Updated: Oct 19, 2021
English is a leading international language and the need to learn it is being recognized globally, more than ever before. Serving as an ELT (English Language Teaching) professional for 35+ years under different environments including the Middle East, in the company of a multinational English teaching faculty, has been an enriching experience. And sprinkled with unforgettable challenges and hilariously embarrassing moments too.
I was mainly engaged in teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) to Arab students with their distinct culture and L1 influences. The entire scenario was enhanced (complicated?) by the fact that the English language faculty was 50-teachers strong, representing 17 different nationalities. It was a heady blend of native and non-native speakers of English that included a few Indians like me.
We were engaged in the serious business of ensuring effective communication involving the Arab learners. Some of the teachers had their first exposure to the Arabic culture. We had a wonderful mix of cultures and communication styles.
Let me put down here a few illustrations of the breakdown in communication or miscommunication that bordered on embarrassment and unintended humour.
A word about how I landed in such a set up. After my teaching stint of just over a decade in India in Kendriya Vidyalayas, I moved to Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman and took up a teaching assignment at the Indian School. The transition was smooth. It was after spending 11 years there that I moved into the tertiary level of Education in the local Government system. That gave me time to get fairly used to the cultural facets of the country and people. That was not the case with many of the native speaker teachers. I had to often step in to bridge the cultural and communication divide between such uninitiated teachers and the diffident students.
The students were fairly bright but their proficiency in English left much to be desired. That justified an intense two-semester foundation course in English to help them gain competence to pursue their specialised technical subjects through English.
Written English was a huge challenge for them and spelling a nightmare. So much so, the English department came up with the novel idea of marking whatever little was right in green rather than creating a red sea on their written task sheet.
As for oral communication, complete utterances were a rarity and we generously accepted whatever was offered. Certain phonemes or sound units proved insurmountable! /p/ and b/ were two such phonemes that were mixed up liberally leading to hilarious confusions. Half of the students came to college in their own cars. A standard excuse when they turned up late was: ‘Too much traffic and then no space to bark!’.
Some of my colleagues were totally puzzled and even incensed but I shared with them the knowledge that in Arabic /p/ and /b/ are represented by one phoneme. I appealed to them for a more understanding approach. Simultaneously, I impressed on the students the need to make a conscious effort to strike a clear distinction between the two sounds in English.
Another equally irksome pair of sounds is /g/ and /ʤ/. Arabic has both the sounds but are used interchangeably. But in English, that can create ludicrous situations. Imagine the shock of his life, a new colleague of mine, Mr James Peter, had when his students addressed him Mr. Games or Mr. Beater! I intervened to assuage the feelings of the gentleman by explaining the genuine difficulty of the students and that they meant no offence, whatsoever. Thankfully, he took it sportively and soon settle down. He was soon popular in class with his language games! (or was it james?!)
Let me wind up with an illustration from my experience with the post-foundation students of Information Technology stream. They had an ESP (English for Special Purposes) module on IT. They had to carry out assignments and prepare technical reports. In one section of the typed report, they had to list out the difficulties faced in carrying out the task. Invariably, many students came up with one standard problem. The laps were full most of the time! (The reference was to the computer labs, of course!) .
One day, I initiated a ‘find the meaning’ game. They were allowed to use an English-Arabic dictionary. After taking up a few semi-technical words I slipped in the pair - lap and lab. Soon, there were suppressed giggles and smiles in the class. Happily, the two words were rarely mixed up thereafter.
Effective communication is the avowed goal in any language learning context. However, it can prove a formidable challenge when unfavourable factors intervene. Yet, as resourceful and committed language professionals, we need to face these with skill, flexibility and creativity and come up with innovative and pragmatic solutions.
Dr. Rajan Philips has been an ELT Professional for 35+ years in India and abroad and a regular academic presenter. He is a currently a Guest Faculty at NUALS, Cochin. His special interests are public speaking, quizzing and freelance writing.