Online Diary: TEFL in Playa del Carmen from our 2008 Scholarship winner! (3)
Tuesday, 10th March 2009
Georgina Newcombe, winner of the Suzanne Furstner Scholarship 08, reports back on week 2 of her CELTA course in Playa del Carmen...
Something very odd has happened to a fellow trainee. With no warning, this young man from the dark depths of Birmingham – a man whose previous knowledge of the language was limited to clumsy cognates and dirty words – has begun to speak fluent Spanish. On his first day at school, James struggled to ask for no avocado in his torta. Today he held a full-blown conversation with the tourist police concerning a friend’s stolen wallet. Even he admits he doesn’t know how it happened; he’s only been here two weeks. Admittedly, he’s been watching a lot of American films with Spanish subtitles. He gets cable television at his hostel, with only one English-speaking channel. (It’s called the Hallmark Channel – as in the greetings cards – and shows those terrible American telemovies where people end up finding God, or an estranged father, or finally learn to ride a horse). Other than watching movies, he believes he may have somehow ‘absorbed’ it from his environment, with seemingly no effort on his part. But the brain is not a bath sponge. What are the biological/psychological reasons behind this speeded-up, Alvin-and-the Chipmunks form of language acquisition? How does the mind process and retain information so quickly? And why hasn’t it happened to me?
The course is getting more intense. We teach forty minute slots now, and must stage them accordingly. In contrast to what I’d hoped could be a creative mess of writing poetry, listening to song lyrics and ‘chatting’, the formula for a proper lesson consists of prescribed stages, depending on whether you are teaching reading, writing or grammar. At this stage of the CELTA, at least, these are more difficult to design than you’d think. I’ve spent many a night deep in concentration, only to be interrupted by the couple in the neighbouring room – who are loudly dramatic in both love and war – and a blonde Swiss called Valeria who visits me every night, pre-discotheque, to have her eyebrows drawn on. Then there are the assignments which have started trickling in, and what with these, the lesson plans, the language awareness classes and teacher observations, one is almost tempted by such ridiculous inventions as caffeine pills and serenity prayers. If I knew yoga I would practise it nightly to rewind. But being British, I can’t quite bring myself to believe in it, so my main form of relaxation at the moment is eating inordinate amounts of papaya and watching hamster videos on Youtube.
Apparently Week Three is the real killer. In fact, it has acquired legendary status at school, where the staff tell all manner of ominous anecdotes concerning breakdowns, arguments and illnesses. To my dark mind, it conjures thoughts of hexes and cursed calendar dates. If the third week was a video cassette, it would show a Japanese girl with long black hair crawling out of a well. I keep telling myself that by week four the curse will have been broken, the credits rolling, and we will be, as the director of the school puts it, ‘highly employable.’ The CELTA is a golden ticket to so many different lands and lifestyles; the opportunities at the end will more than justify the mild discomfort of sleep deprivation, love noises next door, and having to draw someone’s eyebrows every night at 11PM.
On a more serious note, my friend has succumbed to a bout of food poisoning after consuming food from a street stall. At 25p a taco may seem cheap, but ended up almost costing him a day of teaching and around four pounds in body weight. This happens to be James, the same man who learnt Spanish in two weeks through the subtitles to Lassie, which goes to show: you can be a genius in many ways, but everyday common sense is something different altogether. Believing myself infinitely wiser, I bought a cling-filmed pack of chicken parts by the name of Rabaddilla de pollo. I understand ‘pollo’ is chicken, but have no idea what ‘rabadilla’ might be, other than it was 50p for two and therefore just as cheap as a side-street taco. They were long and covered in fat, so I couldn’t see what was underneath. When I peeled back the layer of fat, I was dismayed to find nothing more than a backbone, a blubbery bottom, and a pair of kidneys. No wonder it was cheap. No doubt you remember the creature that burst through John Hurt’s chest in ‘Alien’; imagine that same creature after two months on the Rosemary Conley diet. Seeing so little edible flesh, I decided to cook both of them, which merely resulted in two backbones, two blubbery bottoms, and four kidneys.
10.30PM. There is so much work to be done – a forty minute lesson to plan for tomorrow on future tenses - but I can’t get the chicken out of my mind.
10.42PM. I have just Google-translated rabadilla. Webster’s Dictionary describes it as ‘a coccyx: the end of the vertebral column in humans and tail-less apes,’ which leaves me none the wiser, and certainly doesn’t make me feel any less queasy about my dinner. I can now add ‘rabadilla’ to my ever-growing bank of unusable Spanish vocabulary. I’m still unable to recall the most basic of phrases, like introducing myself or asking for directions, yet I know the translation for a chicken’s coccyx. The brain truly is a mysterious organ, to be sure…