March 17, 2008

How are you kipping?

Manolo asked me just before he cut my hair. How are you kipping? He asked me three times, I think, before I realised what he meant. Can't complain, I said. Musn't grumble. He had no idea what I was on about.

I've stopped teaching English, not in principle, but in practice. (Manolo's not my student. Somebody's, presumably, but not mine.) I'm still open to offers for the right student, but they'd have to be different to most of the students I've had previously. I could never rely on them not to cancel at the last minute: eventually I'd start expecting the text before it came. They couldn't see it: not that I had made an arrangement to see them, nor that I had organised my time to that effect, nor that I might have wanted to do others things in that time which I could no longer do. Nor even that the money they were paying for the class was basically my salary, money I needed and needed to rely on.

I looked around, after a while, for a colloquial equivalent for "messing me about": I couldn't really find one. Odd that the concept should be so difficult to express in the language of Spain.

I wonder whether foreigners are not looked on here as teachers are by younger pupils: who are surprised to see the teacher out of school, who must imagine that the teacher lives in the school and exists only there. Foreigners do not live, as other people live, and do not therefore have the same needs and requirements. They exist only when you see them in their employment. You are surprised to see them outside that role. You did not think of them outside it.

One thing I tried to discourage the students from doing, as it happens, was pursue their interest in learning colloquial English phrases. They all wanted to do so: they thought it would show how much they knew real English, English as it is spoken and therefore English as they wished to speak it. Of course - though I could never get them to understand this - the effect would actually be the opposite. Because to speak a language colloquially, you have to demonstrate your comfort with the language, your identification with it.

You can use and understand its many stock phrases, which do not mean exactly what they say: and you can understand (as Manolo, of course, did not) the responses too. You can ignore its rules of grammar and pronounciation, as colloquialisms do. You can express yourself precisely by avoiding the requirement to express yourself precisely. You can do this because you grasp, from years of living with the language and inside it, what the phrases mean and what they do not mean, when to use them and when they are not used. You demonstrate your confidence with the langauge. You show yourself to be an insider.

But use them wrongly, pronounce them wrongly, and instantly you achieve the opposite: you betray yourself. You show yourself to be an outsider. You demonstrate your lack of confidence. You do not show that you're trying, nearly so much as you show that you're failing. You make a fool of yourself. Naturally you do, when learning a language: it's your function. You are the outsider, the clown, the one who fails, the fool. But who would choose to make oneself a fool? What kind of fool does that?


At March 17, 2008 9:04 pm, Blogger Sean said...

If someone asked me how I was "kipping" I'd answer that I had nice lie-in this morning, thank you very much.

At March 17, 2008 10:32 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I just say that I've always enjoyed your words on here, so it's great to see regular updates :)

Thanks for writing!

At March 23, 2008 9:35 pm, Anonymous Phil said...

A friend of mine had the reverse experience - he was in a language class with a teacher who decided to teach them Spanish slang. Usually each initially-weird-sounding idiom was introduced with "I expect you say something similar in English" - and usually they didn't.

The example that stuck in my mind was the greeting "Coño!", for use entre amigos as a more forceful alternative to "Hola!". By that stage my friend was getting tired of the something-similar-in-English shtick, so he said yes, as a matter of fact we did have a similar expression in English - friends would greet each other with a cry of "Bollocks!". (Which of course they did, for the duration of the class.)


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