In his inaugural column, a British expat reflects on teaching English to Germans.
In the past month or so I have set my two English feet back onto German soil, with a view to stay in Hamburg until at least the beginning of summer. My ambitions here may appear as grand as Hamburg itself: To master the language, gain experience, acquire further cultural knowledge and, of course, indulge in the odd kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake). That my first column involves the full-scale deception of those younger and more innocent than me may seem a little suspect in contrast to these noble aims. But do bear with me.
The sinister nature of this month’s column stems from my reason for being in Germany once again. I have spent time in this country before, in the guise of both a student and an intern. Wanting to return, I found an ideal way of doing so by applying to work for nine months as an English Language Assistant (ELA) at a German school.
The role of an English language assistant
The role of an ELA can be vague at the best of times. Whereas some documents detail exactly what we are required – or permitted – to do, our primary task has simply been described as “making English fun.” So we ELA’s, native English speakers unleashed upon a generation of unsuspecting Germans in schools, are responsible for enlivening a subject otherwise taught through books, dusty grammar rules and tests. I must convince the students at my school that speaking (and learning) English is fun and worthwhile and develop in them a genuine interest for my country, or at least my mother tongue.
I’ve only been in this job for a few weeks and thus can only be described as a fledgling educator, but the most disturbing realization I have had about my job thus far is how necessary and deeply satisfying it is to lie to my younger pupils. I work with a wide age range of students, from 18-year-olds who already practise a breathtaking fluency in my language to a class of students who are only 14. While the older kids need no encouragement to dive into an English conversation, the younger ones require greater incentive. So, as far as they concerned, I speak no German (bar the occasional “Ja” and “Danke” when pushed to it) and need to be spoon-fed with their finest English. Which, considering I have been learning German for many years, is where the lying begins.
This lie, like the greater myths of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, is trickier to sustain than it may seem. First of all, I highly enjoy speaking German and am accustomed to fight for my right to do so; when I lived here once before, I became used to natives sensing an English tinge to my words and deciding to speak English with me, which caused me to stubbornly insist on discussing everything in German, whether they wanted to or not. Now I play dumb, which at times is frustrating. I understand what the children say but pretend not to unless they switch to English.
Sometimes this is counter-productive. If two students are having an argument or are mocking each other in German, I can’t push my way in and resolve things without giving myself away. There are also times when I must speak German and have to do this as discreetly as possible. If you are urgently looking for something in a shop with two pupils, you have to slink around a corner and ask someone in your quietest German and pray they don’t notice this. Similarly, when I took one boy into hospital during a school trip due to a foot injury, it wasn’t feasible to feign ignorance in a discussion with his doctor. Sometimes my disguise is impractical and sometimes it falls off altogether.
Yet there are advantages, too. Once they see you as a confused Englishman in their midst, the students begin to talk German quite freely. This has already allowed me to find out a few secrets about the inner workings of the class, making me feel like an under-qualified foreign spy. I’ve already worked out most of the in-jokes of one class and discovered that one usually sweet girl can swear like a trooper when provoked.
And of course the biggest advantage is that, gradually, the students begin to feel forced to speak English and thus gain some valuable practise. Fourteen-year-olds are a tough, perceptive crowd but also quite gullible at times. Some have already seen me in a German context, having to speak their language, or being addressed in German by the teachers. One teacher told them I spoke German some time ago and then changed her mind that I couldn’t, or that I had somehow forgotten it all on my arrival in Hamburg, as if in some bizarre accident.
This led to something of an inquisition; some of the girls would regularly appear next to me, accuse me of understanding German (in German) and then sidle away in a sinister fashion. Others would insist I spoke German, ask me to speak it, or laugh when I pretended not to understand things. One group had to do an amusing sketch on the school trip and one of the most popular jokes was a student playing me yelling “I don’t speak Deutsch!” over and over.
Oddly, after all of this, I haven’t been completely ousted. I have kept playing dumb and used a few weak excuses (that I had “learned a couple of phrases but that was it”). As a result, as they get to know me more and want to talk to me, they are forced to use the language they are learning. Perhaps one day my ruse will be fully exposed but hopefully they’ll out me in decent English.