Come si dice…

Week one as an English tutor was over, and yet I already had what felt like enough memories to last a lifetime. Monday was tough, and ended with the news that one of my kids – held back a year due to learning difficulties – had gone home crying after feeling alone in a group of who seemed to have no trouble making friends with each other. In class, he wouldn’t even attempt to speak English. I knew it was only one day, but I was starting to wonder if I knew what I was doing.

Let’s start from Monday.

I’d never had a more challenging week, but it was equally rewarding. I’d been blessed with an amazing Italian helper, Giada, whom I ended up pleading with to become a teacher once she finished school – never before had I seen someone so talented at working with kids. She backed me 100%, she anticipated what I’d need without being asked, and she provided a vital link between me and the kids when I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) speak Italian. Were it not for her, I don’t know how I could have managed that week so early into my teaching career (hey look, more foreshadowing!) 

Not speaking Italian did prove to be a challenge, but I knew that if I let the kids know how much I actually knew (even if it was compartively little) they’d be less likely to try asking me questions in English if they knew I’d understand them in Italian. Giada knew my level of Italian (or lack thereof) and was more than happy to play along. Given the level of the kids was similar to my own level in Italian, this meant there were plenty of times when I’d ask her to translate something  I already knew the answer to. The vast majority of times she’d be able to play along; her English was immensely better than my Italian. But occasionally I’d need to drop a hint.

“How do you say ‘basketball’ in Italian?”
“Oh, um, I’m not sure”
“…I think I overheard the kids on break say something like [deliberate mispronunciation] ‘pella canistro’ “ *wink*
“Oh, you mean pallacanestro” *wink*

(It wasn’t “basketball”, it was something harder…which I’ve forgotten. Seriously, she spoke better English than some New Zealanders I’ve met.)

Alas, sometimes I would slip up and have to think up solutions fast. One of the girls at camp decided to write her name in the dirt. Snickering, one of the boys in her class decided to write “Merda” (shit, or “is shit” in this context”) beside her name. I went over, brushed away his word with my foot, then told him not to use that language at camp.

“But Robb, I write in Italian, how you know it was a bad word”


“I’ve been to a few football games here, and the guy next to me kept saying that whenever his team let in a goal. So I can guess.”

He believed me. Which isn’t unreasonable – I know about three words in Greek, and one of them was mostly used when the locals “vociferously disagreed” with the referee.

I chose not to tell him that I’ve been that guy mumbling merda whenever Verona conceded goals on my dodgy webstream. And I certainly chose not to mention that I’d learnt some even worse phrases for whenever the game ended in favour of the opposition…

My name on a classroom door!

As the week closed out, I managed to drop in a little more Italian in the mix: I’d taught the kids “How do you say…in English” by writing it beneath the Italian equivalent “Come si dice…in inglese” on a poster, so it was conceivable to the kids that I’d learned those five words.

Robb, come si dice…”
“…how do you say ‘gambe’ in English?”
“Let me look that up…” [pulls out phone, scrolls Facebook, likes cat picture] “My dictionary says ‘legs’, would you like me to write that down for you?”

So on our second to last day, when we had the much-anticipated “water games” afternoon. Our camp director really didn’t want a water balloon fight to be part of the day – she’d seen too many injuries in the past. Fair enough. The tutors really wanted a water balloon fight – the kids were expecting one, and we knew they’d be disappointed. So I proposed a compromise: we’d let the kids throw balloons at their tutor or helper. But they had to earn the balloons by answering a question in English. That way we’d retain control, no kids would get hurt, they’d laugh at us getting wet, and there was a language component. 

So here are my kids, lining up waiting for a balloon. One of the more advanced kids comes up.

“What country am I from?”
“Nuo…New Zealand!”

Splash. He throws the balloon at me. Another kid comes up.

“What colour are my shorts?

Splash. She chooses to throw the balloon at my helper. One of the less confident kids comes up.

“How do you say “viola” in English?”
“…non ho capito” [I don’t understand]
“Come si dice… viola… in inglese”
“No lo so” [I don’t know]

I lean over and whisper “purple” in her ear. She repeats it back to me. Splash.


Before we knew it, Friday was here and with it was our final show. I’d used all my training as a drama teacher (read “none”) to help the kids choose a character, learn a couple of lines, and act out a story about trainees superheroes rescuing their instructors from a group of ninjas. I didn’t let them see how nervous I was. Teaching English, running camp activities… I’d had experience there. But directing a play? That was new for me. I’d seen what the other tutors had done, and they’d all done amazing work. I knew my kids would do well, but I was worried I hadn’t given them enough to work with. And my show was last.

But when I saw the smiles on their faces, it didn’t matter. I knew how hard they’d worked. Perhaps my play could have been better, but after each kid said their line I could see the sense of achievement they had. And that’s what was really important. I didn’t want these kids to become fluent English speakers within one week. I wanted to leave them feeling good about themselves as English students, so that they’d be motivated to learn more.

As for the kid who went home upset on Monday?

On Tuesday, he started writing in English. He’d still give verbal answers in Italian, but he would read out anything he’d written down. We encouraged him to join the other kids for activity, but he preferred to keep to himself.
On Wednesday, he’d still answer in Italian, but would try English when prompted.
On Thursday, we asked another student to tell us the time in English. She tried, but gave up.  Before we could give her the solution, he haltingly but correctly gave the answer.

On Friday, he strutted across the stage with his certificate to a round of applause, before sitting back down with his new friends – the girls who asked him to stop us from coming into the classroom when they were drawing pictures of us on the blackboard, and the boys who let him play football with them at lunch. He had the biggest grin on his face out of anyone in that room.

I knew it was only one week, but I was starting to wonder if I did know what I was doing after all.


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