Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Teaching English

I have always been fascinated with the communicative power of languages and in my lifetime I have dedicated weeks and months to learning and deepening my knowledge of languages in order to increase my capacity to communicate with diverse peoples and cultures of the world. Since my arrival in Cameroon this interest has taken on a new dimension as I have struggled with whether or not I should embark on a career as an English teacher. Mostly, it's been an ethical battle that I won't go into here. But, a few weeks ago I decided to pursue it and I think it is one of the best decisions I have made in my time here in Cameroon and perhaps onwards. Teaching a language makes you look at the language which we often speak so automatically in an entirely different light. Not only do you become nit-picky about grammar and sentence structure but a new understanding forms that without a critical eye, is purely automatic. Think for a second how much adding a preposition (don't worry, I didn't know what a preposition was until about a week ago) can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

For example: "I speak of him", "I speak to him", "I speak for him" or grammatically correct yet quite unlikely "I speak in him" and "I speak on him".

One simple, oft-neglected word changes everything. Think how often we use simple prepositions like "to, for, on, in, through, of" and others and how much weight they really carry. Different verbs come with different prepositions and there is so much hidden meaning to them. When was the last time you sat and thought about prepositions? I promise you that at this very moment, in every corner of the world there are a million ESL learners struggling with this very concept. When learning English (or Spanish or French and probably the other Romantic languages as well) these words are of the utmost purpose and using them correctly can mean the difference between saying exactly what you want and making a fool of yourself.

Nonetheless, I am really enjoying my work and have found a great deal of passion for the work. Below is copied some excerpts of an introduction letter that I wrote to one of the language centers in Yaounde. I post it here because I think that it explains my interest in teaching English as well as the philosophy I use in my classes. Those of you familiar with Book 5 of the Ruhi Institute courses will recognize some familiar language.

"To whom it may concern,


I was raised and have lived the majority of my life in the United States with brief stints in Central America and now Cameroon. From the very beginning I received a very language heavy education with strong emphasis on grammar, literary techniques, pronunciation and rhetoric. Combine this education with my first hand experience as a second and third language learner (Spanish and subsequently French) I believe that my life experiences have trained me well for a career in language education.

In the United States I worked with English Second Language (ESL) students, mostly from East Asia and the Middle East, and since my arrival in Cameroon three months ago I have begun instructing an English course to native French speakers at the American Language Center in Bastos.

I strongly believe that the inability to effectively communicate across language groups is the tallest barrier to cross-cultural understanding, cooperation and global progress that we as a planet face. In Cameroon, a bilingual nation, bilingualism is of the utmost importance. In order to maintain unity and progress at our maximum capacity and velocity a dynamic consultation between all citizens, both Anglophone and Francophone, is imperative. However, language barriers that constrain consultation continue to persist and impede upon the unity and progress of this great nation. Therefore, as an English language instructor, I make it my personal responsibility and pleasure to increase global communication and thereby promote international communication and well-being. For me, language education and learning is much more than a career, it is a service.

... my lessons employ a variety of techniques in order to bring students towards oral and written fluency. We achieve this goal by improving upon student's "power of expression"; one's ability to accurately and articulately express their inner thoughts, opinions and beliefs as well as outer needs. By doing this, students are empowered to obtain everything that they need and desire, whether it be material, emotional or spiritual. In so doing, students achieve the capacity to hold a dialogue and consultation within and across cultures and thus themselves become bearers of unity."

Warning: Shameless plug approaching. If you are interested or know someone interested in group or private English courses, you can email me at or call me at 99 98 57 96.

Language is an extremely interesting topic that I've been thinking a lot about lately but for now, I'm out. More on this subject later.


People of the Corn, Meet West Africa

As many of you know, since my return from Guatemala in the late Summer of 2008 I have been making tortillas pretty much non-stop. Not your typical supermarket or Mexican food tortillas. These bad boys have a smaller circumference and a bigger belly. The Bulldog of the tortilla world. Anyways, that practice pretty much came to a stand still upon my arrival in Cameroon. In my first week I took advantage of the local vegetable market and got my hands on some freshly ground corn flour. Thinking this would be quite suitable for tortillas I went ahead as anyone trained in the art of tortillas guatemaltecas would and began the ancient and oft-repeated process of tortear. Well, the preparations turned out just fine but the final product turned out to be far too grainy. I gave up. For the next 2 and a half months I wrote it off that the corn here was too grainy and just plain not the right type for tortilla making. Afterall, Guatemalans had been making tortillas since practically the beginning of time (no joke, Mayan creation myth literally says that man was molded out of corn) and thus their corn had been bred since God knows when to be perfect for tortear.

Now, since that very first attempt I’ve been scouring supermarkets and any other place that might have a corn flour for my blessed Maseca. Although easily located in even the smallest of small-town America grocery stores the blessed corn concoction is nowhere to be found in Yaoundé. As delicious and plentiful as the local vegetable production is, even during the dry season, without tortillas my diet has been simply suffering. But, there is always light!

Last week I was speaking with ASOY’s science teacher Thom, about my predicament and he inspired to try out the local corn once again. With his nudging, I took out the leftover corn flour from my first attempt at tortear and grinded the living hell out of it. Then I sifted it using a flour sifter and took out all the larger granuals. Then, I repeated the ancient process that is taking place right now in millions of Mayan homes and made the tortillas.

This time, there was no overly grainy taste and the final product was actually okay! While the taste of Cameroonian corn is still not ideal for tortear, the corn, once ground into dust is actually quite tasty!

So, a goofy nomadic American kid kicks it in Guatemala for a bit, eats a ton of and subsequently learns to make an ancient cuisine, brings it with him to West Africa. Adopts the practice to the current surroundings and bang! We have globalization. Please believe that after my visit stateside this summer I will be returning with a handful of traditional Guatemalan tortilla corn seeds and bring the process of globalization full circle. Who knows, maybe in a generation or two Cameroonians are as well known for their tortillas as Guatemalans, saber…