DSC02754Recently I’ve come across a list of Conversation Questions for the ESL (English as a Second Language) Classroom. A very helpful resource for stimulating students’ ad-lib talk and developing their speech skills. There are a few thousand questions on the list, which are grouped into categories – Age, Animals and Pets, Annoying Things, Behavior, Celebrities, Charity, etc., etc. The group Favorites, alongside with questions of the kind “What is your favorite color (country, day of the week, drink in the summer, magazine, etc.)?” also has the question “What is your favorite memory of childhood?”

No doubt, people cherish many pleasant memories of their childhoods. When it comes down to “speaking English”, there’s an episode especially memorable to me.

In the post-war village where I grew, pupils were learning German. So was I. However, the grade who were a year younger than we started with English already. They were the first year to be taught English in our school:  Nikita Khrushchev, the then Soviet leader, visited the U.S.A. in 1959 and the English language was gaining popularity all across the country.  I envied the younger kids carrying the orange textbook with the word “English” on the cover and from time to time uttering importantly: “Ada and Lena”, “It is a map and a bag.” After some time I managed to get a textbook in English too. I might have liked it no less than a teenager likes their iPhone or iPad nowadays.

But there was one major snag about English. Unlike in German, words in English sounded far more different than how they were written. I didn’t know much about transcription at that time, and though I used to overhear the students of English in the school corridor when they were getting ready for their coming English lesson, I think I pronounced English words the way they were pronounced in William Shakespeare’s times — when the written and oral forms of words were much closer.

Later our family moved to town. English was dominant in the school I started going to. In those days classes were not split into smaller groups for a foreign language. A newcomer, I felt very anonymous among forty learners when the teacher came into the classroom and said briskly, “Hello, everyone. Take your seats!”  The teacher’s words were not what I expected to hear: in the textbook a teacher said ‘Good morning, sit down, please.’ From how our lesson had begun, I realized that things were getting serious. The pupils were easily communicating at the lesson, acting out dialogues, describing their experience during the New Year holidays which had just passed (the holidays weren’t called “Christmas” holidays in those days :-)). I was NOT noticed. Since it was my first day at the new school, my name wasn’t even on the teacher’s list of the students.

I took a pen in my hand and, as if unintentionally, dropped it on the floor. Any pupil who dropped a pen, at any DSC02755lesson, would immediately bow from his desk and pick the pen up. Thousands of pupils did it thousands times at that school and at all schools over the country. But this time the pupil was me, and the lesson was English. I put up my hand. The teacher looked at me “Yes?” she asked. I stood up, stepped from behind the desk and said in my Shakespearean English, “May I take my pen from the floor?”  A few long seconds had passed before the teacher said: “Sure, you may.”

That was the first time I had used English for communication. I don’t remember I had ever been happier. I expressed myself in the language I had picked up through self-study and I was understood.



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