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Diary of a Creative English Trainer Returns

Thoughts from the other side of the fence!

I have just returned from a wonderful holiday in France!  Four days in the Auvergne (in the very centre of the country – mountains and extinct volcanoes – just up my street!) and 7 days ‘au sud de la France’.  Merveilleux, I hear you cry!  And immediately I was transported into the shoes of my students: fumbling for the vocabulary, stumbling over grammar, and generally paralysed by my lack of confidence.  At times, it was as if my brain had just rolled over and given up.  And the sheer frustration of not being able to say what I needed in order to get what I wanted was unbearable.  And that’s quite apart from the frustration of wanting to take part in the general chit-chat of life that happens, for example, in the café or in the supermarket to the lady at the till to pass the time of day.

It helped me tremendously to appreciate the struggles of my students.  There were long parts of the holiday where the only person I spoke to was my husband (not that that is a problem, you understand, but if, like some of my students, he is the only person you speak to for 5 to 10 years, then that IS a problem!).

I noticed that impatient native speakers did not wait long enough for me to produce some appropriate language – and it reminds me that in our classes we need to ensure that we leave plenty of ‘wait time’ whilst the processing of language takes place in learners’ minds.  There is no rush in our classes; we want them to have plenty of time to allow the brain’s functions to activate at their own pace, in a relaxed manner, so that as much language as possible is accessed.

And I was also aware that the more relaxed we were, the better our discourse with native speakers.  For example, on our arrival we were very excited to have arrived in France, and went first for a coffee and then to the bakers (boulangerie). My husband was so excited to be able to access his limited French again that he was delighted to enter into some chit-chat with the lady in the bakers, and got some genuine information from her about the local speciality of the region. Similarly, on our last night in France, we went to the local restaurant at the top of the hill in the little mediaeval village where we stayed and enjoyed a wonderful meal.  This was served to us by a very pleasant young lady who smiled a lot at us, was prepared to wait for us to find the right words, and didn’t mind if our grammar was a bit ‘off’.  We laughed about the cheeky local cat, which was hanging around for titbits.  We readily discovered that she had come originally from Calais, in the north, and had decided to make her home in the south, bearing in mind the way that Calais has developed over the last ten years (so industrial, and merely a port).  She commiserated that we had to go back to work the next week, and we were able to say that work was ok as it pays for holidays like this!  All this in limited French!  Because we were relaxed (I’m sure that the glass of wine had nothing to do with it!!!), enjoying ourselves and she was prepared to listen. We almost had a new friend! It left me feeling hopeful that I might eventually become integrated into this community. (Not unrealistic, as we were staying in my sister-in-law’s house).

By contrast, the previous day I had attempted to buy a small hand-drawn illustration at the same village’s art festival and was utterly paralysed by a charming lady who sadly did not have enough patience for me to activate the appropriate language for this transaction.  Barely a single word came out of my mouth, and she was smugly trying out her English on me!  This left me feeling not a little dejected and a wee bit of a failure.  Imagine how you might feel if this kind of thing happens day in and day out, over the course of years, not days.

So – I have learned that smiling, being patient, leaving ‘wait time’, showing genuine interest and creating a relaxed atmosphere are absolutely key ingredients to facilitating the genuine acquisition of effective spoken language, going on to ultimately creating a sense of belonging in our community. In my own field study!

Today I met with a class and we used the ‘Strongly Agree’ and ‘Strongly Disagree’ cards.  They absolutely loved it – when we did the round up at the end of the session, almost all said it was the best part of the session for them!  I have to say that I Strongly Agree with the thesis of Anne Smith’s study – Creative English facilitates the relaxed development of spoken English and creates an environment for an increased sense of belonging.