I was in Seville the other day, bound for Algeciras. The name brought back echoes of my childhood – on Sunday mornings in the 1960s the BBC had a radio programme where families could ask for music for loved ones who were serving abroad with the British Forces. Many of these servicemen and women were posted abroad around the Mediterranean, so as a child I heard the name Algeciras regularly in BBC English.
Since coming to Spain to live, I’ve also heard the name regularly in standard Spanish, so I was a little taken aback when the bus driver told us which side of the bus to stick our luggage into depending on our destination. Everyone on the station platform picked up their bags and moved except for me. Thirty-six years and I couldn’t even pick out ‘Algeciras’ from the speech stream. I sought help from a woman struggling with three large bags. ‘Sorry, which side was Algeciras?’. ‘On the right, love’. ‘Thanks’.
Later that night I rang my Mum. She’s 92 and has just moved. The new flat is confusing her, and from time to time she now has difficulty finding her words. As a result, you have to listen to her carefully and try to ‘get ahead’ so as to be ready for one of her ‘senior moments’. Then, when one happens, you pop in a suitable word or phrase so that she can continue. If you get it right, she doesn’t even spot that she has been at a loss for words, which is good, because she worries about this.
So, thrown by a pronunciation I was not expecting at all (in fact, I’m still not sure how the driver pronounced ‘Algeciras, but it certainly wasn’t intelligible to me), I got help and clarification. Then, in conversation with someone who can’t always find their word(s), I took an active, supportive role as the listener, filling in the gaps as seamlessly as possible so that the speaker could go on and finish the message.
Well what’s so special about this, you might be asking? Nothing! We do this all the time in our daily lives. So much so, in fact, that we don’t even notice that we are doing it. But, to come to my point, is this happening in our daily classes? As teachers are we seamlessly ‘plugging the gaps’ as our learners struggle to find their words, or are we waiting too long and allowing them to flounder, and even fail, in front of their peers?
More importantly, are we training our learners to be active listeners when they are involved in pair or group work, to be careful followers of the speaker’s argument, and to be willing helpers for those ‘learner moments’ when the speaker is lost for words? Also, are we helping learners to see that accents are everywhere, and the fact that you don’t understand something pronounced in an accent you’re not familiar with, does not signal failure on your behalf? Rather, that failure is when you don’t react to not understanding and you don’t actively seeking help or clarification.
The terms interactive listening and negotiation of meaning reek of Master’s Degrees in TESOL. But the more I watch the way we communicate with each other, the more I feel the need to apologize to all of those early learners who left my classes largely unskilled in both of these key areas. Especially key for communication in today’s globalized English, with all its richness and diversity. And you? How about you? Do any of your early learners deserve an apology?