I had been back at Asticou about five weeks when I realized that the passive receiver of language learning was not working for me, and I spent a weekend thinking about some of the challenges I had gone through in the previous year. I kept coming back to the tutor’s analysis — I wasn’t letting go. Except I had, at least to the extent I could i.e. the extent that was within my personality and my learning style, and it hadn’t worked. I needed a different option. Since letting go wasn’t working, what if I took full control?
Lots of people might read that sentence and think, “Oh, of course, the student has to drive their own learning, be responsible, be engaged, etc.”. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something much more dramatic.
I went into my first interview on the Monday morning and it was with a teacher I knew well. He started by saying, “Today we’re going to …” and I stopped him there. I said, “No, we’re not. Here’s what we’re going to work on…we’re going to talk about the work I do at CIDA, my three main tasks, and an experience from the past. And the only thing you’re going to note for feedback is if I get gender wrong.” Nothing about pronunciation, nothing about structure, nothing about vocabulary. Just gender. He tried to argue, and I said no, this was the new game plan, I kept making gender errors and I needed to fix it. 45 minutes, only gender feedback. He relented.
The second interview, the third interview that day, and two more the next day. I gave them their topics, and only on gender for feedback. They felt they were able to give me more, but I hemmed them in and said gender only. The second night, I took their data and analysed the crap out of it. I was convinced that there were some patterns or rules I could discern that would help. I swear, I had asked multiple teachers for the rules and had been told repeatedly that I just had to memorize it for the various words. I knew it was crap, but I couldn’t prove it. (Future teachers later told me of course it was crap and gave me the rules, but Asticou apparently didn’t believe in them.) Anyway.
On day 3, I went in and did the same thing — just gender feedback. But this time, I had my rules ready. In 45 minute interviews, I went from making 30-40 gender mistakes on words to making 1 or 2, and sometimes none. Gender problem fixed.
On day 4 & 5, I focused on some structures and eliminated another batch of errors. Over the next three weeks, I worked through four or five “problems” that I had been having for almost a year of training, major stumbling blocks. I used to get a page of feedback in interviews; I dropped to a handful of mistakes. Finally, a feeling of progress.
I found out that I could get more “training” by asking for a supplemental tutor, which I did when I was six weeks from my hours expiring. In the morning, I had Asticou interviews; in the afternoon, I had the tutor. With the tutor, we quickly dumped the work conversations and focused on weird and wide-ranging topics, some of them intensely personal, so that I would deliberately struggle with my structures. She also agreed to record some words for me that I mispronounced during our sessions. She would say it once normally, once or twice slowly, then normal, with space in between for me to repeat it too. Classic “learning by tape” technique. But whereas lots of those things were generic words, I combed through three months of feedback on pronunciation errors to find common words that I would need for work — multilateral, organization, policy, process, bilateral, meetings, etc. Most of them I was fine on, but often when speaking quickly, I’d drop a syllable or anglicize the pronunciation. I learned to slow down for those words, to control my pronunciation before moving on. Words I used regularly, a frequency distribution if you will, not some random “office” words that I might use.
Teachers in my interviews were asking, “Why are you still here? Go, get tested, get early parole!”. Repeatedly, I told them, “I’m here until I run out of hours.” I was down to about a month left, and they were giving me interviews with those teachers who taught more advanced students, partly just because it was summer and they were covering off. One day, I ended up with Gemma again.
This is the time where you might think the story takes that classic fictional spin where the student impresses the teacher, and violins play in the background. But this is real life, and that woman was a witch. She was the third interview of the day, and I’d already aced the previous two. Both of them had said, “Go, do the test, stop wasting time.” Gemma, by contrast, asked me, “So, how many hours do you have left before your test?”. I told her, expecting a compliment. Nope, she asked if I could get more. I said, slowly, “Nooooo”, and she said, “Oh well, miracles happen.” Fucking cow. I said, “Okay, we’re done here.” She tried to give me my feedback sheet and I crumpled it up, and left it on her desk. I told her she was a worthless piece of skin, and no wonder nobody at the school liked her and she needed the union to help her keep her job. I left her sputtering, and went to see the director. I informed him if I was ever assigned to her again, for any purpose in the last month, I’d file a harassment complaint the next day. I still think I should have done it anyway.
I knew I was as ready as I ever would be, regardless of what the cows thought.