what it is.

Today, for example, I was teaching prepositions (behind, in front of, next to, between etc) and family. The class I was teaching is small, five students, and all female. First I told them to open their books to whatever page the vocabulary (different buildings and shops) was on, then covered up the words. I then elicited what they were from the students. For example, one says "It's a hotel," then I say yes, and continue to ask "What do you do in a hotel?" In this way, they get to speak English (explaining things they know perfectly well what are ... in Spanish) and learn the vocabulary simultaneously. To explain prepositions, I pulled up one of the girls to the middle of the classroom, then indicated that she stand still while I moved around her, saying the prepositions out loud as I acted them out. "In front of", "next to", "behind", "I'm standing between the wall and her." Then I drew a small town on the whiteboard, put a bus station on it, then gave the marker to one of the students. "The library is across from," I signalled what that meant with my hands since I hadn't covered it, "the bus station." As the students got the idea what I wanted from them, they started making up things to go into the town themselves, and described to each other where it was, passing the marker around. I was standing on the sideline, correcting if there were any really big mistakes in their English, but otherwise doing very little. Then we practiced the prepositions with some of the exercises in the Side by Side book. We had covered family vocabulary previously, so they had an idea already when I asked them first to draw up a family tree of their own. Then, I instructed them to draw a map of their neighbourhoods - not in any great detail, mind, but just get some kind of map. When they had finished those two tasks, the more challenging part came (both for me and them). I explained to them that I wanted them to ask each other about their families and their neighbourhoods, and wrote some sample questions on the whiteboard. Then they, predictably, objected that their family generally didn't work or study in their neighbourhood (obviously they didn't put it like that, but with some broken English and waving of maps the point was made), so I told them that what their families actually do, in this case, was irrelevant. I wrote reality on the whiteboard (knowing the same word in Spanish is very similar) and crossed it out. Then they started talking to each other about their families and their neighbourhoods, and spent about twenty minutes on it. I then sat down as part of the class and asked each one to talk about their families, which they did, and finished by talking about mine (in retrospect, I should have started doing that).

That was the main part of the lesson, and a pretty good example of what I do in the classroom. Realize that while they are able to construct simple sentences in English, their vocabulary is severely limited, so explaining very often needs to be done both verbally (me saying it) and visually, me drawing or referring to something in the classroom. And I need to speak sloooowly, something which everyone who knows me will understand the level of challenge in for me. And repeat myself. This specific class is very energetic and has a habit of talking in Spanish, which is fine for some things (when I need to explain a particularly difficult set of game rules, it often is just as well to have somebody who gets it tell it to the rest of the class so I won't have to waste everyone's time explaining thirty times), but not so good for other things. I want them to get what I'm saying without any connection to Spanish. This class, however, has a slightly irritating habit of immediately repeating what I say in Spanish, and they often get in arguments over what I actually said - in Spanish and without asking me, which would be the easiest option, since I'm standing right there. This is definitively something I need to work on, but for now I leave it be.

The more I think of it, the more I realize that the teaching of English to beginners can be reduced to two things: visual aids and patience. A whole lot of both. Most of my students aren't children, so they know what things are, but not in English. My task is not only showing them what things are in English, but helping them put that knowledge into the actual talking of the language. Difficult, yes, but I wouldn't enjoy it nearly as much if it was easy. The main role I have, as I see it, is to enable them to take the things they learn from the book, and through listening to me (and TV, radio etc), and put it to independent use. Like I told my students today - language isn't about correctness of grammar, it's about getting your point across. Native speakers, whose grammar is generally abhorrent, are the best example of this. When teaching English to beginners, that is mostly what I, and I imagine most teachers, do - helping them learning how to get their point across, even when stumbling over unfamiliar sentence structures and weird-sounding words (health club), using phonetics they don't even have in their native language (like the O in Ole, when you say it in Norwegian, which is a way of saying O non-existent in Spanish or English). Patience and visual aids. Yes, that sounds about right.


Ticos and Gringos

Being a non-native speaker of English teaching English in Costa Rica has its share of challenges. These challenges often seem to have root in the rather odd relationship most Ticos seem to have with gringos (North Americans). In this relationship, we're looking at a love/hate affair of ridiculous dimensions. The dislike is intense in some ways. One example of this is how certain Ticos react to me speaking broken Spanish to them - they react as if I'm doing some sort of capital crime and should be eradicated from the face of the planet as soon as possible. The way I see it, they should be thrilled someone is going to the bother of learning their language and has guts and politeness enough to attempt speaking it even when he or she obviously has no clue. But no, time and time again I run into Ticos giving me that stare when I mangle sentence after sentence, but with heavy use of body language and other visual aids push my point through. They answer reluctantly, and only in the shortest terms possible. Like I'm scum. This irritates me, and I can only imagine it has to do with the hate-part of the deep-seated love/hate affair they have with gringos in general. The same short-temperedness (very unlike Ticos usually) surfaces from time to time when I'm struggling through a pound (in weight) of change trying to sort out which is which. In Costa Rica, land of Many Strange Coins, this is something of a challenge. This is not to say, it must be underlined, that all Ticos are like this. Far, far from it. Most of them are as patient as the day is long with my blundering. My point is that there is something there, some kind of itch that they want to scratch. But they can't.

Because they work for them, right? There are many and more gringos in this country, and they often come with money. Money they invest in various things in the country, and they often employ Ticos. And whatever some Ticos might feel about American culture, young Ticos listen to American hip-hop and immerse themselves in that culture. Burger King is not a burger joint here, it's a fucking institution. Families save for weeks to afford BK or Pizza Hut. American culture, in some way or another, is visible in so many spaces of Tico life. Thusly, they learn to admire it - in some way or another. And all the American jobs spawn a need for Tico English speakers. That's where yer nose-picking Norwegian comes in.


I am not a gringo, and there is no disguising that fact even for beginners in the strange ways of English. I have an accent, and it's quite noticeable. You would, in fact, need to be deaf not to pick up on it immediately. I'm no native speaker of the language, though I've used it on a daily basis for ten years. For most purposes, I do not believe my fluency differs from a native speaker. This (blind) faith is what allows me to do this kind of job in the first place. Yet, this argument is to no avail for most Ticos. They want gringos. And so runs the requirements for most English teacher jobs in the country: Native speaker only or preferred. The advertisements for the school I work at, ironically, announces that they have (implied) only native speaking teachers, even though currently we're two non-native speakers and four natives. The question of whether a native speaker is or isn't a better teacher than a non-native is complicated and I won't get into that. I don't believe in any such easy distinction, at any rate. The point is that in Costa Rica, it does make a big difference whether you are a gringo or not, regardless, I would say, of other factors. I've found myself several times in situations where the employer was choosing between me and a native speaker with the same qualifications as I, and I ended up with the short straw. Don't get me wrong, I understand the reason - I realize, of course, that having native speakers is good for business. What annoys me is that most employers do this because their clients demand it of them - the Ticos want gringos. This is the same kind of idiocy that makes Ticos frown at me when I speak Spanish. Do they want gringos because they are better teachers? Fuck no, they want gringos because they are gringos. And the very people in a position to work against the kind of blind prejudice don't, because they would lose business doing so. This is nothing new, but it seems to me to be a microcosm of the world - specifically, what is wrong with the world in general.

So this is Ticos and gringos. Gringos come here for the weather and whatever obscure reasons people have for travelling (cough). Ticos get jobs and constant exposure to a culture that in some ways must appear superior to theirs - certainly richer in monetary value (and yes, I know that there is a Tico culture disconnected from gringos, but that is irrelevant in this case). But oh, do they hate it, somewhere inside their heart of hearts. And from time to time, and God forbid! there are some people, (maybe even a teacher!) and they don't speak English with an American accent, or even British. What to do, what to do?! Let's throw stones at him and hit him with a big stick and see if he goes away. If not, well. Pura vida?

But I'm not resentful. Cross my heart.