Saturday, 24 January 2015

I want you to go

A number of poets work as Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Doing so for a prolonged period has major drawbacks, especially if your only contact with English is through your pupils, as your own linguistic use easily becomes stilted. However, there are also considerable benefits. Above all, you find yourself in the position of explaining points that you never had to learn consciously yourself, thus bringing about a major reassessment of your relationship with your native tongue.

When first in Spain, I did a lot of TEFL work. I found that the Spanish tended to speak English in something of a monotone, not feeling its bounces. Of course, Spanish metrics count syllables instead of stresses, and that is a reflection of how stress and intonation differ between both languages.

Over time, I realised that English-language poetry was a useful tool in the classroom: I would ask my pupils to recite lines of pentameter to work on that afore-mentioned intonation. Meanwhile, another favourite activity was to take a sentence and analyse how its meaning would be altered by a slight shift in intonation. I often used the following example, the brackets providing an unspoken illustration in each case :

I want you to go (but your mother doesn't)
I want you to go (I really do)
I want you to go (not your brother)
I want you to go (not to come)

I recall rows of flabbergasted Spaniards trying to get to grips with an implicit semantic use of intonation and stress that just didn't exist in Iberia. The nuances might sound so obvious to a native speaker, but I had to go through a considerable process of working out how my own language functioned before I was able to explain them to my pupils.

In other words, coming to English afresh from a foreigner's perspective is a terrific experience for any writer. For a poet it's even more enriching.


  1. I loved this. Totally fascinating. Did you know Martin Bates, who lives some of the time in Spain too, once published (through White Adder Press) an anthology of poems about teaching English as a Foreign Language, or by EFL teachers? You closely relate to it, when you've done it, and you're SO right -- nothing sharpens your perception of your own language so much as teaching it to someone for whom it's still all rich and strange. A great job for a poet. Here's a link to Martin's book:

    1. Thanks, Nell. That sounds like an intriguing book. I'll have to get hold of a copy!

  2. Dear Matthew

    I used to teach English in Catalunya and my second volume 'Back to Basics' was aimed primarily at English language learners. For me, by far the best part of the teaching day was hitting the bars at 10pm after the final lesson had finished.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish