20 Sep Reflections Of A Tutor – Odd British Sayings
Working with a foreign family who have very recently moved to London, I’m no stranger to interesting questions and often confronted with confusion over sayings that us Britons take for granted. My favourite of late was from a young boy, who for the sake of this blog, we’ll call Joe, who was perplexed by “odd sayings” that he has heard from his peers and teachers alike in his independent school.
After taking a moment or two to smoulder over this nugget of information, I tried my best to explain that quite simply, old proverbs are a traditional way of providing informal advice.
However, I must admit, I did not know the source of some of these idioms and struggled to explain them fully. Where does the saying ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ or ‘it’s raining cat’s and dog’s’ come from? So to help settle the matter, I decided to put my best foot forward (hillarious, I know) and start a two week diary of all the questions this young man had, and try my best to find the meaning and explain them to him. Here’s what I came up with.
The results were very amusing and have got me thinking about how I interact with students who have English as an additional language. Are these students really understanding what we are asking of them when we often unknowingly slip in old and peculiar sayings, when taken literally, seem to have very different meanings to how we mean…
- Heart warmer number one – Okay, so to set the scene, it’s the beginning of Maths class, and the topic of the day was based around circles; circumferences, diameters etc. The classroom teacher initiates the lesson by asking the students to get out their compasses, however poor Joe has forgotten his. The teacher lent him a compass and said ‘I will turn a blind eye if you have completed your homework to a satisfactory standard’. Little Joe came home that night rather confused. After reassuring him that the teacher fortunately has no problems with his eyesight, I went on to explain the meaning and source of the idiom, which simply means ignoring undesirable information. Furthermore, it is interestingly based on Admiral Nelson being blind in one eye. During battle, when signals were sent to discontinue or withdraw, Nelson would lift the telescope to his blind eye and pretend not to see!!!! Onward we charge!
- Belly rumbler number two – Little Joe is at school one sunny afternoon on his lunch break minding his own business when he overhears a couple of boys boasting about their latest ipads, boats, holidays etc. The discussion quickly escalated to ‘my dad earns more than your dad’ ‘no, my dad earns more than yoouurrr dad’, you get the picture. One of the boys then says ‘well my dad brings home the bacon’. Little Joe came home very confused that evening asking if he should reasses his future career plans. After trying not to laugh at the boys assumption that one of the boys dad is a glamorous superstar butcher, I explained that it is a term for being successful, and in fact dates back to when workers would be rewarded with a side of bacon for their hard efforts. Bacon Sarnie anyone?
- Gemstone number three – Joe is home from school and it’s the dreaded homework time. He tries his best to wriggle out of doing it, but I’ve heard every excuse in the book before – he was definitely doing his homework on my watch. I tell him to ‘bite the bullet!’ and get on with it. Oh the look of pure bewilderment was priceless. In hindsight, if you had never heard a saying before, and suddenly someone tells you to sniff a tree or something, I’m pretty certain we would all be a little confused too. It really did sound that random to Joe. After explaining that this is a term described to endure an unpleasant situation, which amazingly derives historically from soldiers biting a bullet to endure pain during a surgical procedure. No Joe, you’re not having any surgery today… it’s just homework.
There were many more just like these, and I still get quizzed on a daily basis. My advice to little Joe was to take what people say with a pinch of salt (terrible joke I know). Now the important bit, what have I learnt from all of this? On reflection, I started to think how difficult it must be for students who have English as a second language, referred to in schools simply as EAL. My student had a clear confusion understanding the meaning behind some of the sayings, proverbs and idioms, resulting in him leaving conversations with a completely different outcome and understanding to the other person. In the above examples no harm was done as the situations were pretty benign. What if this had not been the case? What if it was actually a really important exam briefing, or fire drill rules being taught? If a student comes away from these situations misunderstanding there could be some real consequences. This has really got me thinking about how I interact with my students, and my future teaching has taken this into consideration when teaching students who have English as a second language, or who are new to the country. It is imperative students leave their tutoring sessions without any questions, and especially not in regards to communication.
On a more positive note, at least he didn’t ask me to explain any cockney rhyming slang…. that’s a whole new kettle of fish.