Milan: English as a Foreign Language


How did Morrissey put it ? “I was looking for a job and then I found a job… And heaven knows I’m miserable now.”
Having resolved for months to move to Italy, I woke up one snowy January morning in a dubious Milanese hotel, and found that I actually had done it. Now I had to ask myself exactly how I was going to make a living.
Some days later in the British Library, I met a young English exile in a white suit with a whisky flask in one pocket and a copy of Under The Volcano in the other, who showed me the Cambridge English Course Teachers Book. “With this book,” as he put it, “any damn fool could teach English.”
At first glance, recent Italian Government have created a system of state Education perfectly designed to enable English reprobates, scoundrels, drifters and losers – like myself – to earn ludicrous sums of money simply by English talking their own language and using some common sense (advertising is free in local Exchange & Mart-type magazines).
The Government’s policy is that they will hire as many English language teachers as there are Italian teachers employed by the English schools’ system. The fact that there is almost no demand in England for Italian teachers and a huge demand for mother tongue English teachers in Italy has not stopped them.
Since a great many schools do not even study English, parents are consequently not greatly qualified, particularly as Italian teachers generally do not have a degree in teaching, only in their chosen subject. School kids are generally taught English parrot-fashion. Two teenage schoolgirls would regularly greet me with a hearty “Goodbye !” and depart waving “Hello !” (in Italian of course “Ciao” means both). Given the correct cue, however, they could happily recite long passages about the Thames’ irrigation system, the Battle of Waterloo or the history of Arsenal. Their extreme enthusiasm made this profoundly depressing.
With the best schools in Milan charging as much as 55-60,000 lire (£30) an hour, supplies of school kids, students, housewives and businessman requiring cheaper private lessons are not short. Lessons can consist of every¬thing from translating the lyrics to songs by The Birthday Party (most kids want to learn in order to understand lyrics) to teaching a rather keen ‘hostess’ how to talk dirty in English (some-times a Cambridge education is found wanting, frankly). Swearing is generally the first thing students want (or need) to know. This can be unfortunate if they only do one lesson and someone asks them what they learnt.
Whilst Milanese families simply love to spend money – competing amongst each other to ‘buy’ the most expensive teacher – the Florentines barter for blood. Competition among teachers in Florence is ferocious. The deluge of prim English fops packed off to Florence to wrestle with the History of Art or Fashion for two hours a week is phenomenal. Because private language schools in Florence close for the summer, qualified teachers also do private tuition to supplement their meagre wages. Like any job in Italy, it all depends who you know. Well-connected, brain-dead American babysitters (of whom there are many millions in Florence) will often get twice the fee of Oxford-raised TEFL teachers with ten years’ experience. Que sera, sera.
After an initial bout of nervous terror and insecurity, lessons can be surprisingly enjoyable, even rewarding – your 9-year-old student may not learn much, but at least you get a chance to play with his Masters of the Universe toys. Meanwhile, long-term regular lessons often take on an uncomfortable confessional air, particularly when lonely, idle-rich house wives are prone to indiscreet dalliances with anyone bearing a faint resemblance to Michael York or Prince Charles.
Of course it’s not all pampering. Coffee, cake and cognac for teaching, and being paid to improve your own Italian while pretending to help someone else with their English can actually get boring after a while. The initial notion of falling out of bed at midday, knocking off a couple of conversation lessons – discussing cricket or Calvino, wine or politics – at £12 an hour (tax free) with a couple of keen, bright, beautiful Italian 17-year-old roses soon gives way to the tedious reality of encountering grey, pedantic businessmen, not noticeably burdened with brains, who think they know English better than you do and insist on doing lessons before breakfast and at weekends.
It should be remembered also that private lessons are not legal. When the man from the Milan police arrived to ask me questions ten minutes after I had finished a lesson, and found me sunbathing and reading, I simply claimed to be supported by a rich Auntie in Buckinghamshire. He accepted it instantly. Italians are so used to sponging off rich relatives that they’ll accept this excuse every time.
It was then I made my fateful decision to go legit.
Most English language school directors are pompous ex-pat monsters who mourn the loss of the Colonies, take Country Life on subscription and launch into long tirades about birching football hooligans or the decline of English tweed. Like most TEFL teachers they are sad cases – losers, weirdoes, disturbed outcasts and outsiders too stiffly British to actually live there. Still, I managed to turn this to my advantage, getting hired because I mumble and can, on request, drop my ‘H’s and ‘T’s. For high-level pupils, genuine examples of bad English are at a premium.
Most private schools work illegally to avoid the crippling bureaucracy and the contributi the equivalent of our tax and National Insurance. For every wage, the school is supposed to pay the same fee again in contributi. At my school, only two out of the twelve teachers were on the books. Without contributi and full wages, Low’s equation becomes inevitable – LOW PRICES EQUALS LOW WAGES EQUALS LOW MOTIVATION EQUALS LOW STANDARDS. The government is prepared – having no choice whatsoever – to accept a certain amount of law-dodging concerning employment and taxation laws, but will, if provoked, impose heavy fines. Schools assume that most of their teachers are working illegally as the required bureaucracy is a minefield. The teachers’ only real solution – making a denuncio and reporting the school – means revealing your self to be an illegal worker.
So I joined the ranks of teachers living and working in Italy illegally, being paid less than they should be, making no National Insurance payments and paying no taxes. Stories of English teachers not being paid at all are rife, and in the majority of schools a teacher can work I00 years without receiving any severance pay or pension contribution.
Frankly though, these issues pale into insignificance when compared to the main problem with Teaching English as a Foreign Language. It’s not the police. It’s not the mafia. It’s not even the tax man. The real problem is the language.
Supposedly the easiest language to learn in the world students are often forced to resort to bizarre solutions. One has resorted to sheer panic – “Can will did haven’t you have seen my mother ?”
Another student, in true Robert Benigni fashion, learned endless idioms, greeting my friends, grinning “Yes, yes, my friend, you are a brick !’ Pupils with old English text books come up with things like, “Bid him come in” or “The movie was simply spiffing.” It seems a shame to correct them.
One pupil, a waiter, will insist on greeting British diners not with ‘’Good evening, Sir” but with “Cheers, big ears” because he heard it on holiday. Another, a sort of Italian version of Private Eye’s John Cole column, removed the problem of all those irritating small words and conjunctives, by… removing them ! “Yes, yes, car road bend, pensioner, drive, wall, brake, run police, ambulance, bankruptcy.”
Diplomacy is half the art of teaching. A small mistake, say between passive and active, can make a big difference – “I had a lovely dinner. My mother was cooked (cooking).” Likewise a slight omission – “I’ll have your daughter (home) before midnight.” Or a near miss – “He eats a lot of vegetarians (vegetables) !’
Italians face particular difficulties. In Italian the determining factor is the gender of the object rather the possessor. So in English they set nothing wrong with saying “I kissed his husband.” Pronunciation, however, is the major cause of grief for both pupil and teacher. Italian has firm rules for pronunciation. So try explaining how English words ewe and you can be the same. Or saw, soar and sore. Fear and pear certainly look the same. Tear looks like both but can be either. Add a consonant to-ought and you can get: bough, cough, dough, tough. All different. Enough, thorough, through inspire terror. Whilst Edinburgh is just criminal.
Italian has a much more restricted vocabulary. Why do we have so many words ? Surely having a word like obligatory as well as compulsory is pure indulgence. The biggest danger in Italian, however, is the lure of words that look as if they mean the same thing in Italian as in English. For example: morbido, sensibile, controllare. vocabulario, simpatico and coincidenza. None of them are what they seem. Of course, it can work both ways. I once saw an English woman in a Health Food shop explaining to the shop assistant the list of things she did not eat. As she didn’t eat preservatives, and remembering that ‘adjectives’ in Italian is aggetivi, she checked once again that the cake she was buying did not contain “preservativi”. After the considerable hilarity had died down, the shop assistant reassured her that, no, there were definitely no preservativi – the Italian word for condoms – in the cake.