Pronunciation Classes

I taught my first classes this week and it was really great and really is getting me excited for the rest of the year here.  My school is a fifteen minute walk from my place, and it is always in the same place.  If there was anything that made my time in China so unpleasant, it was the intense about of commuting I had to do to bumfuck places on the outskirts of Harbin.

In any case, this will really an amazing international experience.  I plan on doing activities outside the classroom, such as English tables, movie nights and excursions to museums.  For instance, Antwerp has an exhibition about the Red Star Line, which is kind of like Europe’s version of Ellis Island, except it was the jumping off point rather than the destination, and I would love to do an English-language tour with my students.

Anyways, classes went great.  The classes were based entirely around pronunciation of American English.  I first introduced myself to the big group, and then took the students who wanted to work on American pronunciation.  For a couple classes, that was about ten students.  For another class, it was zero.  British English is taught as the norm here, but because of the influence of television and movies, a lot of students are accustomed to American English too.  This means that if students have an English accent in English, it tends to be a mixture of both. However, those who came with me tended to have pretty good American accents, if they didn’t still have a heavy Dutch accent.  Because I will (probably) only be at KU Leuven-Thomas More for one year, Raf (the English teacher who I work with the most) has semi-discouraged going for an American accent, because there won’t be someone around next year to follow through with.  This means that most of the students are geared towards learning British pronunciation, which usually they have been taught since around 6th grade in Flanders.

What is also cool here is that it’s a language school and all the Bachelor’s students study three languages.  The program itself is called ‘toegepaste taalkunde’ or Applied Linguistics, but a lot of the classes are just about learning languages.  It makes me wish I had this option when I was going to do my Bachelor’s.  In any case, students are required to take Dutch, and they are free to choose two other languages from English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Arabic and Flemish Sign Language. The vast majority choose English as one of their languages, and it seems like Spanish is the most popular after that.  Interestingly enough, none of the students that have been in my classes this week study French as their third language, despite the fact that it is an official language of the country I am currently in.  (German is also an official language, spoken by about 2% of the population in the far east of the country).

If French doesn’t seem to be an interest in Flanders, Dutch is even less of an interest in Wallonia.  Last weekend I went to Liege (near Maastricht!) and felt very isolated, because I couldn’t communicate with anyone.  A few people could speak a bit of English, but Dutch was even less present.

Anyways, the classes went great.  My favorite class was the one where the students third language was mostly Arabic.  They seemed to really enjoy speaking with an American and they all were really engaged with the class.  At the end of the class, on of the girls was like, “You are so American.  You are so awesome.” And afterwards, she was like (in Dutch), “oh my god, I sound like a stalker.”

The class after that was the class of mostly Russian as a third language students, and they seemed to be less enthused with my presence.  One of the students was my the younger brother of my housemate, who just moved to Berlin.  They are both half-American, so asking for students names, I heard Reinart Van Bos, Floor van den Schelde, Jaap Scheldemans, and then…..Dylan Smith. Having another native speaker made me a bit nervous, because I was really worried I would say something wrong and he would correct me, but luckily it never happened.  Something pretty funny that happened in this class was that one of words in the text we were reading (which was by Bill Bryson, who is an American who writes about living in England for something like ten years), was “fetching”.  I remarked that if any one had seen the movie Mean Girls, there is a character who is always trying to make “fetch” happen.  One girl exclaimed, “Wow, that is really a long time ago that film.”  I thought, “Wow, I just dated myself with a Mean Girls reference.”  Am I really that old for quoting Mean Girls???

Anyways, the biggest issues in pronunciation the Dutch students have (and I do have a few exchange students from Spain in my classes) is the th sound (as is the case with many speakers from all over the world), voiced endings (which means that Dutch speakers pronounce a word like dog as dock or a word like bed as bet) and aspirated consonants (when English speakers pronounce p, t, or k at the beginning of a syllable, a little puff of air gets expelled…these don’t exist in Dutch).  The other thing that they need to work on, if they want to have an American accent is the A sound in path.  Most of them are pronouncing it as pAHth, like in the British way while Americans would say pAEth.  I told them to just exaggerate and sound really annoying, and then they can sound like me when they speak.

That said, pronunciation issues are not big here in comparison to China, where I would often struggle to understand what my students were trying to say.  Not to mention that class sizes are so much more manageable here.

The office where I am working is great, and all the other English teachers are very friendly.  Many of them do research along with teaching, so rarely is everyone in the office at the same time.  In fact, there have been many times when I was the only one there.  Work here seems less of a 9-5 here, and more focused on efficiency in the time that you are at work, which I really appreciate.  For instance, it is Friday today and I have no classes to teach.  I could go into work to work on things for next week, but I don’t have to, and I don’t feel obliged to either and I don’t think it would be a good use of my time.  Granted, I am in a special position in that I am not working a full time position, but I do think the ideas about work here are different than they are in the “achieve the American dream by working 60 hours a week” U.S.  And I do mean to be snarky there.  (Something I have noticed is that Belgians are not as blunt as Dutch people, which I need to get used to, because I am certainly versed in the language of bluntness).  Tot de volgende keer!

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