How Not to Speak English

By Tom Czaban

I didn’t plan to become an English teacher but there are aspects of it I’ve grown to love. Mainly the surreal conversations that come up in class. Sometimes these are so ridiculous it feels like a Monty Python sketch. To give you a flavour of what I mean I’m sharing some of my favourite conversations here.

I’m Fine Thank You. 

When you’re studying a language you ought to learn how to use it so you can fit in with the culture. For example if you go to England and don’t use “please” and “thank you” then you’ll look rude and arrogant. Teaching this sounds straightforward, right? Well, not always, as you’ll see from this conversation from a Chinese university class…

Me: Hello, how are you?

Student: I’m fine.

Me: “THANK YOU!!!”

Student: You’re welcome.

Me: I meant you should have said: “I’m fine thank you.”

Student: Yes?

Me: Yes, so say it.

Student: It!

Me: No, not “it!” When I ask how you are, say “I’m fine” and then add “thank you.”

Student: I understand.

Me: Good. Let’s try again. Hello, how are you?

Student: I’m fine add thank you.

Me: No, no, no! Say “I’m fine.”

Student: I’m fine.

Me: Now say “thank you”.

Student: Thank you.

Me: Excellent! Now let’s put it all together. How are you?

Student: I’m fine.

Me: “THANK YOU!!!”

Student: You’re welcome.


A Beautiful Name 

Chinese students need an English name so the foreigners they meet can actually pronounce it. Sometimes their English teacher chooses this name for them. I’ll never forget the time I met a class of students who were all called things like “Whiteboard”, “Pencil” and “Desk.” Obviously their teacher wasn’t feeling very creative that day. Other students chose their English name themselves. I once had a huge disagreement with a girl because she’d called herself “Fascist.” Then again, during our argument I began to think it wasn’t such a bad name for her after all. The eighteen-year-old student in the following conversation also chose her own name, and again I wasn’t very happy with it…

Me: Good morning. What’s your name?

Her: Beauty.

Me: Hmm, English people might find that name a bit strange.

Her: Why? Do you think I’m not beautiful?

Me: I didn’t say that.

Her: Do you think I look like a boy?

Me: What? No. But calling yourself Beauty is a bit odd. It’s kind of like calling yourself Sexy.

Her: Do you think I’m sexy?

Me: We’re getting off topic here. Lets think of a new name for you together.

Her: We don’t need to, because I’ve just decided my new name is Sexy.

Me: Oh no! That’s worse than Beauty.

Her: So you don’t think I’m sexy?

Me: I’m not answering that.

Her: My new name is Sexy.

Me: I’ve changed my mind. Beauty is a great name for you.

Her: I don’t like the name Beauty anymore because you said it’s strange.

Me: Well I’m sorry, but I’m not callIing you Sexy. It’s too weird. If I want you to answer a question I’ll have to say: “What do you think, Sexy?” And I’m not going to do that. So think of a new name.

Her: OK, I’ve thought of one. And I really love it!

Me: Great. What is it?

Her: My new name is Sexy Beauty.


No Dark Sarcasm In The Classroom

When you’re speaking another language the way you say something can have a huge impact on what it means. Particularly in Britain, where sarcasm is pretty much a national sport. That’s what I wanted to teach this girl who came to class late one morning looking utterly miserable…

Me: Hello. How are you?

Her: I’m wonderful thank you.

Me: OK, I know that last week I asked you to use alternatives to “I’m fine thank you.” But if you say you’re wonderful then you need to look like you feel wonderful.

Her: Why?

Me: Because if you say you’re “wonderful” when you look miserable then people will think you’re being sarcastic.

Her: What’s being sarcastic?

Me: It’s saying the opposite of what you mean to make people laugh.

Her: That doesn’t sound very funny.

Me: Forget about that. Next time you say you’re wonderful, just make sure you look happy. OK?

Her: This is so stupid!

Me: Why is it stupid?

Her: This is supposed to be English class! Not acting class!


I Don’t Want To Be An English Teacher

Sometimes I think I’m a very illogical person. Then I’ll have a conversation with a student and realise that in comparison to them I’m Socrates. A good example of this is the following discussion I had with a girl studying to be an English teacher…

Me: Why do you want to be an English teacher when you’re older?

Her: I don’t want to be an English teacher when I’m older.

Me: OK, so what do you want to be?

Her: Oh anything, but not an English teacher.

Me: I’m confused. If you don’t want to be an English teacher then why are you in this classroom studying to be an English teacher?

Her: Just to make sure I definitely don’t want to be an English teacher.

Me: That seems like a bad system.

Her: What do you mean?

Me: Wouldn’t it be better to think of something you do want to be and study that instead?

Her: I already know what I want to be.

Me: And what’s that?

Her: I just told you. Anything. But not an English teacher.