My English Skills

Nothing like teaching English to make you doubt your language skills.

Just the other day I was having a coffee with some fellow English teachers in Zamora when one brought up a question to which I did not know the answer. Would you say “I work in an Italian restaurant” or “I work at an Italian restaurant”? The thing is, both sound okay. But if you said “I work at a university” it definitely sounds more natural than “I work in a university.” (P.S. Someone please help me explain to a 13 year-old Spanish child why we say “a university” if “university” begins with a vowel … I get it, but explain it? Nuh uh.)

How does one explain such nuances? I, for one, am at a loss. Nuances are not exactly the first thing you teach a budding English student, yet such nuances come up quite often. Nuances are the key to sounding native, not forced. I am often striving to understand them because I hate sounding so utterly foreign. They are the most elusive of language sounds, skills the elite etain. Thus, I want them. (I’m what you might call a perfectionist. So sue me.)

My boyfriend is constantly reminding me of a certain truth: language learning seems to slow to a crawl once you get to the proficient stage. For instance, when you begin to learn a language, you learn large amounts at time. You learn house, boy, girl, car, mail, short, etc. These are easy words, simple to ascertain. But there comes a point where you know all those easy words and the things you don’t know are much more complicated (nuanced): verbs like depose, idioms, slang, pronunciation, accent … you see what I mean. For me, this is intensely frustrating as I often feel, perhaps mistakenly so, that my own progress in Spanish is, well, nonexistent. Mario assures me this is not so, but I’m so good at convincing myself that what he says often goes in one ear and out the other.

So, I began to lean on my English skills, taking pride in my ability to understand it, as weird as that may sound. English isn’t easy, as proven by my students inability to speak it correctly. Yet I get it, truly understand it in a way few people have the privilege to. Then up came those doubts mentioned by my fellow language assistants and that upset the little balance I had going. Oh well. I suppose I’ll find something else upon which to place my pride.

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8 comments

  1. Ugh. Just had this problem today. My student wanted to know when you pronounce the “ed” at the end of words. “Ummmmm…you just know?”, was apparently not an acceptable answer.

    1. I know. And then they look at you like, “Ummmm, you are supposed to be the English teacher!” The thing is, we’re not English teachers. We’re English talkers. Hah.

    2. come across unknowns everyday. yesterday explained why you get in cars but on planes and figured it out while teaching the class. (In and out for small things in which you can’t walk around inside: truck, car, taxi, helicopter. On and off for large transports in which you can walk around (planes, boats, trains) and things with no top: bike, magic carpet.

      for the “ed” sound:

      voiced syllables at the end of a word: “d” sound robbed
      voiceless syllabales at the end: “t” sound walked
      word ending in “t” or “d”: “id” sound waited

      funny lesson with pronunciation of “ed”

      tell the students to put their fingers on their throat and exaggerate the last syllable of a word. if they feel a vibrate, it’s a a voiced syllable. nammmmmmmmmme is voiced. kisssss is not.

      hope this helps

  2. I can totally relate to this post. None of my roommates speak English has their first language so I am always the go-to person for clarification. Many times, I understand their confusion but when I try to explain why they should say this or that, I can’t get my words out right. They end up looking at me like I’m an idiot and probably thinking, “I thought you were supposed to be an expert at English..”

    Even last night, I tried to explain the differences between guilt, embarrassment and shame. Sounds easy, right? It definitely wasn’t…

    1. It definitely does not sound easy to me! Things like that aren’t easily explained; they’re felt. And feeling in a foreign language isn’t easy.

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