Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mon 11 Jan - Fri 15 Jan

Spent the week in Brussels on a training course for English language teachers. This is to train me in the "methodology" of this particular language centre, in the hope that I'll be 'employable,' according to their standards. My other qualifications count for nowt. I could moan about it and refuse to do it, but that'd be pig-headed and stupid, and mean they definitely wouldn't employ me.

This also meant I got to get a feel of what it would be like commuting everyday from Mons to Brussels by train. And, it was actually a rather easy and pleasant experience. I always pick up a copy of the Metro and try and read as many articles as I can in the 40-55 mins journey (all bar one train this week ran on time. 5-10mins late seems to be the norm).

It's definitely a sign of my improvement in reading French that I can get through more than four article in this time, whereas only two months ago I was struggling to finish just one. It's not easy when there are just so many words that you don't understand. My rule of thumb is to only look up a word if it: a) appears more than once, and b) seems to affect the understanding of the actual sentence. Otherwise, I'd be spending most of my time looking up every few words and my memory for remembering vocab is so bad that I tend to forget its meaning within a few minutes. It's only when I come across a word 4 or 5 times that I finally begin to remember what it means.

The trains were also, with one exception, never really full. I travelled during peak time too. Most of the trains to and from Brussels from Mons tend to be anything from 8-12 carriages long, and many are those great double-decker ones, which helps to keep overcrowding down. I've yet to see anyone standing on a train. But, I guess this is also down to the fact that Mons (and the Wallonia region in general) isn't a particularly wealthy part of the country and unemployment is way above the European average. Then again, it can't be down to train costs because if you work in the public sector, you get virtually your whole season ticket paid for you by your employer.

Once you arrive in Brussels you really are in a different world. Of course, all the notices and annoucements are in French and Dutch. You often hear English being spoken on the Metro. They also have both French (in green) and Dutch (in blue) copies of the Metro. I always noticed that there were usually blue copies still there at the end of the day, whereas the green ones had all disappeared. This is hardly surprising though as French speakers far outnumber Dutch ones in the capital.

In the subway heading towards the metro I always walked past the same assortment of beggars and homeless folk: a man and his 3 dogs (one of which seems permanently on his back, legs akimbo) and...a rabbit! Quite bizarre. I don't think I've ever seen a beggar with a rabbit before. There was also the same elderly woman, probably in her late 70s/early 80s, who I recognised from my few days here in November. Always sitting on a rug, always reading something, looking perfectly content. As well as the 3 men playing on their accordions and harmoncias, singing and dancing, trying to bring some cheer to the morning commuters.

I found it fascinating to read the main story in Tuesday's Metro about the STIB (who run the Brussels metro) being reprimanded for not carrying enough passengers on its lines. Can you ever imagine the Tube "failing to carry enough people?" If only. Again, I guess comparisons are rather unfair, taking into account the size and population of both cities. It does show just how overcrowded London is though. The metro in Brussels is extremely quick, with most stops only a matter of 30 seconds (if that) apart.

I had the surreal experience of being asked if I spoke English (in French) whilst waiting for my train home one day. I think the two women were from Ireland and wanted directions to the metro. It was the first time I was fully able to understand someone since I'd moved to Belgium!

The actual training course? Well, at times I felt like I was back in England. Led by two English women who had moved over here almost 30 years ago, we were subject to lecture after lecture of what we need to do to develop into good teachers, how things are done in this centre, and how we're supposed to interact with our students. All complete with endless mumbo-jumbo, using words and phrases that they'd clearly learnt on another training course. It's so sad when even education begins to sound like just another cog in the corporate or marketing world, used by so-called 'educationalists' to spread their own (not so flexible) ideas of how and what students should be taught. Everything is ascribed new and bland labels, and every effort must be taken so as not to give offence (no matter how unintentionally) to anything or anyone. Tis' the way of the world now isn't it?

Amongst the garbage being spewed out: "we are trainers (not teachers) and they are learners (not students)," "listen to their eyes," and my favourite, "we teach the learners first, and the language second." I just wanted to burst out laughing when I heard that last one. There were plenty other bits of nonsense they kept subjecting us to but I've banished most of them to a far away place. I think I got more fed up with the constant smiling, and false enthusiasm (okay, I think it's false, but that's just how I see things!) of the trainers more than anything else.

The other trainees were a mixture of Flemish Belgians (now there's an oxymoron guaranteed to get me lynched in Flanders) hoping to teach Dutch, and English speakers from places as far as Canada and Australia. I was always somewhat in awe by how the Flemish trainees managed to so effortlessly switch from speaking Dutch, to French and English, as and when required. Gave me even more incentive than I already have of wanting to speak French by the time we leave Mons.

They were a decent and friendly bunch of people and I got to chat to the Dutch speakers about life in Belgian, its politics, their backgrounds and their hopes for teaching in the future. The social aspect of the week was probably the hardest for me. I'm not particularly adept at the art of making small talk, especially when you're put in situations which means you have no choice but to strike up coversations with different people.

Still, the week wasn't as bad as I'm making out. Mumbo-jumbo aside, I did learn a lot useful techniques and picked up some good ideas for teaching. All of which of course could have been taught in 2 days!

Ended the week meeting C's mum and friend off the Eurostar. Previous to this I had sat in a cafe at Midi station, eating a barbequed chicken baguette, reading a bit of the Metro, whilst stopping every few minutes for some people-watching, and thinking how lucky I am to be living abroad, with the best opportunity I will ever have to finally learn another language.

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