That feeling of being in a strange land, not understanding the language

Peter is a volunteer English trainer on our Talking Together project in Birmingham, which offers informal language training and mentoring to long-term UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English. He says living in China brought home to him that feeling of being in a strange land, not understanding the strange noises coming out of people's mouths ...

Once, what feels like a lifetime ago a friend told me that my English was superb. Well, yes I retorted, so it should be - I am English after all. Au contraire said she, it's the way you explain things. I, in the manner of a youth, added the compliment to my burgeoning ego and filed it away under 'things to do should world domination fail' and carried on the business of being a boy of 19. 

University followed. As did jobs and travel. And jobs while travelling. One such job took in a bit of English teaching and eventually I decided to make a fist of that teaching thing in China. Why China? Well, why not? I couldn't speak the language and knew nobody but I was me and everything would surely go my way. Surely. So off I trotted back to college and after a few months I was qualified and in this strange beast of a country with a seemingly impenetrable language. 

After returning to Birmingham I still wanted to teach English to people who might understand this feeling of being in a strange land not understanding the strange noises coming out of people's mouths in the place of words. A friend of mine had just started volunteering with a charity called TimeBank. She seemed to have not had a bad time of it, so I applied.

I was invited for interview and then I was on a Talking Together English language training course with Elizabeth, who had a sublimely energetic teaching style. The training served as a good refresher and confidence builder and way of meeting some new folk. 

Training over, it was time to gird my loins and get back into the arena of learning. Said arena was a small place in Small Heath called The Bangladeshi Women's Centre, where I was to teach a group of Bengali men. A far cry from the bling-a-ding-ding offices of China and far more relaxed. 

Thankfully there was a syllabus in place so with a little tweaking off I popped. My Chinese experience had, it's fair to say, rather knocked my self-belief. However the centre was welcoming and my students a joy to work with. Always eager to answer questions and in time ask some of their own. Seldom on time but always eager to learn and test themselves, which was really refreshing. The majority were working and had been for a number of years but for whatever reason had not had the opportunity to engage in a conventional ESOL setting.  

All of them made progress over the coming months and as a group we developed a bond. Each with our individual experiences of life being brought to one spot to pursue some sort of linguistic exchange. And exchange we did, with lessons whizzed through, not whizzed through, tea drunk, biscuits dunked and tales of how in the old country there were six seasons and tigers too. 

And so, as is the nature of things - it finished. Half of the class are now on ESOL courses at a proper smells-of-teenagers college and one even found (with the assistance of one who shall remain nameless) some voluntary work. As for yours truly? The next challenge beckons back in the world of work ...

If you'd like to volunteer on our Talking Together project, we'd love to here from you. There's lots more information here.