Tuesday, May 31, 2011


A lifetime ago, when I was just 20, I moved to France to teach English in a couple of high schools. For the most part, it was a wonderful experience - especially my realization that there were in fact four seasons and they didn't all take place the same day! But linguistically one one-hour lesson, given by the head of the English department in the senior high school, still gives me nightmares to this day!
The head of English was a man called 'Guy'. I arrived on my first day and was introduced to him. He was extremely friendly and pleasant and then I opened my mouth! He was horrified by my accent, muttered something about how non RP-speakers should never be employed as language assistants and ranted about the adverse effect my accent would have on his pupils! I tried to argue that there were many accents of English and his class of 14 year olds might benefit from learning that. He reluctantly agreed and led me to his class. What happened next was astounding from a logic and language point of view. He was teaching his class about travel. He wrote on the board something like:

  1. He went to Spain
  2. The girls are going to Germany
  3. I am going in Japan
  4. He went in Denmark

I was new on the job. I tried to attract his attention quietly to point out the two errors in English as I thought a 20 year old humiliating the head of dept publicly during the first lesson was perhaps a bit off but he dismissed my whisper that you don't use 'in' with direction and went on to explain the biggest and most illogical piece of nonsense I have ever heard in all my years of language learning and teaching! He explained the correlation between the gender of a country in French and the choice of preposition in English! Apparently with feminine countries you use 'to'. So Il est allé en Espagne becomes He went to Spain, however with masculine countries the English used 'in', so Je vais au Japon was of course I am going in Japan! I was dumbfounded! How could anyone with an ounce of linguistic knowledge imagine a correlation between genders in one language and prepositions in a different language without gender? The man was barking mad!
At the end of the lesson the children dispersed muttering their newly learned grammar under their breath and I took Guy aside and explained as politely and tactfully as possible the we go to Japan and to Denmark in English and that his gender theory was off the wall. He exploded that his initial hunch that my(!) wacky English would be highly damaging for his classes and told me that I would not be allowed to participate in his classes for the rest of the year, as undoing the damage I would cause would be too much hassle!
Fortunately, the other teachers took advantage of my newly acquired free time and used me more, not less than usual, believing my English would add a new depth to the kids' understanding. Guy blanked me for the rest of the year but I had the last laugh on my last day a year later when I threw a dinner party for all the members of the English department who had made me so welcome and made it one of the best years of my life. Of course, I didn't invite Guy!
But 20 years on, as he must be reaching retirement, I do wonder occasionally how many children are wandering around the east of France asking each other if they fancy a wee trip in Mexico! ;-)

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