Season Workers Guide - Learning a Language

Junk Boat

You would think being a EFL teacher would put you in good stead to learn a language, not always the case! Season Workers' TEFL writer Fiona McGuire was teaching in Medeira at the time of writing and talks about being on the receiving end of language learning and how struggling with it, can actually have a positive influence on your lessons and practices.

I've always had a complacent relationship with language learning. In high school, I learnt the necessary amount of French to pass my exams, which I quickly forgot. Working on a French campsite for six months with Dutch and French people meant that English was the common language, so I didn't have to make any effort. Later, I attended Spanish evening classes to show my Spanish boyfriend that I was making the effort, but I never did my homework. When we moved to Spain, I had more of a need to learn, which I hesitantly did, although I never got beyond bar and restaurant vocabulary. Six months in the Czech Republic resulted in no more than "pivo?" (my defence here is that the lack of vowels in Czech made pronunciation virtually impossible).

Now, after being in Portugal for one and a half years and trying a variety of coursebooks, dictionaries and private lessons, I am still struggling to get to grips with Portuguese, an apparently 'beautiful' language.

I have the excuses that the coursebooks weren't set out in pleasing or accessible ways, that my classes were all presentation with not enough practice (of course that would have changed if I was in a group rather than one-to-one lessons!), that when I'm in bars it's too noisy and people are talking slang rather than the coursebook Portuguese I'm vaguely familiar with etc.

These experiences have taught me three things. Firstly, I cannot learn a language because it is expected of me. I have to have the need, it has to be 100% my decision, not a boyfriend's, employer's or anyone else's. Only then will I have the dedication and drive to succeed.

Secondly, which is probably obvious by now, I am not a good student. I can look for all the excuses in the world, but not doing homework, not learning verbs, feeling so frustrated after classes that I chose to ignore my difficulties until the next week when I had to face them, rather than working through them, are situations where I am the only one to blame.

Finally, and most constructively, it has helped me with my EFL teaching practice. I know that students have to recycle vocabulary ten, twenty maybe a hundred times before they can produce it confidently. Likewise, classes need to be interesting, to keep the student motivated and wanting to learn. Homework is also key to consolidating new structures and vocabulary; of course students will progress faster the more times the encounter English in a week (homework generally doubles these encounters). Another point is that classes have to be interactive so that students can use the language in as natural a setting as possible, not in enforced 'now you will speak' situations.

In conclusion, I know that I am lucky to have got so far with my minimal Portuguese. I have a good job, a lovely house and some great friends here in Madeira, all gained without the use of Portuguese. However, I know that if I want to live more permanently here and fully integrate into society, I will have to learn the language, and I will. One day.

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