English as a Decadent Language

By Amy Chavez
For The Bali Times

Australian researchers have discerned that we use three different voices: one when talking with other adults, one with elongated vowels for talking to babies and a high-pitched voice for talking to pets.

Anyone who teaches English in Indonesia knows that there is one more voice the Australian researchers have overlooked: the one used when talking to students studying English as a Second Language (ESL). The ESL teacher voice, with its many characteristics, is likely to change the way you speak forever. As an Italian woman I met on the beach the other day told me, “I can tell you’re an English teacher by the way you speak.”

After 17 years of teaching ESL in various countries, I have to admit to a slow, enunciated simplicity in my speech. I automatically make small adjustments in my speech according to the English fluency of the person I am speaking to. I might start off speaking to someone in normal rapid-fire American English, but if I sense they are not picking up on my dropped “t”s and “ing”s, my speech will come to a screeching halt at the next period. From there I adopt a more cautious approach.

Are there any other people out there who do this? C’mon, raise your hand if you’re an English teacher! Ha! I thought so. This column is for you.

An experienced ESL teacher is able to effectively teach English even under the most extreme circumstances. Even if Mount Batur erupted, spewing psychedelic lava, you would appear to be relaxing on the beach with a margarita while explaining emergency procedures. Your instinct will be to adopt significantly slower speech: Doooooooon’t panic. Everyone….(pause)….pleeeaaassse…..(pause, sip margarita) taaake cooooovvvvvveeeeerrrrr.

Of course, if your students don’t understand the term “take cover,” they will panic and run around the classroom, possibly grabbing book covers. No problem. In this case, you will speak even more slowly, while raising your voice for maximum effect. You’ll also be inclined to take the time to explain any difficult phrases. “Taaake cooovvver meeeaaannns (pause) to hide. And you repeat “hiiiiiide.” Hide frooommm the (pause) lllaaavvvaaa.”

If you still get puzzled looks, you will know to go over the pronunciation of key words: “Cann eeverybody saay lava?” You will spell it for them: L-A-V-A. “La-va” you’ll say, opening your mouth wide to emphasize the “l” and “v” sounds while exposing years of expensive dental work.

Furthermore, you’ll take the time to give simplified definitions of unfamiliar terms: “Lava, (pause) is the hhot vommmit of the volcaaano,” you’ll explain, while carefully aspirating your “t”s. Around this time, you’ll be feeling a little mundane yourself and will add some choreography to your ESL teacher voice, such as stroking your neck with your free hand. You are quite experienced with filling in pregnant pauses with such gestures. Teaching English is like living in slow motion.

By this time, the students will have forgotten the emergency at hand and will be more concerned with their pronunciation of sentences such as “Thick, floooowing laaaava.” You’ll repeat this phrase over and over again with extreme patience, emphasizing the “th” sound in “thick” while absentmindedly cleaning your fingernails. Your students will repeat “tick, flooowing laaaava.” At this point, feeling like you are failing as an language teacher, you will tell them that their pronunciation is definitely improving, so you can move on to the next task… adjectives.

“Psychedelic,” you say in a spunky version of the ESL teacher voice. “Sykedelik,” the students repeat. Sykedelik!” you repeat, using your free hand to do some routine personal hygiene maneuver such as cleaning out your ear canal with the fingernail of your baby finger. “Sykedelik,” say the students. “Psychedelic (pause) lllava,” you say, flicking the ear wax off your fingernail. “Sykedelik lava,” they say. “Gooooood,” you say, sucking down the last of the margarita and wondering why people have to learn to speak English anyway.

Meanwhile, family members have gathered outside your English school, anxious to pick up their loved ones to escape the impending lava flow. It’s about time to wrap things up. But before you do, you ask, “Are there (pause) aaany questions?” being mindful that, crisis or not, the students have paid good money for this class, so they should get as much out of it as possible. After all, English First!

While you post the question, you use the nail of your baby finger to stroke the bottom of your nose, eliminating any crusty spots. “Nothing!” the students say, a sense of alarm in their voices.

“OK (pause), pleeease join your families waaaaiting in the veeehicles ouuutside,” you instruct them. Remember to “taaaaaake coooover,” you say, reminding them of their newly acquired English phrase.

As you leave the classroom and your students have fled in the waiting vehicles, you scratch your armpit and think to yourself, “Why am I soooo tired? I’ve only taught (pause) one claaass. I need a maaargariiiita.

Amy, whose favorite flick is Educating (Marga)Rita, is at amychavez2000@yahoo.com.

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