Strange things about teaching English



English has always been both my passion and my job —- a very happy combination most of the time (though I do tend to work too hard because I love what I do so much). There are some things that fascinate me about what I do.

  • I work mainly within high-level politics. I find that people have a huge English vocabulary in their specialist field – probably because they read and hear so much about it during their work. So someone can happily talk about the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons or the problem of communicable diseases (try saying both of those aloud!) but have difficulty knowing what to say when offering someone a biscuit at teatime or if their guest needs to use a basic piece of office equipment. How many people know what a stapler or a hole punch is in another language?
  • Native English speakers tend to dominate discussions with non-native speakers because many of them don’t speak other languages and don’t realise how difficult it is to listen and then formulate a question or a comment in what is not your first language. By the time the non-native speaker has figured out how to say what he wants, it is too late because the moment was gone.  Sweden has a reputation for speaking good English and often do not use translators or interpreters. There is no getting around the fact though that they are speaking in a foreign language and when you do that, you are a different person. You lost the nuances you have in your own languages and the confidence. Many many Swedes are terrified of sounding like the Chef from the Muppets when they speak English. At least 20% of my students fear this. I have never heard one who does but the fear is still there.
  • Your mother tongue is what your other languages filter through when you speak them, so, for example: Polish does not have definite and indefinite articles so Poles battle with those, Russian has no word order so Russians battle with that, Estonian has no personal pronouns so that is the problem there. Some Arabic languages read letters from right to left but numbers from left to right and others don’t. So these students will have trouble with calculations. Different languages do have other counting systems (Danish and French for example). Swedish does not have a word for please.
  • The most interesting course I have ever taught was when I had to help with a counterfeiting conference and no one could agree on the pronunciation of Adobe, Nike, Porsche, Moleskine, Linux or Givenchy. Some battled with Gucci and Chanel. The funniest one was a Givenchy perfume named just with the symbol above (pi) but many nationalities pronounced it ‘pee’ which was hysterically funny to me because there were reports of the fake perfume actually being urine.
  • The hardest thing for me in foreign languages (I am fluent in English, Afrikaans and Swedish, have rusty German and Dutch, have basic Xhosa and I can read and understand Danish and Norwegian if it is spoken slowly) are that if they are similar you can get confused between your second and third language. So I never have problems with English but if I am in Sweden and I try to speak Afrikaans I can only speak Swedish. But if I have been in South Africa for a while and come back to Sweden I tend to speak Afrikaans the first few hours. This is a problem for Arabic and Uralic language speakers with Swedish as a second language – they tend to confuse Swedish and English words because they are both Germanic.
  • We got the words moped, tungsten, knife, husband, ombudsman, smorgasbord from Swedish.
  • If you are learning language you learn very quickly in the beginning but then you tend to get worse for a while because you know enough about the language to know and care about making mistakes. Don’t give up because you will get over that.
  • Language is like going to the gym and being fit. You have to train, to keep at it, to practise regularly to keep it in shape. Otherwise you lose it.
  • Older people tend to be fantastic at grammar and can recite irregular verbs off pat but are scared to speak. Younger people have very little knowledge of grammar but are more fluent speakers – probably because of computer games, internet, films (which are not dubbed in Sweden, but subtitled)


Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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