My Native-speaker teacher (Knowledge is in the eye of the beholder)
I’ve been blogging for three days here and I’ve just heard a tiny voice in my head suggesting I might be doing something wrong. The tiny voice insists that all SEETA guest bloggers write under the same title ‘My working week’. I haven’t written about a single working day, let alone the whole week. So in order to improve the accuracy of my writing, I’ve decided to write about one day in my busy teacher’s life. Staying in line with my own title, I have chosen to write about the most untypical day in my whole life: exactly the day when I was converted into a native speaker teacher.
Untypically, I was not at work attending our stressful Saturday staff meeting when the new semester timetables were delivered. I was in Hradec Kralove, as an ELTA Serbia official representative, having a really great time. The Czech conference was truly impressive, packed with interesting speeches and presentations, the hosts were so hospitable and I clicked right away with other official representatives, as if we had been friends for ages. (Warmest regards to Zarina, Moly, Daria and Esma). So on Saturday afternoon it all finished but a few of us stayed till the next morning. There was still a lot to discover about magnificent Hradec on a beautiful September day. When I returned to my room, still full of impressions about the conference and the city, my cellphone alerted the arrival of a little wanted message. It was from my best friend and colleague Natasa. I knew it was about my timetable. And the message did sound sinister:
‘Are you sitting down?’
‘No, I was sitting down but now I’m lying down’- was my answer.
‘Even better’, she continued. ‘I am sending you the timetable’.
So it took her some long fifteen minutes to kill me with suspense.
‘Mon-Wed: Ser.Beginners; BEC III
Tue - Thu Ser. Up.Interm; BEC II’
My reply was swift.
‘OK for BEC but what is Ser? A new course?‚’
‘It is Serbian for Foreigners!’
‘But I can’t teach Serbian!!! I don’t know anything about our grammar. I have forgotten the declensions and conjugations.I don’t know a single rule and there are so many. I will not be able to answer their questions! I will be lost!’
Natasa was sympathetic.
‘I understand you! I have Ser. Intermediate. Sorry! I’ve run out of credit on my cellphone!’
So I was left all alone in my hotel room, with some very dark clouds overcasting my mood . I felt helpless. The nearest Serbian grammar book was some thousand miles or 24 hours away from me. I needed one badly. (If you think I was acting foolishly just think about whether it is possible to teach Latin without knowing Latin grammar. There are many grammar similarities between these two otherwise unrelated languages. NB Serbian has 7 cases and Latin merely 6). The Serbian coursebooks were even further than that as they were safe in my staffroom which would not be opened before Monday morning. I needed those desperately. I could teach English without coursebooks and grammar books for hours, days and months maybe. But I knew I couldn’t teach Serbian. I could speak it but I wasn’t prepared to teach.
Maybe you still wonder why I was fussing so much about becoming a native Serbian teacher. I was familiar with methodology, I knew a lot about psychology, I had a lot of experience as a teacher and, of course, I was a native speaker. But believe me I was right to fuss.
Methodology was probably the only advantage I took from being a NNST for so many years although different languages need different approaches.
My biggest problem however was the issue of empathy. At the beginning of NST career I completely ran out of it. I honestly loved all my groups but I simply couldn’t put myself into my students’ shoes and see things from their perspective. As I have already said, I acquired Serbian as a carefree child and my students were working their way through the maze of Serbian sentences.
The most obvious problem was with the beginners. They came from different backgrounds and naturally spoke different first languages. The very beginning was OK but soon Serbian grammar complicated things immensely. They needed solid explanations given in a simple but effective way. I wanted my explanations to be clear enough for them but I had no idea whether I unnecessarily repeated something that was crystal clear after my first explanation or I dismissed the topic that needed repeating time and again. Their faces didn’t tell me much, my students politely nodded whatever I was telling them.
My biggest advantage as a NST was my knowledge of Serbian. Let’s be frank, I am an above-average speaker of Serbian. My vocabulary is boosted by reading and generally it is the language of a well educated person. At one point in my life I was a translator (remember Tanjug?) and I went through their training both for translating English to Serbian and Serbian to English. Little did my students benefit from my vast vocabulary, even at the upper intermediate level! Their needs were way below. I could speak well but I couldn’t explain why I say it like that. I had no idea what is the principle behind my words.
How true is the saying that it never rains but it pours! In my upper intermediate group I had a ‘grammar girl’. I am sure you have all met that type of language learners. She knew almost everything but she always had an extra question or two that would send my blood pressure right into the red zone. ‘Why do we use accusative with preposition ZA in this sentence but not in this one?’ ‘How do I know whether I should use genitive or locative with preposition OD?’ The only sensible answer from my side could have been : ‘You say it and if it sounds normal, then use it and if it doesn’t sound ok, simply don’t use it. That’s how I know!’ And that was exactly the answer I couldn’t give her. She needed rules. I don’t know why she bothered to ask me anyway. If there had been a competition in Serbian grammar, she would have beaten me then, I’m not joking. It took me a year of hard work to reach her level of grammar expertise.
In spite of my inner battles, my students believed me completely and never for a moment doubted my judgements. For them, I was a monolithic giant of a teacher - experienced, knowledgeable, always-ready-to-help and, of course, native.