Number one for English language teachers

Poland: Expect the unexpected

Type: Article

Vergil J Smith thought he was well prepared to answer any questions his students fired at him. He was wrong …

Students in Poland are simply hungry for English. There seems to be an insatiable desire by Poles to learn this language. Granted, being part of the European Union as well as playing host to the 2012 European Football Finals, Poles are in an “emergency” mode to learn English.

However, another major reason for learning English is the fact that this country only opened itself to Western influence in the past 20 years or so. Many people, young and old, have the desire just to learn something that is in direct contradiction to Communism. As I began my journey into teaching English here, I was somewhat uneasy in the classroom. I could immediately feel that many of my students had many questions. The questions I expected were not the questions I received … their questions were about race, politics and Barak Obama.

The grammar questions I could handle with ease (more or less). Grammar has rules (most of the time!) and the only situation that continues to arise within the grammar area is between American English and British English. We Americans are often considered to be a tad more relaxed in our “grammar” approach. If I wanted to go deeper into “American grammar”, I would discuss the different speaking habits of those of us from the South (I am from New Orleans) and those that are from the Northeast or the Midwest. Having lived in all of these places, I was able to explain certain differences. Not too long ago, here in Warsaw, I took a very good seminar on grammar with a guy named Jamie Keddie. Our discussions about grammar during the breaks in this seminar solidified my belief that grammar is definitely an evolving thing … it lives and changes and causes discussion and dissent.

But, I digress … just as my students did (and still do). The discussion soon got immersed into race. As an African American, it became slightly uncomfortable because I realized I am probably the first African American some of my students have met personally. Yes, it is the 21st century, and yes, Facebook has shortened the distance between cultures, but the fact remains that, up close and personal, I was the “first” for many of them. Having grown up in New Orleans where every color of person mixes with every color of person, I found my situation in Poland to be novel. It did not take long for some of my conversation classes to have lengthy discussions in trying to understand that elusive thing called “race” in America. The best part? I learned much about myself … and America.

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