Don’t Look At My Wife!

Teaching English as a foreign language can be entertaining on so many levels – getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of our language, realising how illogical spellings and pronunciation rules are, hearing students use words that are logical but wrong etc, etc.

But one of the most fascinating things is the insights into different countries and cultures.

When I was teaching in Portugal the classes were 95% Portuguese. We had a few Brazilian and Angolan students – other nationalities were rare.

But now I’m back in the UK I’m teaching part-time at a language school in Bournemouth where students come from all over the world. In the last six weeks I’ve taught students from Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Italy, Japan, Colombia, the Ukraine, Libya and Saudi Arabia.

Most of the time we concentrate on English. But I also like to ask the students about their lives and it can lead to some interesting classroom discussions.

The other week, we were reading about a couple in Spain who got a court order to evict their two adult sons because the boys not only weren’t working, but were also making no contribution to family life and showing no respect for their parents.

One of my students, Ahmed normally just smiles a lot and speaks very little. He’s not slow but he’s lazy and his English surprisingly basic considering how many months he’s been at the school. This time, though, he had something he wanted to say and worked really hard to explain his opinion.

Ahmed said that would never happen in Saudi Arabia. He said family is the most important thing and that parents would never chuck their children out, commenting that his family all live under one roof – parents, his brothers, their wives and children.

Paolo, an Italian student, joined the conversation. He joked that with so many people they must have very large family photographs.

Ahmed shook his head. No. Only the men. The others (Spanish and Colombian) listened with incredulity as Ahmed explained that the family photos only have men in them. The women can have photos but no men can see them.

He added that his brother can never see Ahmed’s wife’s hair. He can say hello to his sister-in-law but never, ever touch her. “Only me,” he said with a beaming smile.

A few days later I was teaching a different class. One of the Spanish girls poked a young Saudi in the ribs when he said something to wind her up. It was just a quick, instinctive action and completely innocent. But it made me wonder how it must seem to a young Saudi – coming from a country where men don’t even get to see a girl’s hair unless they’re married, let alone touch them.

Being a teacher has helped me a lot as an author – I understand much more about how English works and hopefully I can use that knowledge to improve my writing. But the cultural insights are also fascinating – I get a glimpse into worlds and lives that I might not see otherwise.

NB: My favourite word invented by a student was ‘diseducate’. It doesn’t exist but in the context used it made perfect sense!


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