It's the ´new normal´- when people abide by the suggestions or laws set down during this time of Covid interference, the least thing everyone should do is have the respect to wear a facemask when out in public – in shops, hairdressers, doctors ‘offices etc. Every country is handling this differently, whether insisting by law that one must wear a facemask or risk a fine, or merely ´suggesting´ that it is appropriate etiquette. Be all this as it may, how will this impact the teaching, and learning, of languages?
Happily, online platforms are now extremely capable means of teaching and learning, and we are very happy at Oxinity that we have the means, tried and tested, to deliver effective lessons from home. That being said, when a person is LIVING in a country, the country of their target language, and where previously a huge supplement to their taking classes has been the day-to-day interaction with locals in their neighborhood, has mask-wearing and an awareness of appropriate distancing hindered the ability to understand and be understood? It could be argued either way: perhaps that in such a regular scenario as chatting to the cashier in a supermarket, while both of you suitably mask-wearing and protected, that you MUST make a bigger effort to be heard, that you need to ANNOUNCE your intentions bold and loud so that the consonant and vowel sounds will successfully break through the plastic fibers of the mask and be received and understood fully. Conversely, if you are straining to listen to the response, cloaked as it is in a similar, or even perhaps branded mask – which could be of thicker fabric, thus posing a significantly larger barrier to the reception of the sounds emanating from the speaker, then you are FORCED to try harder, and in doing so, will be a better listener.
Perhaps in such an analysis, only time will tell. It´s a bit preemptive to look forward to the day when the wearing of masks will no longer be required because, and this is entirely laudable, even after we think that the threat of Covid has largely petered out, we must consider that mask wearing could, and probably should, stay around as a normal aspect of day-to-day interactions. Us teachers, some of us having already conducted in-person classes in the wake of the virus outbreak, have repositioned ourselves to stay a healthy distance from the student(s), which has yielded successful results and, in my opinion, has indeed led to a greater emphasis on pronunciation and careful listening. There is no room for muttering here. Nor, in fact, in the video conference formula either, because sometimes background noise can intrude, and what we have found, and encouraged, is that students will be happy to enunciate and speak louder. But be careful – there is a difference between enunciating and shouting. And no one likes a shouter, unless they have very good reason to be so loud.
So, having spoken about the issues of newer expats to countries like Spain, who are new to the language as well as the culture and have been worried about their daily interactions becoming fraught with an unexpected difficulty, what kind of challenges can those English-learners that are planning trips abroad to English-speaking countries in the near future expect? Aside from the complex wrangling surrounding whether quarantine will be necessary or not, let´s for the moment assume that your trip to, say, Scotland is hardly impacted by Covid at all and that life, within reason, is normal enough both for residents and visitors. In the main, facemasks are still in use, and you land in Edinburgh airport more than a little concerned – you´ve heard that the Scottish dialect is one of the more difficult to engage with and understand. Add to that an obstructive face mask and who knows what kind of trouble and misunderstandings you may be facing up to.
Here´s a suggestion: use HUMOUR. Make a joke about ´this dumb face mask´ inhibiting your language skills, and do they mind if you yell at them in an obstinate manner (if you are Spanish, you can joke that your culture is traditionally loud anyway, and that this comes easy to you). Chances are, whoever you are talking to, be it waiter, barman, store clerk, barista… they will appreciate the BANTER. And who knows… isn´t there a new kind of behind-mask flirting developing these days? You see the guy, for example, you think he´s cute (well, his eyes are lovely, dark and deep and he has a good hair line, and his body shows that he works out) and so, in place of actual FLIRTING through smiling, you learn to analyze the upper face, and guess at whether the eyes betray a curiosity, interest and appeal. There are so many ways you can go with this – English learning just got far more fun!
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